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4 Factors Drive Responsible Consumption 

Consumers act responsibly when they see an impact, feel connected, and don’t have to sacrifice quality.

“Responsible” consumption could benefit society and the environment. Responsible consumers think about how they purchase, use and ultimately dispose of products; they try to minimize or eliminate any harmful effects and maximize the long-run beneficial impact on society. 

For example, a responsible consumer might arrive at a grocery store with reusable bags in hand, grab items off the shelf that are wrapped in less plastic or come from local farmers, and compost food scraps when they prepare meals. 

To support these actions, companies need to know more about who responsible consumers are and what factors drive their decisions. The Socially Responsible Purchase and Disposal (SRPD) scale, developed by a team of researchers, provides those insights.  

Researchers Deborah J. Webb, Lois A. Mohr, and Katherine E. Harris describe their scale, what it shows about responsible consumers, and how companies can reach those consumers effectively.  

Who Responsible Consumers Are 

In developing the scale, the researchers wanted to provide an updated definition of the responsible consumer. 

Responsible consumption is a complicated topic. It includes every stage of the life cycle, from acquiring, to using, to disposing of a product. Once, responsible consumption focused mostly on environmental issues (e.g. organic food). But now it’s also about social issues (e.g. worker treatment). And responsible consumers may shift either away from a company (e.g. via a boycott) or toward it (actively choosing its products).  

The researchers drew on past research, expert judges, and validation testing to develop 30 statements or questions representing the core aspects of “Socially Responsible Purchase and Disposal” (SRPD). The scale identifies 4 key dimensions of responsible consumers: 

  1. Choosing companies with a strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) performance. Responsible consumers prioritize companies that have strong philanthropy programs, for example, and treat employees well. 
  2. Recycling products and waste. These consumers recycle cardboard, cans, and other materials.  
  3. Trading off traditional purchasing criteria and social/environmental impact. Responsible consumers are willing to sacrifice product quality and price for products with positive labor and environmental impacts. 
  4. Avoiding products that harm the environment. Responsible consumers try to avoid products and companies that harm endangered species, cause pollution, or otherwise cause environmental damage. 

Using the scale, companies can segment customer markets, estimate the size of these markets, track consumer trends, determine which dimensions of SRPD affect purchasing most strongly, and identify consumers most likely to respond to socially responsible corporate behaviors.  

3 Factors Influencing Responsible Consumers 

Already, the researchers can offer some guidance on identifying and reaching responsible consumers.  They have used the scale with students and members of the general public. In this research, they have found that consumers are more likely to act responsibly: 

  • When they feel effective. Consumers want to believe their actions can help resolve social or environmental issues. People act if they think that they can influence broader environmental problems and company behaviour.  
  • If they value group goals and sharing. These people feel a sense of connection to others in the community. They want to help others in need. 
  • If they don’t feel they are sacrificing product quality. These people believe that companies can be socially responsible and still make high quality, fairly-priced goods.

How Companies Can Influence Responsible Consumption 

Here are some ways that companies can build on these findings. 

1. Communicate How Customers Can Make a Difference

Marketers should communicate precisely how products are an opportunity for individuals to make a difference on social or environmental issues. Doing so may be the best predictor of whether consumers buy green products. 

For example, some companies are moving production in house to make sure that they have more control over their supply chain, and can promise consumers sustainably-produced products. Furniture-maker IKEA has gone as far as owning its own forests. That provides extra support for its assurances to customers that they are not contributing to mass deforestation by purchasing IKEA products.  

2. Build a Sense of Community 

The study proposes that responsible consumption is more common when someone feels their actions are part of a collective effort. Amazon uses this kind of language with their “AmazonSmile’ program, which donates 0.5% of purchases to charity. Amazon states that shoppers can ‘be part of something bigger’ by being involved in this program, suggesting that consumers work with others in their community to have an impact. 

3. Maintain Quality 

Organic fruit don’t come with blemishes any more. But it’s still important for people in manufacturing, product development, and marketing to ensure that responsible consumers don’t have to make a tradeoff with product quality.  

Review the Scale 

Webb, Deborah J., Mohr, Lois A., & Harris, Katherine E. (2008). A re-examination of socially responsible consumption and its measurement. Journal of Business Research, 61(2): 91-98. 

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