Function Trumps Ethics in Consumers Minds Minds

Function Trumps Ethics in Consumers Minds

Social product features such as labour practices can affect a person's buying intentions, but most people will not trade off on functionality.
Pam Laughland August 20, 2010
Are consumers willing to make tradeoffs to purchase ethically? The authors of this study conducted experiments with students in Hong Kong and Australia, and Amnesty International supporters. Labor practices or animal rights and the environment were the social product features studied. The results showed social product features can affect a person's buying intentions, but that most will not trade off functionality.


Some research suggests consumers will pay for ethicality but this has been examined mainly via case studies or survey results; consumers have not been forced to make a trade-off between social and functional features. This research asks whether social product features, or lack thereof, affect consumer purchase intentions, especially when they interact with functional features. Further, does information about the social attributes change the intent to buy?


Implications for Managers

Implications for Researchers

The authors note the sample was not representative; it would be interesting to see what proportion of a representative sample would choose products based on ethical attributes. A more realistic experiment may observe what people actually buy, or force them to buy something rather than asking which they would buy.


In the experiment, subjects where asked to consider and purchase 32 hypothetical soap bars or athletic shoe products, each with different functional and ethical attributes and prices. Some subjects were also provided background information on the social attributes (e.g. a news story). The social attributes examined for shoes were child labour, minimum wage, working conditions and accommodations; for soap, they were biodegradability, animal testing and animal byproducts. Researchers used 3 groups: Amnesty International members, Hong Kong undergrads, and Australian MBA students. In total, 1253 people were studied; 445 instruments were returned.
Auger, Pat, Devinney, Timothy M.,  Louviere, Jordan J., & Burke, Paul F.  (2008). Do social product features have value to consumers? International Journal of Research in Marketing, 25(3) 183-91.

additional resources

Research Insight

Can a product’s sustainability—or lack thereof—influence how consumers view its other attributes? In which contexts can sustainability hurt sales?

Pam Laughland
Reports and Articles

Eco-labels or sustainability ratings can be an important guide for purchasing sustainable products. But not all rating systems are equally effective. 

Maya Fischhoff
Research Insight

Consumers will pay more for ethically produced goods, but they'll "punish" a company for unethical practices by more than they will reward ethical ones.

Pam Laughland
Research Insight

Consumers will pay a 10% premium for sustainability, and demand a greater discount for "unsustainability," but they won't trade off functionality. 

Tom Ewart