We may claim to support ethical products, but do we?

A study explores the gap between stated intent and what we buy

If asked directly, most people will say they support the concept of ethical business and ethical products. But when it comes to supporting ethical products at the checkout, a large number of us fall short.

Just when we have the opportunity to act on our convictions, many of us disregard our stated moral stance and go for the product that is available, attractively priced, or simply desirable. In most cases, the final choice is an unconscious one.

This split between attitude and action is the subject of a recent paper, Not Walking the Walk: How Dual Attitudes Influence Behavioural Outcomes in Ethical Consumption, co-authored by Nitika Garg, an associate professor at UNSW Business School.

Garg’s area of interest is consumer behaviour, and with her research colleagues – Rahul Govind, Jatinder Jit Singh and Shachi D’Silva – she sought to gain a better understanding of the ‘behavioural gap’ between what people say and what they do.

“Multiple surveys have shown that people want to reward ethical behaviour,” Garg says. “But when that comes to actual choice behaviour in the market, this is not being reflected.”

For example, a study of European consumers found that while 30% said they cared about ethical consumption, only 3% of their purchases reflected this concern. Similarly, 25% of New Zealanders said they were influenced by ethics, but actual sales were closer to 2%.

However, there has been some “movement in the needle” in recent years. Shoppers spent €5.9 billion ($8.8 billion) on Fairtrade products in 2014, a 23% increase from 2012 and a huge increase on the €0.8 billion spent in 2004. In the UK, sales of ethical foods accounted for 8.5% of all food sales in 2013, while the figure for the US was 9%.

But contrast that with countries such as Japan, China and India, where in 2012 ethical foods comprised less than 1% of total sales.

'Implicit behaviour is created from multiple situations and experiences with the brand or the object'


Implicit and explicit

In two experiments, Garg and her colleagues tested the idea that people hold two kinds of attitudes that can have an impact on their behaviours: explicit and implicit.

Explicit attitudes are more influential in the short term and are more reactive to stimulus, such as from positive or negative media coverage. Implicit attitudes are created over a longer period and are thus more durable and a stronger predictor of actual behaviour.

“Implicit behaviour is created from multiple situations and experiences with the brand or the object,” says Garg.

“It is definitely experience based, and becomes ingrained because there have been multiple incidents where the opinion has been reinforced, so it becomes a stable and longer lasting implicit attitude.

“If there is a scandal around a brand, for example, it might be an isolated event in the short term and there may be no reinforcement, which means there is no real chance for implicit attitudes to shift,” she says.

For the experiment, the researchers’ choice of brand was the global soft drink giant, Coca-Cola. It was chosen because it is universally known and because all of the study subjects would have existing implicit and explicit attitudes for the brand.

In the first experiment, 50 students from a large university were recruited to participate in the test, and the first step was to measure their attitudes to the Coke brand along with their preference for the brand, which established the baseline.

Each participant was then randomly given one of two pieces of information on Coca-Cola, one was positive and the other negative. The positive article outlined an example of the company’s ethical behaviour from Oxfam International, while the negative publicity was from a newspaper article critical of the company’s ethics.

Once the information had been read by participants, they completed a short survey which asked about their response to the article.

For example, did they disagree or agree with what the brand had done, as described in the article? Had the article impacted on how they viewed the brand, in terms of overall favourability. Participants also indicated their preference for the brand after exposure to the information.

Back to their baseline

Two weeks later, participants were surveyed again with the aim of understanding if there had been a longer term shift in attitudes.

“The overall result was that even if people’s attitudes had shifted in the shorter term, after two weeks, the majority went back to their baseline, which was the same attitude towards Coke they had before the experiment,” says Garg.

“There was no real change in the implicit attitude towards the brand.”

The trend was similar for both positive and negative attitudes. After being exposed to the stimulus in the short term, attitudes became more positive or negative, depending on the nature of the stimulus. After two weeks, attitudes were back to almost exactly the same point as the baseline.

The second experiment, which used a larger non-student sample group of 102, replicated the first study but measured actual choice rather than brand preferences, to implement a stronger test of attitude-behaviour link.

“The primary observation from our analyses is that explicit attitudes do drive brand preferences for participants in both the positive and negative conditions in the short run,” say the researchers.

“However, implicit attitudes are also found to have a significant effect on brand preferences.”

'I firmly believe that what is now explicit – or more short term – in people’s behaviour can become implicit ' –


Consistent and reinforced message

According to Sigrid McCarthy from Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), implicit attitudes in the clothing industry are changing for the better, despite the challenges.

Although it was a tragic event, the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh and the subsequent death of more than 1100 garment workers focused global attention on the ethics of the industry’s supply chain.

Every year on the anniversary of the collapse, the industry marks the day in the Fashion Revolution campaign, which celebrates ethical production and urges consumers to ask their brands how their products are produced.

“As horrible as the collapse was, it put the fashion industry in the spotlight and many of its systemic issues were brought to the forefront,” says McCarthy.

The global reaction resulted in many Australian brands bringing their supply chains back onshore, and has given momentum to the work of ECA, a joint union and industry body comprising some of Australia’s biggest fashion names.

ECA operates an accreditation system so that consumers know that the garments they produce have been ethically produced. Around 90 brands are members of the organisation, including icons such as R.M. Williams and Akubra.

Through remembering the Rana Plaza tragedy in an effective marketing campaign, the fashion industry is putting into practice what Garg and her colleagues have identified as the best strategy to change implicit, rather than just explicit, consumer attitudes.

“A consistent and reinforced message delivered over time is the best way to shift attitudes around ethical consumption,” says Garg.

“I do see consumer attitudes shifting. This conversation is going on all around us and social media is really helping concerned people to become engaged, so it’s not just about the corporations anymore.”

“I firmly believe that what is now explicit – or more short term – in people’s behaviour can become implicit.”


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