Who’s The Fairest? How NOT to Inspire Others to Shop Ethically

27 September 2016   |   Rebecca Walker Reczek, Associate Professor of Marketing, Ohio State University

Throughout October’s Fair Trade Month – we realize we’re kicking off early – Fairtrade America is featuring Fairness Champions, people from all walks of life with a unique perspective on what’s ‘fair’. Rebecca Walker Reczek, Ph.D., an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University, shares insights from recent research on ethical shopping.

As a consumer psychologist, one of the topics I study is what leads consumers to listen to their better selves when making purchasing decisions. Part of my research is to understand what motivates people to consider issues like fairness when they’re shopping.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, my colleagues, Danny Zane, Julie Irwin, and I report on the results of three studies that demonstrate how consumers who consider ethical issues in their purchases won’t necessarily influence those around them to do the same.

For example, say you talk to your friend about the child-labor free, organic chocolate you purchased, but your friend doesn’t even know there was ever a problem with how most chocolate is produced. Our research found that it doesn’t actually inspire your friend to be more ethical the next time they go shopping. Instead, we found that consumers tend to feel threatened rather than inspired.

That sense of self-threat leads many consumers in this situation to put down the consumer who made an ethical choice in an attempt to make themselves feel better. Perhaps even worse, after putting someone else down for making an ethical choice, the participants in our studies also expressed less interest in supporting the underlying ethical cause. People often learn about themselves by observing their own actions; if you see yourself putting someone down for caring about an ethical issue when making purchases, it’s easy to conclude that you don’t care about the underlying issue. Across our studies, we showed that this tendency to react defensively occurs across different types of products (jeans, backpacks) and different types of ethical issues (child labor, sustainability).

Do people really care about ethically-produced goods?

Mind you, this effect is NOT driven by people not caring about ethically-sourced products and is actually driven by just the opposite: for most of us, being an ethical person is an important part of our self-concept. Comparing poorly to someone else can feel threatening. The tendency to be defensive in response to a threat to the self is deeply-rooted in an underlying psychological desire to feel good about ourselves.

So what does this mean for you if you care deeply about ethical issues in your everyday shopping and want to inspire others to do so as well? What does this mean for businesses trying to do the right thing?

Our research suggests that choosing fair trade products and then taking others to task for not doing so is NOT the way to accomplish this. Making your friend feel badly when they opt for jeans of dubious origin is not an effective strategy. Not only are they unlikely to thank you for your advice, they are likely to think you’re a bit odd, maybe even harsh and unfashionable (all adjectives on which our study participants rated more ethical consumers harshly), and might even end up caring less about the issues associated with fair trade.

Stop the Cycle of Negativity

Luckily, all hope is not lost! While our research didn’t directly explore how to inspire others, we did show that helping consumers who ignored ethical information feel ethical in some other way halted their tendency to put down more ethical consumers and, just as importantly, stopped their tendency to think the underlying ethical issues were less important.

We did this as part of a study by giving participants a chance to make a donation to a charity before rating someone else who had been more ethical. When our study participants had the chance to do this, they didn’t then have more negative thoughts about other consumers who had previously been more ethical than they had been and didn’t reduce their interest in the underlying ethical issue in question.

For companies, this means you should make it easy for people to make the informed choice. Make that information very prominent, right on the packages. Don’t force people to go to your website to find out about your company’s good deeds. If consumers don’t see ethical information right where they are shopping, there can be a cascade of negative consequences.

How can you use these same principles if you want to tell a friend or family member about buying fair trade or if you’re promoting an ethically-produced product?

Remember that people don’t like to feel like they are on the losing end of a comparison. If you make them feel like you perceive yourself as more ethical than they are, you’re likely to get similar (negative) results to what we saw in our studies.

But if you can connect with them first on another issue that makes them feel that you are recognizing that they are also a thoughtful and concerned consumer, they are likely to be much more receptive. Even reaching out to them with a message based on quality – focusing on why you love Fairtrade coffee because it tastes great and is high quality – is likely to be more persuasive than a message focusing on your ethical superiority.

So, the take-away here is that people aren’t always fair and reasonable, but they want to be. Holding yourself up as a pinnacle of fairness in a bid to inspire those around you isn’t as likely to be successful. Instead, consider making them a fresh cup of Fairtrade coffee or open a bar of Fairtrade chocolate and share how much you enjoy it in a way that doesn’t make them feel badly for not already buying it themselves. Tell them about the problem and how they can find products that support their ethics. This approach is much more likely to open a conversation that could persuade them to care as much about being fair as you do.

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