The Myth of the Ethical Consumer

While consumers may describe themselves as ethical shoppers in surveys, Marketing Professor Giana Eckhardt has found that when it comes to making purchases, their “morals stop at their pocketbooks” and that consumers tend to be more ethically responsive to an emotional appeal calling for an action that is very closely tied to a reciprocal benefit.

Eckhardt is co-author of the 2010 book, The Myth of the Ethical Consumer, the subject of which was named a top story of 2011 by “Policy Innovations.”

She said that some efforts to tie social responsibility to consumerism have proven lackluster, offering the example of Product Red, through which part of the profits from Red-branded products were diverted to address global health care issues. The response from consumers was less than enthusiastic.

“Providing consumers with more information doesn’t necessarily change behavior,” she said. “Emotional appeals have more influence, and consumers need a tight connection between the social issue being addressed and the actions they can take.”

Referring to occupational safety and health issues reported at factories manufacturing Apple products in China, Eckhardt said: “If you were really an ethical consumer, you wouldn’t buy an iPhone or iPods or Apple computers.”

However, Eckhardt doesn’t expect Apple sales to decline due to non-sustainable manufacturing, comparing the firm’s continuing popularity to that of Nike, which maintained its popularity even in the wake of revelations about sweatshops.

Eckhardt, a marketing consumer behavior expert, teaches Marketing Management, Global Branding and Communication Strategies, and Doing Business in China to MBA and Executive MBA students at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School.

She has presented her work globally, including at the United Nations Corporate Social Responsibility Global Forum. Eckhardt has worked closely with companies such as McKinsey and Dunkin’ Brands, and her work has been featured in The Economist, Euromonitor, Asiaweek, and on National Public Radio.