Making consumers align their beliefs with their purchasing decisions is essential if we are to preserve the health of our planet and protect workers’ rights. But how do we make this happen, asks UCL professor Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos.
“Consumers are not only purchasing an end product but they are also supporting the processes involved with it.”
While at first buying a daily Starbucks coffee may seem harmful to little other than your wallet, every disposable paper cup is in fact contributing to the destruction of trees and therefore having a negative impact on the environment. However, deforestation and the resulting loss of habitat for many animals and climate change are unlikely to be on the top of the consumer’s mind when deciding whether to opt for a Frappuccino or a Latte.
Indeed, research has found that attitudes towards ethical practice do not translate into purchase behaviour. Nevertheless, this is one of many examples in which the consumer may be indirectly promoting a practice which is detrimental to the environment or simply unethical. For instance, the purchasing of so called ‘fast fashion’ in which consumers are effectively supporting the exploitation of workers who pay the price for the cheap, throwaway clothing that is produced through their long hours on little pay.
“Once the consumer is aware that they can have an active voice on crucial issues, consumer-led change can positively influence the world.”
In order to diminish and prevent these damaging practices, the consumer first needs to be made aware of how they are personally adding to the problem and supporting the process through purchasing an item or service. One way to make consumers aware that they are in fact making broader choices when purchasing a product is to consistently incorporate information about the production and lifecycle of a product into its labelling and marketing.
This is the first stage to demonstrate how purchasing certain products can affect the environment or social issues and it also introduces ethical considerations as a key purchase factor alongside say price or quality. Furthermore, by companies being transparent and providing information about a product’s origins and the manufacturing process, consumers will be encouraged to recognise that they are not only purchasing an end product but they are also supporting the processes involved with it. Hence, discouraging ethically questionable purchases.
Another way to encourage consumers to consider the wider ethical and environmental implications of their purchases is to make them question their beliefs in the hope that they will later align their behaviours with these. When we encounter opposing ideas or thoughts we experience cognitive dissonance, a state of mental discomfort. Therefore, campaigns should aim to remind consumers of their beliefs and show them that such beliefs conflict with the purchasing of certain negative products, which acts to deter them from the product in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.
For example, reminding consumers of all the environmentally friendly behaviours that they engage in, such as recycling in the home, and then questioning how the purchase of an environmentally detrimental product can be legitimised given the consumers positive attitude toward the environment. This process further acts to reinforce the association between the product and the wider issues that may be encompassed with it.
The next stage is to make consumers aware that they are in a powerful position in which they can facilitate positive change through their purchases. Through demanding and choosing products that are environmentally and ethically friendly and avoiding those which are not, consumers are likely to put pressure on businesses to consider how ethical their practice is and therefore make positive changes. An early example of this principle is the boycott of sugar produced by slaves in England in 1791, after the government refused to abolish slavery. Thus a consumer is in a position to be politically active and the sheer power of consumers was demonstrated by the subsequent rise in shops selling sugar that was specifically labelled as made by ‘free men’. In this way, consumers positively influenced both the market and politics.
While those responsible for the sugar boycott in 1791 relied on leaflets to raise awareness for their cause, today, it is easier than ever before to research and spread information about certain products and services, thus empowering the consumer to make active decisions about their purchases. Indeed, online tools contribute to this, such as the GoodGuide, a website which gives products a rating based on extensive research into their health, environment and social impact. Similarly, organisations, such as Greenpeace, which investigate and expose environmental issues, encourage online campaigning and limit the amount of unethical practice firms can get away with.
Promoting behavioural change
It is, however, also up to the company producing the product to guide the consumer into making more ethical choices, for instance in the case of Starbucks, offering rewards for bringing in a personal tumbler to have your drink in. This positive behavioural change is therefore prompted and encouraged by the store thus making it more likely. As ethical consumerism becomes a social norm more individuals are likely to follow the behaviour and if big companies actively promote positive consumer behaviour it will faster achieve this status of being a social norm.
Therefore, once the consumer is aware that they can have an active voice on crucial issues, consumer-led change can occur to positively influence the world.
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