The Other CSR: Consumer Social Responsibility

Everyday we hear about another new business or reformed
corporation joining the ethical marketplace in an attempt to
fulfill our fantasies of a sustainable consumer lifestyle. Maybe
these outfits are dedicated to the environment, or maybe they’re
just angling for a piece of the moral profit pie by hawking
fair-trade products. Whatever the businesses’ motives, there’s
trouble in socially responsible paradise: Despite surveys showing
an eager customer base, people aren’t putting their money where
their mouths are and actually buying ethically produced goods. In a
piece for the
Stanford Social Innovation Review, four
researchers — Timothy M. Devinney, Patrice Auger, Giana
Eckhardt, and Thomas Birtchnell –investigate why consumers
aren’t closing the corporate social responsibility (CSR)

One surprising discovery they made was that information on
ethical issues and the availability of socially responsible
products did not make a difference in consumer choice. Consumers
made explicitly aware of a product’s benefits to society or the
environment were just as likely to choose the cheaper, more harmful
brand as a control group given no information about the products.
But is it really as bad as an Australian participant in a similar
study claims: Do ‘[m]orals stop at the pocketbook’?

The Stanford team found that people willing to pay more in the
name of ethics do exist, but they’re not who you think they might
be. There is no group designated by nationality, age, gender,
income, or education level that consistently buys ethical products
more than any other. The authors write, ‘[c]ontrary to what some
might believe, CnSR [consumer social responsibility] is
not just the purview of wealthy, highly educated females in liberal
Western democracies. Rather, it is something embedded in the psyche
of individuals.’

With a change in marketing tactics, these researchers believe
that ethical businesses could win over hard-to-reach shoppers.
Social issues should be chosen carefully, as consumers need to see
a direct link between buying a certain product and its effect on
society. To wit: A 10 percent donation to an AIDS charity for
buying a pair of pants is not as convincing as buying biodegradable
dish soap. Consumers also need to know that the product they’re
buying is functional in comparison to conventional brands — no one
wants to waste money on a product that doesn’t do its job. For the
rational consumer, social responsibility is only icing on the
capitalist cake, but if it’s the right icing people may just be
willing to pay for it. — Suzanne Lindgren

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The Other CSR

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