A basketful of supermarket goods will have clocked up a serious number of air miles.  This has implications in terms of climate change, and it also means that choices in our local store have an impact on people working in other parts of the world. Concern about a fair deal for suppliers has given rise to the Fair Trade (FT) movement. Over a similar time period as this pro-social movement, there has been a rise in people making what are described as pro-environmental choices – linked to purchasing Organic or Genetically Modified free (GM free) foods.

The rise of these movements has challenged how we think about supermarket shopping. The traditional economic model considers consumers as both calculating and selfish: shoppers choose a product based on working out what benefits them the most, trading that benefit off against price or convenience. More recent research acknowledges another aspect to supermarket shopping – people often shop in autopilot, they try to minimise effort by following routines. What we call ‘ethical’ decisions – decisions that are motivated for pro-social or pro-environmental reasons – don’t fit these models. Usually ethical choices aren’t selfish and can even involve consumers’ knowingly incurring financial, time and effort costs.

Not all ethical purchases have a price premium – often FT goods are competitively priced. There may even be no alternatives (e.g., in a category like bananas). But usually there are costs incurred with ethical decisions. Even inspecting a label, or stopping to consider how an item of clothing could be made so cheaply involves cost. You have to, as we say in our JMM paper ‘Ethical consumption behaviours in supermarket shoppers: determinants and marketing implications‘, “switch gears” – that is, to make more of an effort to look for these goods. Some people do this, some don’t.

Contrary to the picture of the selfish, calculating shopper we don’t just choose in isolation but are influenced by others. Word of mouth (WOM), where shoppers talk about products and services, is important, but there are gaps in understanding how it links to ethical purchasing. Also some people ‘talk the talk’ – express pro-environmental, pro-social attitudes but do not ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to the checkout. Others may choose what we call an ethical product out of self-interest. They might just prefer the taste of a Fair Trade brand of coffee or only pick organic veg because they believe this would be healthier for them rather than better for the environment.

We set out to explore some of these questions and contradictions, surveying 688 shoppers and focusing on three (potentially overlapping) categories of goods that could be considered ethical purchasing options:  Fair Trade (pro-social), Organic (pro-environmental) and GM Free (also pro-environmental).

Our study asked people what their general beliefs were – but also how ethical their choices were with respect to Fair Trade, Organic and GM Free goods, the extent they proselytised these choices, and about the actual contents of their last shop.

We also collected demographic information such as respondent’s gender and age. Some past research has found differences based on gender (with males being less ‘ethical’) in terms of some choices, but others haven’t. A more consistently supported finding is that people are increasingly likely to act ethically as they get older.

Our most intriguing findings concerned the effect of age on both Fair Trade and organic purchasing, which was contrary to the perception that older people are more likely to act ethically. Respondents beyond middle-age were not more likely to purchase or recommend organic goods. For Fair Trade goods a similar pattern was found for purchasing behaviour. The difference between the likelihood of recommending and actually purchasing either organic or Fair Trade products was much greater for younger respondents, who were not entirely ‘practising what they preached’.

Graphs showing actual purchase vs recommendation for Fair Trade products & organic food by age group

These findings may reflect that both younger and older consumers have less disposable income, that they shop in different places to the middle-aged (i.e. and, as a result of using smaller local convenience stores, are purchasing from a smaller pool of products than those doing a large family shop), and that older shoppers are more settled in their shopping habits. The difference in the findings for recommendations and actual behaviour indicates a greater awareness of some of these pro-social issues, and the social desirability of at least appearing to be an ethical purchaser (even if not) among younger consumers and their peers.

Read the original research article: Jayawardhena, C., Morrell, K. & Stride, C. (2016). Ethical consumption behaviours in supermarket shoppers: determinants and marketing implications. Journal of Marketing Management, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2015.1134627

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Chanaka Jayawardhena

Chanaka Jayawardhena

Chanaka is Professor of Marketing at Hull University Business School. Current research focuses on customer experience in the virtual (the internet, self-service technologies, mobile, etc.) and service marketplaces. A more detailed profile is found here and you can follow Chanaka on twitter on @ChanakaJ

Kevin Morrell

Kevin Morrell

Kevin is a Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School, and currently a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow. His main interests are strategy in the public sector and applied ethics. You can follow Kevin on twitter on @drkevmo and find out about other research, including his current project funded by the British Academy, on his homepage www.kevinmorrell.org.uk

Chris Stride

Chris Stride

Dr Chris Stride is an applied statistician and peripatetic statistics trainer/consultant (with a sideline interest in sport history!), who is based at the University of Sheffield, UK. Chris has published almost 70 peer reviewed journal articles across the full range of social science disciplines, with occasional forays into the humanities and pure sciences. Chris is especially interested in the use of statistical methods to support and add rigour to research in areas where advanced quantitative analysis would typically be considered an anathema. Alongside his research and teaching, Chris has carried out statistical consultancy projects and advanced methods training for a wide variety of public and private sector organisations around the world.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.