The Myth of the Ethical Consumer IPosted: August 31, 2010
Last month the three business professors (Timothy M. Devinney, Pat Auger, Giana M. Eckhardt) published a book at Cambridge University Press with the – for some maybe provocative – title “The Myth of Ethical Consumers“. This book is not directly connected to clothing, but it tries to answer interesting questions like: Do consumers really care where products come from and how they are made? Is there such a thing as an ‘ethical consumer’? They particularly try to understand, why most research on ethical consumerism suggests that consumers want to purchase ethically, but that these expressed preferences, in the end, cannot be confirmed in the actual purchasing behaviour of consumers.
They argue that “the ethical consumer is a myth, an idealized fiction supported by neither theory nor fact” (p.9). However, they do not want to destroy the myth as a myth “but to bring science to bear on those parts of the myth that can be considered representative of a truth about human behaviour, and, in doing so, guide corporate and public policy in an informed way.
They regard the ethical consumer as a myth in three senses:
- “it represents a role model that is fictional” – the attainment of the model is neither rational nor sensible on the part of a large segment of the society.
- “it is mythical in the sense that it represents idealizations that open to contestation the existing, flawed, behavior of members of society” – the moral standard creates guilt
- “it represents a role model wherein the morality of the model itself is subject to contestation” – “Ethical consumers stand as reminders to us of the short-sighted nature of our workshop of the false gods created by multinational corporations.”
To sum up their aim in their own words:
In the most general sense, we are putting on to the table the hypothesis that the ethical consumer is a myth in that it is a characterization that is false, despite the fact that it serves a communicative function for those that present it as a model of idealized behaviour. In this sense, we are juxtaposing the “ethical” consumer as a myth that is believed as a constructivist epistemological phenomenon (and hence non-testable) against an ontological notion of whether such a creature as an “ethical” consumer exists (which is testable) (p.5f).
I will continue reading the book and sum it up within the next week or so. Next time I will look into chapter 3, where they argue that most people are using the wrong (linear) models of social consumption. But I will also sum up the results of their empirical research.