Myth of ethical consumer: What does it mean?

The actor Hannes Jaenicke is going to open the upcoming Utopia conference, which is a LOHAS-meeting in Berlin. In an interview he explains that he is frustrated of NGOs fighting against windmills and recommends that campaigns should in future target industry and politics less, and instead try to positively influence the consumers:

“die Kampagnenarbeit muss sich in Zukunft weniger gegen Politik und Industrie richten, sondern im positiven Sinne an den Konsumenten. Denn offensichtlich haben Industrie und Politik überhaupt kein Interesse daran, wirklich sozial und umweltverträglich zu denken, zu arbeiten und zu produzieren.”

NGOs already argue that consumers are willing to buy ethically. Südwind recently presented a survey, which suggests that 2/3 of the consumers think eco-fair fashion is important. According to the survey, every second consumer is willing to pay more for socially or ecologically better products. Here you find the press release.

Timothy Devinney, one author of the book “The myth of the ethical consumer”, agrees that many consumers would say they care about human rights or the environment (earlier I wrote about the book). However, he argues that this does not mean that they also consume in that way. In a short video he explains what he means by saying the ethical consumer is a myth:

1. Consumers simply do not behave in the way those promoting the notion of ethical consumption want them to behave. They don’t purchase ethically, but in a very utilitarian way.

2. While people talk very generally about ethical consumers, consumers don’t behave in general notions of ethicality, but very specifically.

3. The ethical consumer is a role model presenting what people would like to behave like. But not reflecting reality.

Here is a radio interview with him, and here is their resourceful website. I think that he is right that consumers behave utilitarian and that they behave in much more complex ways than some organizations would like them to do. The consumers are certainly not the panacea regarding environmental and fair production and a too strong shift towards the consumers seems unwise to me. But this does not mean that the government and other organizations should try to change the behaviour of consumers. Clearly, consumers, companies and governments must all change.

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