Ethics is a multi-faceted term to describe. The word “ethics” is derived from the ancient Greek word “ethicos”, which means “the authority of tradition and custom”. Different authors have provided different definitions of ethics. According to De Pelsmacker, Driesen & Rayp (2005), the broadly accepted definition of ethics is “the critical evaluation of human decisions and actions with the goal of determining whether they are right or wrong basing on justice and truth. Ethics can also be defined as the values and principles that guide one’s behavior. Different ethical theories can be used to explain an individual’s actions; however, Kopf, Boje & Torres (2011) maintain that no single ethical code can be used to explain the actions and decisions undertaken by an individual. In this regard, Kopf, Boje & Torres (2011) outline three ethical systems that can be used to evaluate human actions and decisions, they include the Kantian ethics, utilitarian ethics and answerability ethics. Under Kantian ethics, rationality plays a vital role in determining right or wrong; this is achieved by giving people universal duties. Kantian ethics is non-consequentialist moral theory, which posits that people ought to do their duty. In the context of utilitarianism ethics, an action is considered right or wrong depending on the consequences of the decision (Kopf, Boje & Torres, 2011). Utilitarianism is an example of a consequentialist moral theory, where the degree of morality of an action depends on its consequences. The underlying assumption under the utilitarianism principle is that all actions and decisions lead to some end; therefore, an action is only considered moral/ethical if it results in the greatest good in the sense that decisions ought to guarantee that the human welfare is maximized. Essentially, Kantian ethics places emphasis on avoiding breaking rules, acting in accordance with the law, and the responsibility for the self, wherein an individual is only supposed to worry about what he/she is doing and not what others are doing (Kopf, Boje & Torres, 2011). On the other hand, utilitarianism focuses on outcomes rather than intentions and that little emphasis is placed on laws. Answerability ethics places emphasis on responsibility for actions; therefore, the act and the doer cannot be separated. Answerability ethics assumes that events and objects coexist dependently with regard to the individual evaluation system (Kopf, Boje & Torres, 2011).
In the business context, the concept of ethics is increasingly becoming significant, especially with the rise of ethical consumerism. The concept of ethical consumerism has been in existence since the founding of America. Americans openly protested in opposition to the passing of the 1756 Stamp Act by refusing to purchase tea as well as other British goods (De Pelsmacker, Driesen & Rayp, 2005). In the contemporary societal discourse, the concept of ethical consumer behavior is increasingly becoming an important aspect of social life because the advent of new technologies has allowed consumers to utilize their preferences with the aim of addressing labour and environmental concerns. At present, the trends of “ethical” and “aware” consumers is on the rise, as evident by the case of consumers issuing boycott threats against products made from real animal fur, or products that entail the use of animals when testing the product (Freestone & McGoldrick, 2008). Additionally, consumers are boycotting products from companies that openly violate human rights and those pay little concern to the environment. Consumers are also assessing a company’s record with respect to recruiting and promoting women and minorities. As Vinai & Siriwan (2002) assert, “the contemporary consumer is extremely aware of the underlying ethical issues, and that his/her spending habits are significantly influenced by their morals”. Empirical evidence points an increase in the number of ethical consumers; for instance, in 2004, consumers in the United Kingdom spent about £ 25.8 billion towards the purchase of ethical services and commodities (Kopf, Boje & Torres 2011).
Ethical services and commodities are also reporting an increase in their market share; this is because consumers are increasingly placing emphasis on ethical consumption. According to De Pelsmacker, Driesen & Rayp (2005), there is a shift in terms of the consumer values from the conventional inward materialistic outlook towards a mindset that is more environmentally and socially proactive.
The Ethical Consumer
According to the Webster Online Dictionary, an ethical individual is “a person who acts or behaves in accordance with the accepted professional or social standards of behavior.” In the context of the consumer behavior, ethical consumer behavior is a byproduct of the green consumerism and the environmental movement. According to Vinai & Siriwan (2002), green consumerism places emphasis on the values and belief that seek to support the greater good, which in turn, plays an integral role in motivating consumer’s purchases. De Pelsmacker, Driesen & Rayp (2005) stipulate that a green consumer usually avoids purchasing commodities that are likely to cause danger to the consumer’s health or result in a considerable environmental damage during its production, utilization, or disposal. For instance, some products are known to utilize a significant amount of energy, result in unwanted waste or manufactured using materials obtained from endangered species. In this regard, ethical consumers feel that they have the responsibility to result in greater good by avoiding using commodities that are likely to harm the humanity or the natural environment (Waheed, 2012). It is imperative to distinguish green consumerism from ethical consumerism in the sense that green consumerism is an example of ethical consumerism. Ethical consumerism involves a broader scope; as a result, it involves a more complex decision-making process on the part of the consumers. Green consumerism is only limited to issues affecting the natural environment whereas ethical consumerism as a whole, involves issues associated with animal welfare, individual health concerns, fair trade, and social issues such as labour standards (De Pelsmacker, Driesen & Rayp, 2005).
Consumer behavior and ethical buying are the two platforms through which consumers can articulate their unease with respect to the corporate ethical behavior. Fundamentally, an ethical consumer often feels that he/she has a responsibility towards the society; as a result, these feelings can be expressed through one’s buying behavior. Consistent with this view, Freestone & McGoldrick (2008) stipulates that ethical consumption involves buying commodities while taking into consideration a number of ethical issues such as environment, animal well-being, labor conditions and human rights among others. Several perspectives of ethical consumer behavior exist; for instance, some ethical consumer behaviors after benefitting the natural environment such as environmental friendly commodities and legally-logged wood. Others are after benefitting people such as commodities made without child labour and fair trade commodities. Drawing upon this distinction, it is evident that ethical consumer behavior benefits either the environment around people or people themselves. Consumers often manifest their ethical concerns through the purchase of commodities associated with their positive qualities or boycotting commodities because of their negative attributes such as not purchasing products derived from child labour (Freestone & McGoldrick, 2008). Notable examples include the boycott campaigns targeting Nike products because of the suspected labor malpractices. There is no doubt that consumers are taking into consideration their ethical attributes prior to making a purchase. Kopf, Boje & Torres (2011) stresses that, ethical consumer behavior also emphasizes on the “people” element with respect to consumerism, especially with regard to the deep seated issues facing people. In this regard, ethical consumers are often concerned regarding the actions undertaken by a corporation.
Motivations of Ethical Consumer Behavior
Kopf, Boje & Torres (2011) asserts, “Understanding one’s values and motivations can help in providing significant insights regarding their behavior and actions. Kopf, Boje & Torres (2011) defined motivations as the processes that compel people behave in a manner that they do and always occur when a need has been identified that the consumer intends to meet. On the other hand, values refer to beliefs and concepts regarding the desirable behaviors that rise above particular circumstances and guide the selection and assessment of events or behavior. Freestone & McGoldrick (2008) reported that values and motivations are closely linked in the sense that values provide the criteria that people use to choose and rationalize behavior. The values upheld by an individual is likely to determine the attractiveness of the various goal objects, which in turn, influences the motivation needed to achieve these goals. With regard to ethical consumer behavior, Kopf, Boje & Torres (2011) reported that beliefs and values have the primary objective of supporting the greater good; this is the source of motivation for ethical consumers and is consistent with the utilitarian ethics, wherein a decision or action is influenced by its outcomes, particularly if it results in the greater good of humanity.
Freestone & McGoldrick (2008) perceived values as a collection of stable and general beliefs regarding what is considered desirable, which emerge from a person’s core psychological needs as well as the norms established by the society. In the light of this view, Freestone & McGoldrick (2008) postulated that values are an important predictor in ethical consumer behavior; this is because the consumer’s choice of commodities and services are often tied to their value-related goals. Kopf, Boje & Torres (2011) asserts that values can serve collective and individual interests as well as a mixture of both. For instance, when corporation’s managers establish avenues for corporate social responsibility, this can be interpreted as self-interest being manifested through psychological self-centeredness, which denotes the view all human actions and decisions can be linked to the aspect of social interest. In the context of ethics, this can be either avoiding guilt or feeling good through doing what is good and desirable. Similarly, a consumer who is genuinely concerned with environmental preservation is likely to have self-interest towards being seen as “green” (Waheed, 2012).
During the process of decision-making, people usually tradeoff their needs and values. For example, when buying organic food commodities, consumers are likely to tradeoff the individual costs associated with a relatively higher priced commodity with the social benefit associated with an environment friendly commodity. In addition, consumers are likely to show concerns about their individual health and opt to purchase organic foods rather than processed foods. This cost-benefit analysis approach can be used to understand the motivations behind ethical consumer behavior. In this regard, Kopf, Boje & Torres (2011) hypothesized that consumers often evaluate the tradeoff between the expected benefits as the costs associated with their purchases, which results in broad interests being served following a particular decision, they include: utilitarian gains coupled with losses for the self; utilitarian benefits coupled with losses for the significant others; self-disapproval or self-approval; and disapproval or approval from the significant others (Kopf, Boje & Torres, 2011).
This paper has discussed the concept of ethics, especially ethical consumer behavior as well as the underlying beliefs and value system that influence this sort of ethics. From a personal standpoint, ethical consumer behavior is a justified cause and that consumers should make their purchases while taking into consideration the societal and individual implications associated with the purchase. There is no doubt that ethical consumer behavior is founded on the principles of utilitarian ethics, which seek to maximize the good for humanity. In this regard, consumers have the power, through their purchasing decisions, to result in maximum good for the humanity through ethical decision-making. In addition, ethical consumer behavior fosters answerability, especially from corporations, with regard to their actions. A corporation that uses child labor should suffer the consequences of their unethical decisions through consumer boycotts.
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