Ethical Consumption Experiences and Ethical Space

Elizabeth Cooper-Martin, Georgetown University
Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University
ABSTRACT - This paper describes exploratory research on ethical consumer behavior, which refers to decision making, purchases, and other consumption experiences that are affected by the consumer's ethical concerns. First, to capture the diversity of this behavior, respondents listed nearly 200 consumption experiences that involve strong ethical considerations or implications for morality. Second, based on this list, a separate set of consumers rated how good or bad it is to perform various acts of consumption. These ratings were used in multi-dimensional scaling to generate a two-dimensional map or "ethical space." The first dimension appears to represent a continuum from selfish to selfless. The former includes self-indulgent consumption experiences, whereas the latter includes products and behaviors that require self-discipline. The second dimension seems to reflect a continuum from active to passive. Active ethical consumption experiences require the consumer's overt participation or directly affect animate objects (i.e., people or animals). Passive ethical consumption experiences involve a more reactive response of pursuing good by not buying harmful items or affect animate objects only indirectly.
[ to cite ]:
Elizabeth Cooper-Martin and Morris B. Holbrook (1993) ,"Ethical Consumption Experiences and Ethical Space", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 113-118.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 113-118

ETHICAL CONSUMPTION EXPERIENCES AND ETHICAL SPACE

Elizabeth Cooper-Martin, Georgetown University

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

ABSTRACT -

This paper describes exploratory research on ethical consumer behavior, which refers to decision making, purchases, and other consumption experiences that are affected by the consumer's ethical concerns. First, to capture the diversity of this behavior, respondents listed nearly 200 consumption experiences that involve strong ethical considerations or implications for morality. Second, based on this list, a separate set of consumers rated how good or bad it is to perform various acts of consumption. These ratings were used in multi-dimensional scaling to generate a two-dimensional map or "ethical space." The first dimension appears to represent a continuum from selfish to selfless. The former includes self-indulgent consumption experiences, whereas the latter includes products and behaviors that require self-discipline. The second dimension seems to reflect a continuum from active to passive. Active ethical consumption experiences require the consumer's overt participation or directly affect animate objects (i.e., people or animals). Passive ethical consumption experiences involve a more reactive response of pursuing good by not buying harmful items or affect animate objects only indirectly.

INTRODUCTION

To date, the study of marketing ethics has focused on managers, rather than consumers. For instance, a review of marketing ethics articles published in the 1980s included over 50 papers, yet none concerned consumers (Murphy and Pridgen 1991). Another review of business ethics with a focus on marketing covered over 300 papers (Tsalikis and Fritzsche 1989). But even this broader survey mentioned only two papers devoted to consumers; both discussed the ethical responsibilities of consumers, rather than ethical consumption per se (Davis 1979; Stampfl 1979).

By contrast, our interest in the present research is the influence of the consumer's own ethical concerns on decision making, purchases, and other aspects of consumption. Such concerns may be humane (e.g., eating union grapes), religious (e.g., boycotting the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ"), personal (e.g., giving money to a charity), or environmental (e.g., recycling aluminum cans). However, as noted by Smith (1990), the only significant stream of research on ethical consumer behavior (though not by this label) has focused on environmental concerns. Given this dearth of research, the goal of the present study is to gather information on two important basic questions: What products and consumption experiences involve ethical consumer behavior? What are the key dimensions that underlie such ethical products and consumption experiences?

The first question focuses on identifying the range of goods and services involved in ethical consumer behavior, from the point of view of the individual consumer. Although the results are likely to include products that have already been identified as involving ethical concerns (e.g., disposable diapers, dolphin-safe tuna, recycled paper), we hope the respondents will identify additional products that engage consumers' ethical concerns. Thus, the first goal of this study is to capture the diversity of ethical consumption experiences.

The second goal is to organize or categorize this diversity by developing an "ethical space" of consumption experiences that involve ethical considerations. Through multidimensional scaling, a visual display will be produced to group together products that are associated in the ethical judgments they elicit. Interpretation of the axes along which the products are arrayed should identify dimensions that differentiate ethical consumption experiences, such as direct effect on the consumer versus indirect effect or severe versus minimal consequences.

The second section briefly reviews the literature to date that bears on issues related to ethical consumer behavior. The third section concerns the method and results for a study that addressed the first question of this research. The fourth section covers these topics for a second study that addressed the second research question. The fifth and final section discusses the findings and offers ideas for future research.

LITERATURE REVIEW

The stream of research that is most relevant to ethical consumer behavior did not use this term, but instead was concerned with socially conscious consumption, with an emphasis on describing consumers whose concerns for the environment affected their consumer behavior. This work began with a study by Kassarjian (1971), who explored the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the environmentally concerned consumer. However, in common with subsequent researchers, Kassarjian did not find a consistent or reliable demographic profile. Psychographics were more useful; for example, Kinnear, Taylor, and Ahmed (1974) found that perceived effectiveness, openness to new ideas, and desire to know how things work were useful predictors of ecologically conscious consumption. Other researchers have used lifestyle (Belch 1979) and the influence of pro-social behavior (Tucker, Dolich, and Wilson 1981) to describe similar consumers.

Only a few studies have examined ethical consumer behavior other than environmentally concerned consumption. Smith (1990) studied consumer boycotts organized by pressure groups; he was particularly interested in how such boycotts affect corporate accountability in a free market. Boycotts are clear examples of ethical consumer behavior; consumers refuse to buy certain products due to ethical concerns (e.g., the boycott of NestlT due to their marketing of infant formula in underdeveloped countries).

Meanwhile, Whalen, Pitts, and Wong (1991) recognized that ethical expectations and judgments are one of the purchase criteria used in consumer decisions. Their experiment showed that unethical behavior by a store manager decreased subjects' intentions to shop at the store more when the behavior affected the consumer personally than when such behavior did not directly affect the consumer.

In sum, although there is a growing understanding of consumers whose decisions and behaviors are motivated by concerns for the environment, little has been published on other types of ethical consumer behavior. Our research addresses this need for work on a wider array of ethical consumer behavior through two exploratory studies, as described below.

STUDY 1

Method

The goal of Study 1 was to identify the diversity of products and consumption experiences related to ethical consumer behavior by means of a small survey.

TABLE 1

CONSUMTION EXPERIENCES IDENTIFIED AS INVOLVING ETHICAL JUDGMENTS (COUNTS)

Subjects. The 112 subjects were a convenience sample of 79 undergraduates in a consumer behavior course and 32 MBA students in a marketing course. Subjects responded during class time.

Questionnaire. Each subject received the following instructions:

Please list ten of your consumption experiences that involved strong ethical considerations or implications for morality. A consumption experience can be information seeking, buying, refraining from buying, using, or disposing of a product. A product can be a good, service, store, event, person, or idea. Please be brief; for example, buying a hat.

Note that the survey asked respondents to identify product-related consumption experiences for which a variety of consumer behaviors, not simply purchase, included ethical judgments.

Results

In response to the survey, all respondents mentioned at least a few experiences; most listed ten, suggesting that ethical consumer behavior is not a rare experience. Responses that mentioned the same or similar consumption experiences were grouped together. Table 1 presents all 85 consumption experiences that more than one subject identified as having ethical considerations. There were 114 other consumption experiences that received a single mention.

TABLE 2

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE SAMPLE

This study suggested the frequency, range, and diversity of ethical consumer behavior. To explore the ethical dimensions of these consumption experiences, we did a second study, as follows.

STUDY 2

Method

The goal of the second study was to explore the underlying dimensionality of ethical consumption experiences.

Subjects. Subjects in Study 2 were non-student adults, who were recruited by students in a class of the first author. In exchange for their help, students received extra credit on a test.

A total of 142 questionnaires were received by the deadline. The sample was 57% female and 43% male; mean age was 31 years. Ethnic affiliations, religions, and occupations of the sample are summarized in Table 2.

Questionnaire. The questionnaire included nearly all consumption experiences mentioned by three or more respondents in Study 1, plus six experiences that were mentioned by two respondents. Further, the authors added some products that have ethical considerations but had not been identified by the respondents in Study 1 (e.g., gambling, rap music, heavy metal, Gallo wine, a tape recording of a friend's CD, LP, or tape). Also, because most of the consumption experiences on the survey seemed more bad than good, products that seemed good were added to provide balance (e.g., exercising, haircut, milk). The final questionnaire included 104 items.

For each consumption experience, the respondent indicated the degree to which buying, using, or disposing of that product in the conventional way is good or bad. The good/bad scale was used to capture the extent of the consumer's ethical concerns when consuming each product. Subjects indicated their response by circling a number from 1 (TOTALLY GOOD) to 9 (TOTALLY BAD). The order of items on each page was determined randomly and the order of the pages in the questionnaire was rotated across questionnaires. At the end of the questionnaire, the subject answered the demographic questions.

Analysis. The good/bad responses were analyzed using multidimensional scaling (MDS). However, due to limitations of the MDS program utilized (SYSTAT), the total number of products analyzed had to be reduced. This reduction was accomplished through a principal components analysis of the ratings for all items; the ratings were first normalized within subject to have a mean of zero. The results of the principal components analysis revealed a declining difference (i.e., an "elbow") in the amount of explained variance after the second eigenvalue: 12.8, 8.2, 5.8, 4.9, 4.3, 3.7, 3.1. Therefore only the first two components were retained; they explained 20% of the total variance. Any item with a loading that had an absolute value of .40 or greater on either of the first two components was used in the MDS analysis. By this criterion for inclusion, a total of 48 items was used.

Results

Because we retained two components from the principal components analysis, we performed a two-dimensional MDS analysis of the 48 items. The resulting map attained a stress score of .145. This ethical space appears in Figure 1.

The first dimension, shown as the horizontal axis, appears to represent a continuum from selfish to selfless. On the left are selfish consumption experiences; they include self-gratification or self-indulgence (e.g., a topless bar, crack) as well as experiences that provide convenience or pleasure to the self but harm or possibly injure others (e.g., ivory, disposable diapers, stealing). On the right are selfless consumption experiences; they include products or behaviors that benefit others (e.g., dolphin-safe tuna, food to the homeless, recycling), as well as products that require self-discipline or self sacrifice (e.g., exercise, health food, school).

The second dimension, shown as the vertical axis, seems to reflect levels of activity. The consumption experiences at the top are active because they require a purposeful purchase to do good (e.g., buying recycled products or products whose profit goes to a good cause), demand the active participation of the consumer (e.g., passing a fake ID or recycling glass), directly affect human beings (e.g., giving food to the homeless or to beggars), or explicitly involve a lovable animal (e.g., using dolphin-safe tuna). The consumption experiences at the bottom are passive because they require only a more reactive response of not buying the item to do good (e.g., disposable diapers), affect human beings only indirectly (e.g., buying NestlT products), or involve a lovable animal only by inference (e.g., using ivory).

As a corollary to the active-passive distinction, it is interesting to note that survey items mentioning an animate object specifically (i.e., products not tested on animals, dolphin-safe tuna, food to a homeless person, food to a beggar) appear near the top of the map. But those items that implicate other people only indirectly (i.e., products from companies investing in South Africa, NestlT products) or animals only by inference (i.e., ivory, leather) appear near the bottom of the space.

Mean good-bad ratings were regressed on the coordinates of each item in the ethical space to obtain a goodness vector with fit of R = .96 (see Figure 2). This vector aligns closely with the horizontal dimension of the space, suggesting that consumption experiences toward the right (i.e., selfless) versus the left (i.e., selfish) are seen as ethically superior. The influence of the active-passive distinction on the perception of good is more complicated, as detailed in the discussion section below.

FIGURE 1

ETHICAL SPACE OF CONSUMPTION EXPERIENCES

FIGURE 2

ETHICAL SPACE OF CONSUMPTION EXPERIENCES WITH VECTORS

To explore the relationship between demographics and ratings of ethical consumption experiences, we created differential ethical vectors, as follows. Dummy variables were formed for sex (female or male), ethnic group (white or non-white), and religion (Catholic or non-Catholic). Each dummy variable plus age was correlated with the good-bad ratings of the items in the ethical space. The set of correlations for each demographic variable was regressed, separately, on the coordinates of each item in the ethical space to obtain four vectors. Each vector indicates the direction in which differences between the demographic groups in their relative goodness ratings of various consumption experiences increase the fastest (see Figure 2).

The vector for sex (R = .85) lines up with the good versus bad vector and suggests that women show stronger relative ethical judgments than men. The vector for religion (R = .68) falls on the y-axis and indicates that Catholics, versus other religious groups, are more favorable toward active consumption experiences. Meanwhile, the vector for age (R = .56) shows that older respondents rate passive consumption experiences relatively more highly than did younger respondents. Lastly, the vector for ethnic group (R = .48) suggests that whites, relative to non-whites, are more favorable toward active, selfless consumption experiences.

DISCUSSION

The results of our first study suggested a wide diversity of ethical consumption experiences. The issues mentioned included religion, animal rights, discrimination, homelessness, sexuality, labor rights, patriotism, violence, and integrity. Subjects identified consumption experiences that spanned all stages of consumer behavior: information seeking (e.g., going to an expensive store to learn about a product and then buying it at a cheap store), buying (e.g., scalped tickets), not buying (e.g., firearms), using (e.g., alcohol), and disposal (e.g., getting rid of a mattress). The types of "products" mentioned included physical goods (e.g., car), services (e.g., lawyer), events (e.g., concerts for the benefit of AIDS), ideas (e.g., pro-choice), people (e.g., David Duke), organizations (e.g., McDonald's), and retail outlets (e.g., stores considered racist).

The second study suggested that ethically superior consumption experiences are selfless and active and that ethically heinous consumption is selfish and also active. The dimension of selfless versus selfish was very dominant in distinguishing between good and bad. Nonetheless, within the group of selfless items (i.e., those to the right of the vertical axis on the map), active ones (i.e., those near or above the horizontal axis, such as aid to needy people or recycling) appear better than passive ones (i.e., those below the horizontal axis, such as buying toothpaste or leather). But among the selfish items (i.e., those to the left of the vertical axis), active ones (i.e., those above the horizontal axis, such as hard drugs, stealing, or X-rated items) appear worse than passive ones (i.e., those below the horizontal axis, such as hairspray, diapers, or razors).

Meanwhile, the passive consumption experiences in our study tend to fall toward the middle of the good/bad vector. In particular the passive and selfless quadrant is sparse. One explanation is the lack of any items that referred to boycotting a product. The refusal to buy something considered harmful (e.g., items with excessive packaging) would seem to be a selfless, passive, ethical consumption experience.

However, conclusions from this research must be considered preliminary. The sample sizes for both studies were modest (less than 150) while the sample in the first study was exclusively students. The items on the survey in the second study were chosen partially in a subjective, and thus perhaps biased, manner; and not all of them could be included on the map. Building on this exploratory study, future research could correct some of these weaknesses so as to confirm that selfish-selfless and active-passive are the underlying dimensions for ethical consumer behavior. It would also be useful to test explicitly that consumers view selfless and active consumption experiences as ethically superior and selfish and active consumption as ethically heinous.

The two dimensions identified in this study support Holbrook and Corfman's (1985) work on value in the consumption experience. These authors defined a moral or virtuous consumption experience as other-oriented (vs. self-oriented) and active (vs. passive). Additionally, they suggested that a moral consumption experience is intrinsically motivated (vs. extrinsically motivated). Such motivation involves the appreciation of an experience for its own sake or as an end in itself (e.g., virtue is its own reward). The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic value does not appear in the present ethical space, but may be taken as a general characteristics of all consumer behaviors regarded as ethical.

In a study that has come to our attention subsequent to conducting the present research, Muncy and Vitell (1992) collected consumers' perceptions of how wrong 27 consumption-related situations were. They factor analyzed these scores and interpreted the dimensions as whether the consumer was active or passive, whether the consumer was deceitful, and the degree of harm. Their discovery of an active-passive dimension further supports the validity of the vertical dimension in our ethical space. The absence in Muncy and Vitell's study of a selfish/selfless factor comparable to our horizontal dimension probably reflects the range of items in their survey. Rather than spanning a continuum from good to bad, all of the consumption experiences in Muncy and Vitell's survey could be viewed as morally wrong.

The goal of our study was to increase the knowledge of ethical consumer behavior by building on consumers' experiences and by asking consumers about ethical concerns when consuming or disposing of products, as well as when choosing or purchasing them. Although exploratory, we believe our research has met this goal. We are intrigued by these results on ethical consumer behavior and feel that this work extends not only the field of consumer behavior but that of marketing ethics as well.

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