The Myth Of The Ethical Consumer (& Why We Keep Buying Battery Farm Eggs)  

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We all want to be better, fairer, ethical, more organic, fairer trade customers. But when it comes to the crunch, the wallet still beats the heart…

Has buying eggs become the new ethical battleground?

A trip to Coles’ egg aisle now offers a bewildering array of choice – of, let’s be honest, a product that all tastes the same – but comes with the “ethical versus financial” tug of war.

Go the caged option and you’ll get a cheap dozen for $2.99; however, condemning the chook to a short life of disease, brittle bones, lack of exercise and no sunlight and the buyer to shame and guilt at the checkout.

Alternatively, pay $7.99 for the free-range option and smile contentedly as you dunk your soldiers in a yolk that came from a hen that got to feel the grass between its claws, the wind through its comb.

So, have eggs merely become the metaphor for the modern-day shopper? We all want to be more ethical with the things we buy, but the cheaper price usually wins out.

LACK OF TRUST

According to the boffins, the problem’s not as clear-cut as battery versus free-range. Rather, the problem is we don’t always trust the claims – increasingly wild – made by products that say they’re fair trade, cruelty-free, organic, meat-free or whatever.

A recent study by Sydney’s University Of Technology blamed consumer scepticism and confusion as the prime reason why shoppers rejected ethical products. The problem, the study deduced, wasn’t the product itself but the way its claims were advertised and marketed (note to agencies).

The study’s authors reported: “The research suggests the merits in understanding the cynicism of some non-ethical consumers rather than ignoring their views, or waiting for their views to somehow change.”

Which leads us back to eggs. The free-range movement has clearly got the marketing and on-pack message right with 40 per cent of eggs now sold in Australia wearing that badge. However, contrast that with organically-farmed meats and it’s a whole other story. About 95 per cent of poultry and pork eaten by Australians still comes from intensive farming practices.

THE ATTITUDE-BEHAVIOUR GAP

Psychologists call this the attitude-behaviour gap, or the disparity between what we say we’ll do and what we actually do. When asked if we’d like to shop more ethically, most of us would probably answer yes. But faced with a $7 intensive-farmed chicken for our Sunday roast or a $15 organic one, the wallet invariably wins out over the heart.

Take some of the most successful brands in Australia over the past decade, the likes of IKEA, ALDI, H&M, Zara and Hyundai, they all play at one thing well – they’re cheap.

In his book The Myth Of The Ethical Consumer, Australian Professor Timothy Devinney argues the conscience-driven consumer is actually one big lie. Our brains, the goodly Professor argues, make buying decisions on a raft of things – quality, brand, price – not just if it was made in a Siberian gulag by starving four-year-olds. Adding to the contradiction, Devinney says just because someone cares about where their eggs come from doesn’t necessarily mean they also recycle their plastic.

In his book, Devinney cites an experiment done in a café to determine customers’ reactions to fair trade coffee beans. When customers had to ask for fair trade, a paltry one per cent did so. However, when prompted at the counter the answer shot up to 30 per cent and went to as high as 70 per cent if they were asked in earshot of another customer.

Arguably, the travel industry best highlights the dichotomy that Professor Devinney espouses. Sure, we’re all embracing eco-friendly tourism that’s highlighting the plight of the reefs and the perils of the orangutans without considering the damage we’re doing in getting there.

It’s estimated air travel accounts for 11 per cent of all of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions and are far more damaging as the plane’s fumes are dumped far higher in the atmosphere. And, unlike other industries that have tried to tax high polluters or close high-carbon omission practices, the airline industry has done the opposite – dropped fares and increased flights.

FAST FASHION’S FAST DISASTER

And then there’s the fashion industry. The rise of the ‘fast fashion’ labels – the likes of H&M, Zara & Top Shop – means you can buy three T-shirts for 20 bucks (and even faster delivery) before they fall apart after three washes.

It’s all well and good to remain on-trend without having to fork out a fortune, but the environmental impact is enormous.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) found that the planet’s fashion industry – said to be worth $US2.5 trillion ($A3.6 trillion) annually – was the second highest user of water worldwide and produces 20 per cent of global water waste. A single cotton T-shirt requires 2700 litres of water to produce (that’s what a human would drink in two-and-a-half years). Australia’s cotton industry is routinely blamed for draining rivers dry to water their crops.

The fashion business is the world’s second largest clean water polluter and it’s even said if you want to know what colour will be ‘in’ next season, just check the rivers in China that take the run-off from its clothing factories.

The UNECE argues consumers have been gripped by an “era of fast fashion” which has led to an “environmental and social emergency”. 

The fashion biz is responsible for about 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions and consumes more energy than aviation and shipping combined.

Worse, much of what we wear is made in sweatshops in places like Bangladesh where workers take home, on average, around 3000 taka ($A53) a month. While child labour remains an ongoing concern for the garment industry globally.

In her 2012 book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, author Elizabeth Cline a “reformed fast-fashion junkie” noted that “because of low prices, chasing trends is now a mass activity, accessible to anyone with a few bucks to spare.” 

Quality, Cline argued, was no longer an issue, because you need clothes to last just “until the next trend comes along”. Put simply, Cline says we’ve all become too lazy to “make, alter and mend” our clothes in favour of fast fashion and the only anecdote to it all was to buy recycled, organic or locally produced clothing. 

Yet, last June, H&M’s global CEO Karl-Johan Persson slammed fast fashion’s detractors who, he believed, were an angry mob trying to “stop people doing things, stop consuming, stop flying”. The H&M boss adding: “Yes, that may lead to a small environmental impact, but it will have terrible social consequences.”

By that Persson apparently meant the jobs and wages fast fashion had bought to the impoverished sweat shops in which they were sewn.

And things appear to be getting worse on the fashion front. Another study by the UNECE found an average consumer now buys 60 per cent more items of clothing compared to back in 2000, but we’re keeping each garment for half as long. Nearly 60 per cent of the clothes we buy we chuck out in the first year and 40 per cent of the stuff in our wardrobes rarely or ever gets worn!

And much like ethical eggs, it’s the same for ethical fashion. When e-commerce personalisation service Nosto surveyed 2000 shoppers in the US and UK last  year, it found 50 per cent wanted fashion labels to act more ethically, but only a third said they’d be prepared to pay more for it.

Interestingly, another survey into consumers’ response to ethical fashion found that 62 per cent of respondents felt they should get a discount for buying it. It’s a bit like recycling your bottles or using your own ‘keep cup’ at the local café – consumers now expect to be remunerated for doing social good.

DYING FOR AN iPHONE

It’s the same old story, we’d rather a good deal than save the planet. Back in 2010 and 2011, Apple was rocked by a wave of suicides at the Foxconn factories in China that assemble the company’s iPhone for the global market. Some 20 workers leaping to their deaths from the top of factory roofs protesting working conditions.

In 2012, 150 workers in a Foxconn factory in Wuhan threatened a mass suicide over “unbearable conditions” at the Apple plant. A worker commenting at the time: “The assembly line ran very fast and after just one morning we all had blisters and the skin on our hand was black. The factory was also really choked with dust and no-one could bear it.”

And Foxconn’s response? It erected nets around its factories to deter jumpers and hired PR firm Burson-Marsteller to deal with the negative publicity.

As an aside, a $US1200 iPhone costs Apple about $US443 in labour and parts. The Chinese workers who assemble them get about $US100 a week. It’s been estimated the cost of a phone would double if they were assembled in the US. Apple sells about 220 million phones a year.

As Professor Timothy Devinney concludes, “ethical” only works if the brand, its employees, its investors and their customers are all prepared to buy-in.

“Individuals are nuanced in their assessment of the factors underlying their choices,” Devinney says. “One cannot simply accept that they will respond positively to ‘doing good’; it must be good for them in their role as consumer, investor, employee and so on.

“It is silly to speak of corporate social responsibility without understanding that for corporations to be socially responsible we all have to be socially responsible as individuals in our various roles.

“We are all consumers. We are all investors. We are all employees. Hence, we cannot expect corporate social responsibility without managers, employees, investors and consumers playing their part.”

 

 

 

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