Bridging the gap between opinions and actions

The 21st century consumer is a sophisticated one. Compared to past decades, especially prior to the sixties, we have greater access to information and we understand our rights better and we are more aware of our options. We’re not infallible, but we are more discerning and more informed than ever before. One topic we’re certainly more informed about is ethics. We know that various companies behave in what are commonly considered unethical ways, whether it’s unsustainable use of environmental resources or sweatshop labour or animal testing or creating pollution. If we look, we’re often able to find information about such practices. But how often do we do something about that? How often do we actually let ethical considerations shape our purchasing habits?

Rather infrequently, it seems, if this research paper is anything to go by.

It turns out that, despite the increased sophistication of consumers these days and the increased awareness of ethical issues, there’s very often a gap between any given consumer’s attitudes towards ethical issues and his or her actual behaviour concerning those issues: an attitude-behaviour gap, stretching between what a person knows and feels about ethical issues and problems and what they’re actually willing to do about it. A person might support an action, such as boycotting a company that has been revealed to use child labour, but whether that person actually does boycott the company is an entirely different matter.

If an issue is specific and high-profile enough, sometimes action on a large scale does happen. For example, the consumer boycott of NestlĂ© products due to its infant formula marketing practices has been estimated as having cost the company tens of millions of dollars. But that’s one conspicuous, highly publicised example, and is definitely a rarity. Despite having access to information about specific ethical concerns in relation to any given company or retailer, and despite consumers almost inevitably becoming aware of such issues through the ubiquitous media, on the whole apparently we’re still just not that motivated to actually do anything about it. We disapprove of it, but we don’t act on our disapproval.

A few studies have shown that, when it comes down to it, consumers simply don’t prioritise ethical and social issues when considering making a purchase, preferring to make their decisions based on price, value, quality and brand familiarity. And that’s perhaps the crux of it – when you have to consider so many other things in making a decision to purchase (and most of this blog is about the almost impossibility of the brain to make completely reasoned, unbiased, informed decisions), the additional effort of factoring in ethical considerations on top of everything else is almost overwhelming.

Is it possible to bridge the gap between attitude and behaviour, even when you decide to make ethical issues a priority along with price, value, quality and brand? Some people’s socioeconomic and financial position will prohibit them from making ethical issues a priority, which is understandable. But for those of us who do have the socioeconomic privilege of being able to factor in the additional issue of ethics in our consumer decision-making: we need to think about whether our actions match up with our attitudes. The more people who do try to carry their ethical attitudes through to actual actions, the more demand there will be for ethical behaviour and social responsibility from brands and companies.

So, as always, the message is: think critically. Think about how you’re thinking and be ruthless about criticising any inconsistencies – are you thinking one way but acting another? That’s what will truly make a discerning, informed consumer and will consequently actually make a difference in the world.

3 Thoughts on “Bridging the gap between opinions and actions

  1. Ahh me, I am definitely one of them. How are you finding out information to make ethically conscious decisions?

  2. Oh lord, long comment coming, Hel.

    The main source at the moment is that Lucy Siegle book, which kind of guides me regarding the general issues to look out for, although sometimes it’s impossible to know whether you’re avoiding the problems or not – like basically no brand tells you, for example, where their cotton was originally sourced, and there are so many problems in the cotton production industry that I’d hate to think how much of the stuff I own has negatively impacted someone somewhere. Even US-produced cotton is subsidised by the government in a way that allows US producers to undercut African producers so that the African producers are constantly barely able to make a profit on their product.

    There are also some brand recommendations in the Lucy Siegle book, which gives you a starting point, albeit a very limited one. But it’s basically the case that unless a brand goes out of its way to let you know its ethical stance, and that ethical stance applies to everything they do (not just one little collection or whatever), you’re probably safe to assume they’re not doing the best job they could and they ought to be avoided. And it’s such a minefield – even if a brand seems ethical in one way, the result is that it often falls down in another way (e.g. Stella McCartney doesn’t use animal products, which is great because leather production is one of the top 10 most polluting industries in the world, but in the place of leather she uses synthetic materials that are often made from non-renewable resources such as petrochemicals that are very polluting to produce themselves).

    So yeah… it’s ridiculously difficult, and even the best decisions are usually compromising on several factors. So I figure the best way to do it is to seek out ethical brands if possible (ones that make their message clear, and I’ve bought from People Tree, Matt & Nat and Pure Collection on the rare occasions they have something that suits my style – a chambray shirt, a black skinny belt and a plain black cardigan respectively) but given that there’s not exactly an overabundance of ethically motivated brands out there at the moment, the next best thing is to simply buy the best quality I can afford (which involves a fair bit of saving up). That means that I end up buying less because I’m replacing things less frequently, which is a bit more of a sustainable attitude. I guess I’m lucky in that I’ve never ever been interested in trends, and I’ve managed to find a personal style I’m comfortable with and I’ve got a wardrobe that fits that, so I probably purchase fewer items than the average person of my demographic anyway. But I obviously still buy things and I want to make the best decision possible when I do buy new things.

    The Lucy Siegle book also has some websites you can go to to find out about the ethical/sustainable efforts of brands and who’s guilty of poor practices (unfortunately I’ve forgotten them all since they weren’t relevant to Australian brands or most of the brands I actually have access to – it tends to be the usual culprits, Top Shop, Zara, Primark, H&M, Gap, etc). It’s an awesome book if you can get hold of it – it also discusses how Lucy is friends with Colin Firth’s wife Livia and how she and Livia organised the Green Carpet Challenge, so all the red carpet dresses Livia has been wearing for the past 2 years or so have been ethically and sustainably produced, which has definitely raised the profile of the cause and made it clear that ethical/sustainable fashion isn’t by any means limited to frumpy things made of coarse undyed hemp material or, as Lucy Siegle put it, “fishermen’s pants in various shades of sludge”.

  3. Rebecca on March 12, 2012 at 2:52 am said:

    Gosh, I do love your blog! This is really wonderful writing you are doing, and I’m hoping this week I will have time to sit down and read (and think about) each and every wonderful post. Like you, I enjoy fashion, but find myself in a cycle where I’m not necessarily making the best purchasing decisions, or just purchasing too much. I feel I have become an “empty emptor” and I don’t know exactly how I got here (but I have some pretty good suspicions, which you do an excellent job shedding even more light one). I am hoping that the next time I get the blind consumer urge that I can turn to your blog and think through what I’m experiencing (rather than giving in).
    I have to quell this inner voice that’s being driven by fashion cycles and the marketing machine; I don’t need a new “it” bag or a certain colour of top to be unique or trendy or any of those other qualities that we try to ascribe to our personalities, our inner selves, through purchasing. I am a good person with unique qualities, no matter what I do or don’t buy. I’m hoping one day (soon) I will be able to see this as a constant, and not be swayed by the powerfully maniupulative forces of marketing and media.
    Once again, thanks for your wonderful , thoughtful posts, and links/reccomendations to other sites and readings. There’s so much here that is inspirational and satisfying. Best of luck in your Ph. D, you certainly deserve it!

    Rebecca

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