Recently, the celebrity gossip blog, DMZ, took a swipe at celebrities “who claim they’re green, but guzzle gas”. George Clooney, among others, was mocked for his ‘I drive an electric car so I’m environmentally conscious—except when I’m flying to Tokyo in my private jet’ hypocrisy. But besides delivering a smacking to self-righteous celebrities, such an expose illustrates the sizable gap that exists between the attitude and behavior of “ethical” consumers.
Conscientious or ethical consumption is the new frame through which we are asked to view our economic decisions. For instance, the New York Times suggests asking “How Green is My Conscience?” while the Washington Post argues that it is [liberal] guilt that leads us to worry about the ethical content of our purchasing decisions in the first place. So it seems that finding a low-priced, good quality product is not enough, you should “feel good” about your purchase, in a Good Samaritan-type of way. But do we really?
We can certainly pose beside our electric car and feel good about ourselves as Mr. Clooney does so well. But even though we claim to want to do our part to save the planet by buying the organic lettuce for $4.80 at supermarket X instead of the regular lettuce for $1.80 at supermarket Y, we don’t even do this.
Studies of ethical consumers often are little more than opinion surveys that ask ‘would you be willing to pay a little more to help save the rainforests?’ And of course you would, because you’re a good person who wants to walk away from the survey with a green conscience. But this tells us nothing useful because it only measures attitudes and not actual behavior as revealed by consumers’ willingness to pay. Furthermore, one also needs to take into account factors such as brand preference, other values (“buy American”, for example), socio-demographic characteristics, price and various measures of quality.
Moreover, we have not even begun to examine whether “ethical” consumption offers any measurable benefits to anyone. Nor have we even questioned the implication of this discussion that “normal” consumption—consumption that doesn’t contain a contrived moral/political assessment—is somehow unethical.