What makes us care? The impact of cultural values, individual factors, and attention to media content on motivation for ethical consumerism.

Author:Cho, Sooyoung


This study seeks to provide a deeper understanding of motivation for ethical consumerism and to determine whether it is influenced by cultural differences. Based on surveys conducted in Austria and South Korea, the authors analyze the impact of cultural values, psychologically derived factors (i.e., anticipated benefits and self-identity), and attention to media content on motivation for ethical consumerism. The results reveal significant cultural differences, with Austrian respondents showing higher motivation for ethical consumerism than their South Korean counterparts. Among cultural values (materialism and post-materialism), individual factors (emotional benefits, universal benefits, and self-identity), and attention to media content variables (both news and entertainment), post-materialism, self-identity, and attention to news media content were found to be significant predictors of motivation for ethical consumerism.

Ethical consumerism can be described as an expression of ethical concerns about products and organizations "by choosing to purchase a product that meets certain ethical standards, or by choosing not to purchase a product that fails to meet that criteria." (1) 'Ethical,' in this instance, does not simply cover environmental considerations; it includes "matters of conscience such as animal welfare and fair trade, social aspects such as labor standards, as well as more self-interested health concerns behind the growth of organic food sales." (2)

Across the globe, consumers are becoming more socially conscious and ethically concerned. Increasingly, they wish to purchase and use goods that demonstrate social and environmental responsibility (e.g., energy-saving light bulbs, organic food, and fair-trade coffee), and refuse to purchase products produced in 'sweatshops' (e.g., real animal fur coats or shoes). Commercial surveys provide empirical evidence that verifies this rise in ethical consumerism. In Europe, for example, a study by Ipsos-MORI, a British marketing research company, found that, in 2006, sixty-one percent of consumers in the United Kingdom agreed to buy fair-trade products where possible, up from forty-six percent a year earlier. (3) Similarly, the annual Co-operative Bank Ethical Consumerism Report showed that every household in the U.K., on average, spent 664 [pounds sterling] in accordance with their ethical values in 2006 as compared to 366 [pounds sterling] in 2002. (4) Within a more global context, a 2005 General Market Institute poll across seventeen countries (including Australia, China, India, Japan, the United States, and several European countries) indicated that consumers worldwide expressed a growing interest in environmentally friendly and socially responsible consumption. According to these findings, fifty-four percent of consumers were prepared to pay more for environmentally friendly or fair-trade products. In each country, most consumers favored ethical consumerism. Surprisingly, in the lesser developed of these countries, China and India, ninety-one and seventy-one percent of consumers, respectively, were willing to pay more for socially responsible products. (5) These polls demonstrate that while consumers' awareness of ethical issues in trade and consumption is increasing, "awareness and concern are not directly translated into ethical purchase behavior." (6) Given these findings, it is important to examine motivation for ethical consumerism in order to determine which behavior is chosen and why. (7)

Little is known about what influences consumers' motivation for ethical consumption choices. Ethical consumerism, in fact, is a complex phenomenon related a number of possible factors. As Terry Newholm, a lecturer in consumer theory, international business, and strategy at the University of Manchester, and Deidre Shaw, a senior lecturer in consumer lifestyles and behavior at the University of Glosgow, point out, "much work remains in exploring, comparing and theorizing the everyday ethics of consumption across a range of cultures." (8) With the rise of globalization, it is essential to understand, not just from a theoretical perspective but also from a marketer's vantage point, how ethical interpretations and actions might differ in various consumer markets around the world. (9) To achieve that understanding, this study takes a cross-cultural approach, comparing an Asian consumer culture, South Korea, with a European consumer culture, Austria. The authors have chosen to examine these two countries, which have strongly perceived cultural differences and have never been compared in terms of motivation for ethical consumerism, in order to enhance the existing body of cross-cultural consumer literature. Despite differences in their cultural background, both countries represent advanced industrial democracies that have undertaken unique governmental initiatives to promote ethical consumption. South Korea was the first country to mandate that public agencies purchase only environmentally friendly products. Austria was the first member of the European Union to establish a statutory genetically modified free zone. (10)

Consumer behavior literature maintains that consumers can be motivated to make socially conscious consumption decisions on the basis of what effect their behavior might have on the environment or other people. Such consumers can be driven by the universal outcome or impact their decisions might initiate. The authors of this study define such anticipation of benefits that serve the greater good as universal benefits. Perceived individual benefits also play a significant role in consumers' ethical decision-making. Consumers might anticipate self-expressive benefits or an emotional state of well-being to result from their 'doing-good.' (11) Previous studies suggest that a consumer's approach to ethical consumption is a "vehicle for moral self-realization" guided by self-identification with ethical issues. (12) By extending existing literature from green to ethical consumerism, this study addresses the more self-centered aspects behind ethical consumerism, as well as cultural factors and attention to media content that have influenced the rise in such behavior.

Literature Review

Ethical Consumerism

According to Andrew Crane and Dirk Matten, both scholars of corporate responsibility issues at York University, ethical consumerism involves a conscious choice to use products selectively based on personal and moral beliefs and values. (13) Naomi Klein, an award-winning syndicated columnist, describes ethical consumerism as a response to "the corporate hijacking of political power," and to the "brands' cultural looting of public and mental space." (14) The concept emerged from the environmental movement and green consumerism. (15) Green consumerism, in general, refers to consumer choices based on ecological concerns such as environmental protection or organic food production. Ethical consumerism, by contrast, include a wider range of issues that can add significantly to the complexity of consumer decisions. (16)

Michelle Micheletti, Lars Hierta Chair of Political Science at Stockholm University, and Deitland Stolle, a professor of political science at MeGill University, present three different forms of ethical consumerism: boycotts, buycotts, and discursive ethical consumerism. Whereas boycotting refers to the act of rejecting or not choosing products that fail to meet certain ethical and social standards, buycotting is defined as choosing products associated with such standards. Discursive ethical consumerism does not focus on influencing corporate practice by buying or not buying a certain product. Rather, it targets other vulnerable points within corporations, namely, their image, brand name, reputation, and logo. (17) This study examines the first two forms of ethical consumerism.


Historically, the boycott, also referred to as 'negative ethical purchase behavior,' has been the main form of ethical consumerism. Nowadays, boycotts, such as the 'Stop Bottle Baby Deaths' boycott of all Nestle products or the 'Don't' Buy E$$O' boycott of the Esso/ Exxon Corporation, are organized by nongovernmental organizations. These 'institutionalized' boycotts normally come about "to protest [an] industry's involvement in human rights violations; discrimination of minority groups, homosexuals, women, and indigenous peoples; environmental destruction; animal rights; and, unfair trade practices toward developing countries." (18) Such boycotts are effective when: (a) publicity for the boycott cause is achieved; (b) the producer is blamed and punished; and, (c) producers comply with boycott demands. (19)

Other boycotts occur at the individual level, reflecting a consumer's personal choice of avoiding goods and services associated with certain topics (e.g., animal testing, genetically modified food, racial or gender discrimination, and mistreatment of the labor force). (20) In such instances, consumers seek to promote their family's interests, which might result in a greater willingness to boycott harmful products and press producers to adopt changes in manufacturing practices. (21)


Buycott, also referred to as 'positive ethical purchase behavior,' is seen by many consumer activists as the "flip side of boycotts, [that is, an attempt] to induce shoppers to buy the products or services of selected companies in order to reward them for behavior, which is consistent with the goals of the activists." (22) Micheletti and Stolle define 'buycotts' as politically motivated shopping. (23) For example, in the early twentieth century the White Label Campaign urged American women to buy cotton underwear for themselves and for their children that was certified 'sweatshop free.' (24) This led to improvements in factory workplace safety and the condition of labor (i.e., increased wages, reduced hours, and benefits). (25) The buycott has also been viewed as...

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