Confusion reigns among ethical consumers

Even in this ethically enlightened age many would-be green consumers still feel that they are in the dark when it comes to making the right choices and want more advice from trusted sources.

These were the core findings of a report published by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESCR) this week.

According to the study, carried out by academics from the University of Leeds, it isn’t easy being green and consumers would respond better to practical help and incentives rather than social pressure and emotional blackmail.

“Consumers find that being green or ethical is a very hard, time consuming, and emotional experience,” said the university’s Dr William Young.

“Apart from the usual issues such as price, reliability, and colour they have the added complication of researching and weighing up all the environmental and ethical issues before purchasing a product.”

A series of interviews with self-professed green consumers, together with several wider focus groups, uncovered three different types of green consumer.

The first of these the researchers dubbed selectors – those who pick and choose their ethics but might conveniently ignore environmental and social issues which interfered too much with their lives.

A selector may be an avid recycler or pay a premium for green energy, for example, but sees no contradiction in leading an otherwise consumption orientated life. This was seen as the largest group of green consumers in the UK.

Translators, were the second group and are green in some aspects of their lives. Essentially, they carried on with their conventional habits but looked for a greener way of doing these things.

They are prepared to make a certain amount of sacrifice in order to do what they perceive is the right thing, but tend to rely on received wisdom and do not actively seek out the information that they need to work out what the right thing is.

The greenest group of all was the exceptors – those willing to deny themselves certain goods or behaviour patterns because of their ethical impacts.

Their personal philosophy about consumption makes sustainability a priority in every aspect of their lives.

According to the study, exceptors do a lot of research for every product that they buy but they are often unsatisfied with their final decisions because they have had to compromise on many of their values to resolve the multitude of competing issues they faced.

“Their heart wants to go one way, but their head goes another,” said Dr Young.

All three groups found it relatively easy to make green decisions about their food purchases, preferring to buy organic, fair trade or locally sourced food.

But the story was different for the one-off decisions they made to buy domestic appliances and other household electrical goods.

For all but the greenest group of consumers, the environmental performance of a one-off major purchase decision was often traded off by price.

And most green consumers did not even consider ethical issues when making decisions about less expensive products such as toasters or mp3 players. They found it hard to find any information about these products and thought it was not worth the time and effort involved.

“Consumers are very confused about what issues are important,” said Dr Young. “They need clear directions.”

The researchers found that all groups of consumers used and trusted the EU Energy Label that must be displayed on white goods and they suggest that similar scales, such as an A-G energy rating for all electronic products, could be helpful.

But consumers need more than just education to encourage them to choose green alternatives, Dr Young warns. Without financial incentives, it is unlikely that green consumer power will force industry towards more sustainable practices.

Sam Bond

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