Are you an ethical consumer?

The conscious consumer is under the microscope in a new piece of research at the University of Otago, writes Tom McKinlay.

You always take your own shopping bags with you, to cut down on waste, only choose the Fair Trade bananas and free-range eggs, and wouldn't think of buying an old-fashioned incandescent lightbulb.

So how does your consumption rate in the ethical stakes? Are you doing better than most, or dragging the chain? And what's next?

What is the next step along the journey towards truly ethical consumption? Well, soon-to-be-published research from the University of Otago has at least some of the answers.

Senior lecturers Dr Ben Wooliscroft and Dr Alexandra Ganglmair-Wooliscroft, of the department of marketing, have been looking at the ethical choices New Zealand shoppers typically make, and have been able to map them as a hierarchy.

To begin, they asked a group of people what they thought constituted ethical consumption, then through further questioning and surveys succeeded in building those behaviours into a list, with the most readily achieved at the bottom and the rarest efforts at the top.

''If you look at the decisions there are clear hierarchies,'' Dr Wooliscroft says from the comfortable corner lounge of the School of Business building, while munching on an apple.

''If you are buying free-range eggs then you are probably cutting down your plastic bag consumption, because it is a higher-level choice. If you are buying only organic chicken, and free-range chicken, we are pretty sure that you have the eggs under control already. So there is this underlying hierarchy of these choices on average.''

And so it goes, right the way through to buying carbon offsets to square the ledger when indulging in air travel.

Key to Dr Wooliscroft's hierarchy is that it is derived from the consumers interviewed for the research, rather than imposed on them, and that the hierarchy of ethical choices fits the Rasch measurement model, providing confidence that the data will stand up to scrutiny.

The Rasch model, named for its creator Georg Rasch, is commonly associated with educational research, where it might, for example, be used to look at performance in maths. In that case, it would be assumed that a maths student who could solve the most difficult maths problems, would be able to solve all the other lesser puzzles.

Similarly, a consumer who is buying carbon offsets for their air travel, will almost certainly be taking their own bags with them when they shop.

''We see the highest and most difficult ethical choices are not practised very frequently, but when they are, those people have embraced all the things, or almost all the things underneath them,'' Dr Wooliscroft says.

As it turned out, ethical air travellers are thin on the ground indeed.

''Trying to find someone who reports that behaviour, I think out of 800 people we found one.''

Choosing not to consume was also right up there in the difficult basket.

The lowest-level choices in the hierarchy turned out to be reducing plastic bag use and recycling.

Indeed, recycling has been made easy by local authority schemes, which now make it a cheap way to dispose of unwanted items.

''So a lot of these are affected by the environment,'' Dr Wooliscroft says.

Dr Wooliscroft's research has not yet looked at whether people, as a rule, are moving through the hierarchy, whether up or down.

''It is a bit like a maths test. If we could get the same people and test them again, we would have an understanding of whether they are moving. Some of that is the environment changing.

"If the Government makes it easier for people to recycle, it will become an easier choice to make.

"If they start charging for supermarket bags, which is completely standard in Europe, then reducing plastic bag use will be an easier choice to make. You have a trigger there to help you endorse this behaviour.''

While Dr Wooliscroft says a lot of work remains to be done to refine the model, there is plenty of potential to employ it in the real world.

''It does give us an idea of, if someone is at a certain point in the hierarchy, what the next group of choices to suggest to them are.''

Such information could be usefully employed to encourage waste reduction or address a community's carbon footprint.

Knowing the next best step to suggest is important, Dr Wooliscroft says.

''Taking someone who is at the bottom of our ethical behaviour hierarchy and saying 'we would like you to do some of these really advanced things', it is never going to happen. It is not in their decision set. It is all about moving people up step by step.

''We certainly need to change how we are impacting on the earth and I would like to see this research contributing to improving it,'' Dr Wooliscroft says.

''But too often people say, 'well, you have done that study on what the hierarchy is, now what is the public policy?'

"Well, there is a whole lot more research we have to do on this hierarchy. We have to understand some of the reasons why different choices are at different places on it.

''Through repeated application of this in different places we can get an understanding of the drivers and the different behaviours, as a follow-on. And then we are in a position to have a mature conversation about policy changes.

''The development of the hierarchy is quite a big step,'' Dr Wooliscroft says.

''It has never been done before.''

The next step in developing the research will involve doing the same thing again in Europe, to discover what the hierarchy is there.

''We probably won't have plastic bags in there at all. Because there are no free plastic bags,'' he says of the European shopping experience.

There might, however, be a discussion on the ethics of newspaper honesty boxes, which in some parts of Europe witness relatively little honesty, Dr Wooliscroft says.

After Europe, the United States and India are possibilities, where Dr Wooliscroft expects to see different values impacting on consumers' ethical choices, whether based on religion or societal values.


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