Many people visit sites like TreeHugger to learn about environmentally friendly products and design solutions, but new research suggests that ethical consumer choices are motivated by more than just having all the facts.
Ahir Gopaldas, a researcher and assistant professor at Fordham University, is working to understand how emotions also play an important role in motivating ethical consumers. “Thoughts become action when they are emotionally charged,” Gopaldas told me in an interview.
If we think about issues in a neutral or unemotional way, we might not do anything about them. “If I feel corporations are pumping out pollution and I’m so angry at them, that emotional charge is going to drive me to take some action—like calling up my energy company and finding out what is the greenest provider.”
Gopaldas approached the study as an ethnographer, interviewing people who identify themselves as ethical consumers and reading materials from activists and ethical brands. The findings are published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Gopaldas groups the feelings that frequently drive ethical consumers into three major sentiments: contempt for villains, concern for victims and celebration of heroes. These sentiments provide the motivational energy for action.
Contempt for villains includes people’s feelings of anger and disgust. These feelings might be directed towards companies that pollute or use unethical labor practices, or even towards larger systems like excessive consumerism. This might lead people to boycott a brand or stop buying a whole category of products.
Concern for victims encompasses feelings of caring for workers and the environment, anxiety about production processes and guilt about not making the most ethical choices. These emotions not only lead people to learn more about where food and other goods come from, but also to recycle and donate to charities.
Celebrating heroes involves the feeling of joy we get from supporting the systems we believe in—like local farmers and fair-trade producers. It also includes feelings of hope in the idea that individuals’ actions can together make a collective impact. “Hope can help us persist in making ethical choices even when things are not going too great,” said Gopaldas.
The research doesn’t compare ethical consumers to other types of shoppers. So we can’t yet say how ethical shoppers are different from people who don’t make the same lifestyle choices.
The research does touch on how ethical shopping and choices like composting or recycling become habits. “The first time you buy fair trade coffee, it’s a big deal,” explained Gopaldas. We ask ourselves a number of questions: Is it worth the extra money? Will it make a difference? But once you’ve made the choice, and experienced the positive emotions associated with it, it becomes a “conditioned response” and we continue to seek those same good feelings. “You may even start feeling disgusted about the regular coffee,” he said.
Gopaldas even has some advice for me, as an advocate for ethical consumer choices. “I did write this with the intention of supporting ethical consumer advocates,” he said. “In composing those messages, we have to introduce one of these super-powerful sentiments. If you don’t have an emotional charge in your messaging and in your imagery, it just isn’t sticky.”