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Ethical Consumer

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Consumption is a sphere in which people routinely negotiate moral dilemmas. Wilk (2001) observes that Ð''consumption is in essence a moral matter, since it always and inevitably raises issues of fairness, self vs group interests, and immediate vs delayed gratification.'

When faced with the immediacy, popular appeal and low-cost offerings of the fast food and fast fashion industries the modern day consumer struggles to build an Ð''ethical' consumer identity.

It is now more evident than ever we live in a post-modern capitalist society, whereby the products we chose to purchase help define our individuality and create identity (Cova 1996). In 1899, Velben was the first to coin the term Ð''conspicuous consumption' as a means of separating and defining class in society. More recently sub-cultures are formed solely on the basis on consumption habits and traits. Cova (1996) explains post-modern's principles of rejecting what has gone before (modernity) in favour of "new and different cultural movements". It has rejected the rule of reason and rational logic, and looks past what had being perceived as the ideal. There is now no singular Ð''dominant ideology'. Instead, consumerism has been replaced by a mix-match of contradictory outlooks of styles, thoughts and conventions. With the immediacy of new technology and communication systems, fashions and fads are changing more rapidly. Consumers can now change their identity on a daily basis in order to find the right balance between self and group interests.

It seems that there is a new type of consumers, who are no longer solely motivated by a "need for convenience", instead they are driven by a "quest for authenticity". These new types of consumers are driven by information. They seek to be more aware by studying contents, comparing prices, scrutinizing promises, weighing options and knowing their legal rights (Lewis and Bridger, 2000: 18).

Theorists have noticed a change in ethical consumer choices. They are no longer using cold calculations based on the deontologist or consequentialist theories. Instead they are adopting a virtuous approach, whereby consumers are more concerned with what they should do, and what kinds of people they should aim to be. (Harrison et al., 2005)

Douglas and Isherwood (1979), define consumption as "the very arena in which culture is fought over and licked into shape." Every time one purchases an item they have, consciously or subconsciously, made a series of consumption choices which "may determine the evolution of culture". The food, the clothes, the furniture, the transport, and the power supply one chooses all contribute to the economic and environmental state of, not only the world we live in today, but the world we will inhabit in the future.

The consumer is becoming increasingly aware that with each purchase they make they are in fact casting an economic vote. "Everyone who goes into a shop and chooses one article over another is casting a vote in the economic ballot box." (Harrison et al., 2005: 25)

However, does this knowledge influence our buying patterns and product choices?

Douglas and Isherwood (1979) believe that "that consumption is not compelled; the consumer's choice is his free choice. He can be irrational, superstitious, traditionalist, or experimental: the essence of the economist's concept of the individual consumer is that he exerts a sovereign choice." However, due to busier consumer lifestyles and dual-working families with children, emphasis is increasingly being placed on quick meal solutions. There has been an increase in demand for convenience foods and snacks with a 19% increase in market growth in fast food sales between the years 1998 and 2003. "Most if these purchases occurred as a result of impulse decision making." (Schroder & McEachern, 2005:220). Childhood obesity has become a major societal concern. Rates of obesity among preschool and school-age children have more than doubled in the past three decades: 14% of 2- to 5-year-olds and 19% of 6- to 11-year-olds are obese (Grier et al., 2007). This proves that despite consumers' best intentions; convenience and immediate gratification are still very influential priorities for the modern day consumer.

This immediate vs. delayed gratification can also be seen in the supply chain management in many companies, particularly in fast fashion, where cost and speed is of utmost importance in sourcing and buying decisions. A fast turnaround must be achieved with suppliers in order to get clothing into the store in as short a time as possible. Supplier selection is often based on purely on speed and price with little regard shown to the source of the clothing. (Bruce & Daly, 2006) However Gorman (2007) has noted that the trend for cheap clothing will be phased out as retailers, such as Primark and H&M, are now coming under pressure from increasing consumer concerns over ethical sourcing. Topshop in particular has come under scrutiny as it is apparently paying less than Ð'Ј5 a day to some of its workers. It is vital when a company comes under pressure like this that they respond in order to project a positive image of their business.

Corporate social responsibility is related to the social contract between business and society. Whereas business ethics, is the concern of the organization with the rules of moral philosophy. (Robin, D.P. & Reidenbach R.E., 1987) Many fast fashion companies will only assume social responsibility if their executives have the required mindset and will only commit themselves to ethical behaviour if this helps their organisations at the same time. eg. The Bodyshop. This is neither unethical nor an abuse of social commitment. It simply combines the two crucial needs for economic success and social welfare. (Habisch et al., 2005)

Consumers can also express their identity and morality by taking on action as political consumers by boycotting products that do not meet their ethical standards.

"28% of UK consumers boycotted at least one product in 2004 for ethical reasons." (

"Many groups have discovered that campaigning for change by seeking to manipulate or influence markets can be a quick and effective way of addressing particular social and environmental problems" (Harrison et al., 2005: 55)

Boycotts aim to reduce the sales of the boycotted product and also to achieve a sense of political objectiveness. A successful boycott can realise both of these goals, but it is possible to achieve one without



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