BBC Capital

Riskology

Shopping for change — or not

About the author

Ari has written about financial products and investing for The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Pensions & Investments. Find him on Twitter.  

(Harley Schwadron)

(Harley Schwadron)

After a horrific building collapse in Bangladesh in late April killed 1,127 garment factory workers, were you outraged enough that you promised not to buy clothes from brands that did business with the factory? Did you change your buying behaviour? Two months later, do you remember the disaster when you shop for shirts?

Substandard conditions at far-off factories have been an all too-common theme in modern consumerism, whether it involves unsafe buildings or stressful working conditions. After each incident, high-profile campaigns to boycott stores and products, or to push for stronger safety measures, blanket the news. People sign petitions and vow not to buy certain labels until the cut-corners are squared off.

But, despite the outrage they feel, consumers rarely follows their ethics through to purchasing behaviour. If anything, discerning which products or brands are in the right — or the wrong — becomes even more confusing after public incidents, said Ziba Cranmer, a vice president with marketing firm Cone Communications in Boston.

In a recent survey conducted by Cone and Echo Research, 92% of consumers said they would buy products with social or environmental benefits. And 90% said they would boycott items from companies with “irresponsible or deceptive business practices”. Yet, from that same global survey of 10,287 people far fewer — 67% of respondents — said they actually made a purchase with an environmental or social benefit in mind and only 55% said they had participated in a product boycott.

Chinese and Indian consumers were far more likely than the survey norm to have bought products with societal benefits. And Brazilians believed most heavily in the role of the consumer to have a positive impact through purchasing decisions. Overall, though, shoppers believe they are high-minded but rarely follow through on that conviction.

 “Activists, however, see these disasters as groundswell opportunities,” says Cranmer.

Following several recent catastrophes in Bangladesh, international organizations made a strong push for apparel companies to sign onto the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, a contract that asked companies and brands to implement safety standards and monitoring of factory work. But even agreeing to a definition of what counts as safe is up for debate. As Sweden’s H&M and Italy’s Benetton added their names, large United States and Canadian trade groups looked for their own resolution.

Typically, only the collective power of all stakeholders in these situations — investors, suppliers, trade groups, activists, unions, writers — can eventually brings about societal change. Consumers have only marginal impact by momentarily closing their wallets.

As buyers, we generally consider the ethical ramifications of a purchase only when it impacts us or our community directly. Adverse conditions—low wages, toxicity, bribery—half-a-world are easily dismissed when the headlines fade. (Remember Foxconn and Apple Inc?) And most retailers don’t really offer any insight into conditions at the source to inform our decision anyway.

Still, let’s say that now, because of what you’ve heard about working conditions at certain factories in Bangladesh, you’ve decided to generally avoid all products made there. Could you be swayed to act otherwise?

The magic of marketing says yes.

Researchers at Fordham University in New York designed a test for shopper’s preconceived notions about the country in which a product was made. They found that if a store were to present the recall history for a manufacturer, concerns a shopper might have about the safety risk of buying that product could be mitigated. That positive information outweighed blanket assumptions — in the case of the Fordham experiment it was assumptions about toys made in China.

But recalls are about product safety, not necessarily about the conditions in which something was made. Dawn Lerman, executive director at Fordham University’s Center for Positive Marketing says that shoppers are not very aware of what goes on between the factory floor and the store display.

 "The majority of consumers are concerned with value for money— the value being to them as users of the product," said Lerman. "In other words, what does the product do for me?"

Would more upfront information about product origins and working conditions affect the way you buy things?

"Chances are, in surveys consumers would say they're willing to pay more in exchange.  But in practicality, only a small segment is (doing so)," said Lerman. In most cases, people say they will do one thing—avoid products whose origins or manufacture is suspect or believed to be harmful — but they don’t.

There is some evidence, though, that consumers are even willing to evaluate pricier products with a social message in mind. A working paper out of the political science department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, found that women were willing to pay a premium on more expensive clothing at Banana Republic Factory Stores when fair-labour standard labelling was attached. On lower-priced purchases, however, both men and women were driven only by price and the labelling made no difference.

For people who do want to know more about how goods get to their favourite retailer, the options for finding the information are increasing. Website and mobile applications such as Good Guide and Buycott now allow you to scan barcodes or search for products that align with certain beliefs, values, societal trends and producers.

Still, in the end, despite the fact that many shoppers around the world are becoming much more aware of the ethical concerns in how the products they buy are made, it still isn’t moulded into our buying conscious. For everyday purchases price, convenience and utility tend to drive decisions, not our ethics or our outrage.

Is shopper outrage about working conditions abroad fleeting or for real?