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Don’t be fooled by brands that do one good ethical thing, say economists

Don’t be fooled by brands that do one good ethical thing, say economists
[Video: cottonbro/Pexels]

You know how brands and companies like to advertise their One Ethical Behavior? It’s usually listed right on the label: Sustainable materials! Organic! Hormone-free! Local! Etc! Last year, for instance, Kind and Clif Bar dueled on Twitter over theirs. Clif Bar: “We source 117 organic ingredients across our supply chain. Won’t you join us?” Kind: “It’s deceptive to pass off organic brown rice syrup as healthy. We’d be happy to share why we always lead with nutrient-dense ingredients.”

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It turns out that companies do this because it works: A company touting its One Ethical Behavior will likely manipulate you into a purchase. New research published in PLoS One shows that consumers equate that single ethical action to mean THIS PRODUCT IS GOOD FOR THE WORLD, which, in turn, makes them feel ethical and shell out cash.

“A single, minor improvement of the product is sufficient to consider oneself an ethically acting person,” says Nora Szech, a professor of political economy at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, one of the study’s coauthors.

The researchers find this appalling: they call out companies like Apple and H&M for using this strategy to cover ongoing poor working conditions and say that most touted ethics are “cheap excuses.”

Understanding our minds’ tendency to accept one positive behavior is essential. It’s commonly used across advertising and politics to mask significant ethical issues. “Persons shopping often consider it a blank check to ignore other values,” says coauthor Jannis Engel, a doctoral researcher at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. “A little good appears to be good enough.”

Good enough for the whole day. The researchers asked shoppers to donate to a charity later in the day, and found that those who had chosen eco-friendly purchases earlier were less likely to donate, using those earlier purchases to justify their behavior. This latter behavior proved subconscious.

The take-home message: Support companies that are broadly ethical. “Many companies are quite rightly accused of improving just single ethical aspects instead of acting in an integrated way,” says Szech. “Society should know these mechanisms in order to respond accordingly.”

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