The Moral Marketplace by Doreen Soutar

As Kermit famously said, it’s not easy being green. And ironically, as ethical consumption gets more popular, it has also become more difficult to judge which products are ethical and which aren’t. In this article, we start by looking at the part emotion plays in purchasing decisions and the gradual demand for greater product morality. We assume that sellers – spookily enough – are highly interested in selling us stuff, and getting our money is what gets them out of bed in the morning.
We end up at the shocking conclusion that we will only get more ethical products if we give our cash to sellers that treat their produce as if it is worth something to them. Bet you weren’t expecting that!

Kermit the frog

But let’s start with consumers and researchers, and their explanations of how and why we buy stuff.

Changes in Consumers

Customer equity as defined by Cardy et al in 2007 as comprising three elements:

  1. Value equity – the customer’s rational decision about the worth of the physical product
  2. Brand equity – the value of the emotional desirability of the product
  3. Retention equity – the relationship between the person and the product

Now, value equity can be described as decision grounded in the rationality of the purchase decision – we pay a certain price for an item because we consider it to have enough inherent quality to be worth the money. So, for example, we may pay more for cashmere than for ordinary wool clothing because it is finer and softer, and physically feels nicer to wear. There is a tangible difference in the experience of consuming the product.
Brand equity can involve the inherent physical quality of the product, but the desirability of a specific brand is also wrapped up in the image the company projects both for itself and its customers. So paying a premium price for a branded product not only involves obtaining inherent quality, but also a sense of belonging and identity associated with that product. Apple Inc is probably the prime example of the combination of quality of product and brand identification (Arstechnica, 2007): their products were – at least in the beginning – made to a high standard of design and manufacture, but they also projected an enhanced element of ‘cool’.
So up to this point, we are already purchasing both with our hearts and our heads. We might try to say that the extra we pay for some items is inherent physical quality, but if we are honest with ourselves, some of our purchases are also made on the basis of the company logo and what it says about us. And to a certain extent that is ok, provided it is a free choice and we don’t feel obliged to choose one brand over another. Indeed, we could argue that it is particularly ok if that desire to express our identity extends to the moral aspects of the physical product and its value chain (e.g. Porter, 2008).

Over the last thirty years or so, the ethical value of any product has become an increasingly important element in the consumer’s relationship with the products they purchase. The notion of ‘mindful’ shopping has increasingly been discussed in the business literature (Sheth et al, 2011; Bondy & Talwar, 2011), and debates are held on how commodities markets should price highly ethical products in comparison with their generic counterparts (Mann, 2005). After all, there is no particular difference in the physical quality of an ethically produced commodity such as coffee – the original fair trade product. Fairtrade coffee doesn’t have a distinctive aroma or taste based on the fact that the grower producing it gets a decent living out of it. In the case of relatively generically packaged items – such as potatoes – there is no brand kudos to be had either. Being an ethical, mindful shopper does not necessarily mean that we can show off to our peer group about how ‘in with the in-crowd’ we are. We can tell people we do it, of course, but listeners are not obliged to be a) impressed, b) believers.
But that inner glow and/or bloody-minded anti-shareholderism is a large part of the point of ethical shopping: in a world of highly influential corporate players, purchasing becomes a political activity. Sure, not all purchases are major political statements that might bring down a globally renowned supermarket chain in a single stroke. However, there is an increasing number of consumers that are – in the words of Dobscha, 1998 – “defining themselves in opposition to the dominant consumer culture” (Dobscha, 1998, p.91. in Cherrier).
In other words, an increasing number of consumers are all too well aware of the emotionally-grounded manipulation involved in branding and marketing, and have decided that they don’t like it and won’t play along with it any more. Now the business literature doesn’t use the word “sheeple” in academic articles very often – it’s quite emotive – but I get a distinct feeling from some writers in critical circles that it wouldn’t go amiss. This has particularly been the case since the financial crash of 2007/8, where a plethora of eminent business commentators started to suggest that consumerism had suffered a shift in consciousness (e.g. Porter, 2008; Quelch, 2008).


Specifically, the bankers made explicit the implicit immoral gorging. They were the poster child, the brand image of rampant consumerism. They were last straw and a damn good excuse: they gave mindfulness and frugality something to point to as a cautionary tale.


Ethical value chains

No, of course, this doesn’t mean that people stopped buying anything at all ever again, or that companies, capitalists, and business researchers took the notion of anti-consumerism lying down. No.
Just before we go on, we might note here before we go on that not all business research is pro-neo-liberal free market capitalism – it isn’t. There are some spankingly insightful critical business analysts out there. However, like quite a lot of research in quite a lot of areas, how it is applied in the real world might be considerably skewed away from the original intention. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is just a thing. Try not to blame the messengers, is what I am suggesting the take home message should be around this point. Instead, blame the ones trying to make a fast buck out of twisting it.

Anyway, back to ethical value chains and business.

Increasingly vocal concern about the value chain of products (e.g. Arnould & Thompson, 2005; Porter, 2008; Holt, 2004) has led to a widespread corporate awareness of an underlying moral element in products, and this has led to a wide range of products being labelled with a moral value rating such as the Fair Trade label (Mann, 2008).
This moral value rating has impacted on markets to the extent that they have become an integral part of fiscal profitability (Mann, 2008). This moral aspect to purchasing has become so pervasive that there is now a FTSE rating of ethical companies called the FTSE4Good, and the Dow Jones in New York has a set of Sustainability Indices (Collier, 2005). The FTSE4Good isn’t hugely ethical, and sets quite low standards of moral behaviour for companies, such as not using actual slaves, so the companies they quote on the list won’t seem like paragons of virtue if you go check them out. If you were of a cynical bias of mind, you might be tempted to wonder whether it’s all just a marketing stunt. That would tend to include me I have to say. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) sounds good, but you have to look long and deep into a company’s annual report to find out just exactly how responsible the corporation is to the society. Generally not as much as they brag about it in my research experience, and I am not alone in thinking that. But CSR is a subject all on its own, and that’s for another day.

In the meantime, companies see fair trade products, and they see a generic product with no particular cashmere-type values, but a premium price. Well there is no opportunity to pull a fast one there, now is there?

Indeed, there now as many ways to say “ethical” without actually being very ethical at all as there are copywriters in marketing departments. These departments put a good spin on products for a living, people. Making their product sound desirable to an increasingly ethically minded consumer is how they make a salary go into their bank account at the end of the month to pay their own shopping bills. They do not decide how ethical the products are, they just have to make them sound good.


Ethical Consuming

Buying ethics

So how do you manage to make a decent political statement and actually manage to buy products from companies that actually have made the effort to behave in a moral way that we would all recognise as a moral way (not just avoiding slaves)? Well, it’s a two-pronged attack involving both frugalism and localism.
Frugalism is essentially trying not to “buy any stupid stuff” at all. It’s about seeing how little you can manage on and bragging about that rather than how much you are spending. Then, when you do have to spend money on something, a) you have some money to spend, and b) you might be able to afford a good one that will last more than five minutes. If we buy good quality, we reduce the amount of time we spend buying stuff as well as the quantity. This can go some way to reducing the sheer addictive quality of perpetually swapping money for goods.
Sometimes, in frugalist nirvana, we actually manage to end up spending less for relatively good stuff. Usually second-hand, out of a charity shop or passed on as someone else upgrades to a newer model. Frugalism is the hardcore end of political and ethical purchasing because the frugalist is consciously and deliberately going out to make sure that little or no money ends up with the shareholders of any company trying to convince you they are ethical by not owning any actual slaves personally.

If anything, you are offsetting the cost of buying something of high physical quality for the person you are buying it from, and encouraging them to do that again! Hoorah.

But frugalism is a sliding scale rather than an activity: some things have to be bought first hand. Second-hand potatoes or toilet roll are really not suitable products, even if they were premium products to start with. So we need to make some concessions. Of course, we might have sufficient land to grow our vegetable needs, and the expertise to get more than the slugs do, but that doesn’t cover very many of us. But we can all do some ‘lean’ thinking, where we can look for ways to just improve a little bit of our shopping habits. Like checking out how big the roll holder is in the toilet roll. Yes, it might seem anal (anal, get it, toilet roll, anal?) but it is not just the amount of paper to bum, it’s about the space in the van to carry it around the country in and the plastic wrapping to bum-wiping ratio. And getting the kids to measure the diameter of the roll holder is free entertainment when you take them shopping. Just think of it as a minute and three quarters when they are not pestering you for some piece of sugary rubbish.
If you are buying generic stuff like potatoes or eggs, try asking yourself one simple question: are you giving your money to someone who could reasonably be expected to know the person that grew them? When I gave this a go, my ‘no’ count was so bad that I started looking for farms to get eggs from just to get a ‘yes’ in there at all. Personally, I began to collect ‘yes’s the way some other women collect ornaments. They were precious and I was proud to own them, even if I still do have a lot of ‘no’s in my closet. I am not an evangelist or anything.
And to me this is a more positive way to look at consumerism. Basically, I try to look for ways that I can get out of having anything to do with big business at all.
Because ignoring them is the worst fate I can bring down upon them.
That is why they spend so much time and money advertising – to keep our attention – whether or not it is negative attention makes no odds. Even if we are moaning about then they are still in our consciousness and they can play on that to keep you parting with your hard-earned. Sure they want to know what we want, but only in as much as they can fit their advertising to our stated preferences. They are not listening to us saying that we would like them to reduce their carbon footprint. That’s like telling a child to clean their room for no reward. They will spin out the excuses ad infinitum. But threaten to take away their pocket money, and lo and behold they know exactly how to use the vacuum cleaner all along. Use the same principle with retailers. Take your money away from them, and don’t give them any more until they have smaller toilet roll tubes. Find nice farmers who will sell their products to you directly, and can tell you what they feed the chickens on. Yes, those chickens right there! Listen to a small farm shop owner tell you about the time they went to Italy to meet the family that supply them with this great olive oil, here. Check out their holiday snaps.

Then, if you feel like seeing how far you have moved away from being a consumer sheeple (or sherson) you can try asking the local supermarket manager for his stories.


Perhaps we should insist on products having journeys rather than supply chains. Adventures rather than shipping schedules.

Yes, I like that.

This is how we politicise consumerism: by being emotionally involved with our purchases.

But you know the most powerful kung fu in shopping?

You can walk out of a shop without having bought anything at all.

If you feel deprived, look at the money in your purse.

It’s still there!


References plus a few quite interesting places to look for further information:

  • Arnould, E.J. & Thompson, C.J. (2005) Consumer Culture Theory (CCT): Twenty Years of Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol.31, pp.868-882
  • Arstechnica (2007) Apple Shines at Customer Loyalty and Branding, Available at, [Retrieved 20.3.2012]
  • Bondy, T. & Talwar, V. (2011) Through Thick and Thin: How Fair Trade Consumers Have Reacted to the Global Recession, Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 101, pp. 365-383
  • Cherrier, H. (2009) Anti-consumption discourses and consumer-resistant identities, Journal of Business Research, Vol.62 pp 181-190
  • Collier, P.M. (2007) Accounting for Managers: interpreting accounting information for decision-making, Wiley
  • Holt, D.B. (2004) How Brands Become Icons, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation
  • Mann, S. (2008) Analysing fair trade in economic terms, The Journal of Socio-Economics, Vol.37, pp. 2034-2042
  • Porter, M (2008) on American Airlines: differentiation Available at, [Retrieved 3.12.2011]
  • Quelch, J. (2008) Consumer Psychology in a Recession, Harvard Business Publishing, Available at [Retrieved 30.3.10]
  • Sheth, J.N., Shethia, N.K., & Srinivas, S., (2011) Mindful consumption: a customer-centred approach to sustainability, J.of the Acad. Mark.Sci. 39, 21-29


Further Reading:

  • Ajzen, I. (1991) The Theory of Planned Behaviour, Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, Vol.50, pp.179-211
  • Ajzen, L. (2010) Constructing a Theory of Planned Behaviour Questionnaire, Available at [Retrieved 4.12.2011]
  • Ang, L., & Buttle, F . (2006) Customer retention management processes: A quantitative study, European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp.83–99
  • Band, W. (2008). How To Build Customer Loyalty in a Recession. Available at, [Retrieved 4.4.2011]
  • Becker-Olsen, K.L., Cudmore, B.A., & Hill, R.P. (2006) The impact of perceived corporate social responsibility on consumer behaviour, Journal of Business Research, Vol.59, Issue 1, pp 46-53
  • Brown, M. (2008) recession marketing: addressing a new more mindful consumer, Available at Post {Retrieved 30.3.2011]
  • Carrigan, M, Pelsmacker, P. (2009). Will Ethical Consumers Sustain Their Values in the Global Credit Crunch. . 1 (1), 4-7.
  • Cayla, J. & Arnould, E.J. (2008) Journal of International Marketing, Vol.16, No.4, pp.85-112
  • De Pelsmacker, P., Driesen, L., Rayp, G. (2005) Do Consumers Care about Ethics? Willingness to Pay for Fair-Trade Coffee, Journal of Consumer Affairs, Vol. 39, No.2, pp 363-385
  • Eberhard, M.J.W. (1975) The Evolution of Social Behaviour by Kin Selection, Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol.50, No.1, pp.1-33
  • Fair Trade Foundation Available at [Retrieved 25.11.2010]
  • Fair Trade Foundation History Available at [Retrieved 24.11.2011]
  • Friedman, T. (2008) ‘The World is Flat’ Available from [Retrieved 4.12.2011]
  • Grant, R. M. (2009) Contemporary Strategy Analysis 7th Ed., London, Blackwell
  • Greene, J. & D’Oliviera, M. (1999) Learning to use statistical tests in psychology, Buckingham, Open University Press
  • Hill, C.W.L. & Jones, G.R. (2010) Strategic Management: An Integrated Approach, 9th Ed. Mason OH, South-Western Cengage Learning
  • Hillebrand, J. (2007) Fairtrade: Motivations of Customers to Engage in Fairtrade Purchases and the implications for marketing professionals, GRIN Verlag,
  • Kumar, V., Pozza, I.D., Petersen, J.A., Shah, D. (2009) Reversing the Logic: The Path to Profitability through Relationship Marketing, Journal of Interactive Marketing, Vol.23, no. 2, pp 147-156
  • Lynch, R. (2009) Strategic Management 5th Ed., New York, Random
  • Martinez-Torres, M.E. (2006) Organic Coffee: sustainable development by Mayan farmers, Centre for International Studies, Ohio University.
  • Peattie, K. & Peattie, S. (2009) Social Marketing: A pathway to consumption reduction? Journal of Business Research, 62, pp250-268
  • Piercy, N.F., Cravens, D.W. Lane, N., (2010) Marketing out of the recession: recovery is coming, but things will never be the same again, The Marketing Review, Vol.10, pp3-23
  • Porter, M. On long-term strategy in a downturn, Available at, [Retrieved 30.12.2011]
  • Raynolds, L.T., Murray, D.L, Wilkinson, J. (2007) Fair Trade: the challenges of transforming globalization, Abingdon, Routledge
  • Robson, C. (2002) Real World Research, Oxford, Blackwell
  • Sheth, J.N., Shethia, N.K., & Srinivas, S., (2011) Mindful consumption: a customer-centred approach to sustainability, J.of the Acad. Mark.Sci. 39, 21-29
  • Tranfield, D. (2002) Formulating the Nature of Management Research, European Management Journal, Vol. 20, No.4 pp 378-382
  • Unerman, J., Bebbington, J. & O’Dwyer, B. (2007) Sustatinability Accounting and Accountability, Abingdon, Routledge
  • Windham, L. (2000), The Soul of the New Consumer, Windsor, Oxford