The Myth of the Responsible Consumer

My friend Nancy Giordano has a wonderful newsletter called Cultural Acupuncture in which she explores many topics, mostly centered around the future of the modern, responsible corporation. You might like to receive it too.

Nancy and I got to talking this week about a theme in most writing about corporate responsibility that drives me bonkers – it’s about how much consumers care about the responsible behavior of companies they interact with.

So, for example, Cone Communications’ most recent Corporate Social Responsibility report claims thatnine-in-10 consumers [sic] expect companies to do more than make a profit, but also operate responsibly to address social and environmental issues…[and] Eighty-four percent of consumers globally say they seek out responsible products whenever possible.”

Yeah, uh huh, that’s exactly how people decide what to buy and not to buy.

Can we please, please put these sorts of nonsense statements behind us? Consumers say one set of things. They do another set of things. What they say and do are not mutually exclusive. But the amount of overlap, when the question being asked reflects directly on how morally a customer behaves, had better be taken with a heap of salt.

Statements like this one – which are everywhere – paint a picture of a much more engaged and active consumer than the one who’s really out there. Most consumers don’t dig deep. Most consumers aren’t willing to go out of their way. Most consumers don’t actually switch nearly as much as you’d expect. Most consumers don’t want to bother with all of this. And most consumers certainly don’t make “ethical” purchases most of the time.

Stating that they do suggests that we’re much further along than we actually are in building an economy in which the true costs of what we consume is taken in to account.  We are at the very beginning.

Think about the question that leads to this “data” about 84% of consumers seeking out responsible products “whenever possible.”  It is something like:

How often do you seek out responsible products when shopping?

  1. Never
  2. Occasionally
  3. Sometimes
  4. Often
  5. Whenever Possible

To me, this question essentially equivalent to:

Are you a total jerk?

  1. Whenever Possible
  2. Often
  3. Sometimes
  4. Occasionally
  5. Never

OK, end of rant.

4 thoughts on “The Myth of the Responsible Consumer

  1. Amen! It’s nice to see someone articulate the fact that if ‘consumers’ were the socially/economically/environmentally responsible and concerned individuals some would have us believe, most of the clothes we wear wouldn’t come from countries where living conditions of the workers who made those clothes would turn our stomachs if we really, really gave a damn; we wouldn’t burn horrendous amounts of fossil fuel idling in drive-thru lines that would be better named “sit-and-destroy-the-environment-lines”; the news would not be regularly filled with reports of how fat we are (and getting fatter). The basic truth about consumers is we want what we want, the way we want it, when we want it, and as cheap as we can get it. As for me, am I a total jerk? I guess I would fall somewhere between #2 and #3. End of rant.

  2. Hilarious! After having I worked in advertising for more than 30 years, I am still amazed at what consumers SAY they do, versus what they REALLY do

  3. I take your comments seriously; however, I am (personally, albeit not totally) more apt to buy a product sporting a “Feeding America” sticker, or some such moniker. The American consumer is an extremely powerful (if not completely untapped) potential agent of change, no debate there. But another cultural component is the time and complexity involved in defining exactly what responsible buying is. (Trying to find such info on the internet is both confusing and time consuming, in addition to raising children, holding down a job, and maintaining some semblance of marital relationship, that is…) What can be done to make these choices easier for the consumer– akin to a social “link” button? Thanks for the good “rant”.

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