Understanding the ethical consumer: employing a frame of bounded rationality

Newholm, Terry (2000). Understanding the ethical consumer: employing a frame of bounded rationality. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000e2d7


This thesis is about ethical consumers. In some business circles ethical consumers are treated simply as one kind of consumer in a market society where a niche can be created to satisfy every preference. Conversely some advocates of more radical change propose consumer activism as part of a movement which will force ethical considerations into the decision-making of capitalist businesses and governments alike. Questions about ethics are central to consumer society.

Unlike most recent research into the 'green' or 'socially conscious' consumer that has been based on either extensive quantitative surveys or focus groups, the research presented here analyses consumer decisions in a social context. Sixteen case studies of ethical consumers in differing circumstances are developed in considerable detail. Starting from the theoretical observation that being an ethical consumer presents apparently daunting difficulties, especially with respect to decision making, the research uses bounded rationality theory to explain how these cases maintain their self-image as ethical. From these data I suggest thinking of ethical consumers as adopting coping strategies. Those contributing to the study were seen to be 'distancing' themselves from practices they consider unethical, 'integrating' their lives around addressing the issues current in ethical consumer discourse and/or 'rationalising' their ethical consumption against their acceptance of consumer capitalism. Each strategy can be shown to reduce the scope and/or difficulty of decision making.

Finally, consideration is given to the nature of ethical consumption as a political project. Individual consumers respond in diverse ways to a social discourse on any given ethical issue even where strong and clear consumption advice is given. I argue that ethical consumerism is limited by the capacity of individuals to give attention to more than a few actions. Its political significance is nevertheless enhanced by the unpredictability of consumer response.

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