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Do Consumers Really Care About Business Ethics? No Matter What They Say About Ethical Behavior of Companies, Price Is the Most Important Factor for Consumers, New Trade Extensions Study Finds

Eighty percent of consumers believe it is important for companies and brands to behave ethically—but the most significant factors when shopping are price, value and quality, according to new research from online sourcing and optimization specialists Trade Extensions on UK and U.S. consumers’ attitudes towards ethics and sustainability and how they affect purchasing decisions. The study suggests consumers display a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude towards ethics and sustainability in that they recognize its importance but are ultimately swayed by price.

The ethical behavior of companies and brands is relevant to consumers and, when asked in isolation, four out of five consumers regard it as important—but it becomes less so when ranked alongside other factors. When asked to rank the three most important attributes when shopping, the most important factor is price—40% of consumers ranked this number one. The second most important factor is value for money—30% ranked this number one. And the third most important factor is quality—16% ranked this number one.

Convenience is more important for shoppers than ethics with “easy to find/ shop/ delivered” appearing in the top three rankings of 17% of consumers compared with ethics appearing in the top three of 12% of consumers. Choosing an ethical company or brand when shopping is the most important factor and ranked number one for 2% of UK and U.S. consumers.

Despite consumers’ relatively low ranking of ethical and sustainability concerns, over 70% say they are more likely or much more likely to buy from companies with strong and proven policies on sustainability and ethics. UK and U.S. consumers also say they are willing to pay a premium for sustainably sourced and ethically produced goods and over 60% will pay up to 10% more. Not all consumers are willing to pay more for ethically produced goods and of the 10% of UK consumers who say they will not pay any extra, 73% are men.

The opinions of U.S. and UK consumers are broadly similar, although there are some notable differences. For example, nearly twice as many U.S. consumers, 14% against 8% in the UK, say they will never buy a product or service from a company with a poor record on ethics or sustainability. Also, UK men are 40% more likely “not to care about ethics and sustainability” than U.S. men. And of the 5% of UK consumers who “do not care” about ethics and sustainability, 81% were men.

Consumer opinions also reflect a degree of skepticism regarding companies’ communication of ethical and sustainability policies, with only 2% of UK consumers “always” believing what companies tell them on these topics and approximately one third feeling “a lot of companies just say stuff like this to impress but they don’t actually do anything.”

“It’s critical to understand the differences between what people think—their attitudes—and what they actually do—their behavior,” said Dr. Liz Nelson, OBE, behavior change and research expert, in a news release. “The fact they say they care about ethics and sustainability is important and it might make a difference given two otherwise equal choices. But this research shows that only a small number will actively go out of their way to act on those feelings. So the challenge for those trying to change behavior towards ethical purchasing is to find what can prompt a behavior change. To do this, businesses have to understand the emotional components of behavior, and that demands they develop a greater understanding of their consumers’ attitudes.”

“The research shows a desire from consumers to buy ethically but ultimately price, value and quality are the deciding factors,” said Trade Extensions CEO Garry Mansell, in the release. “These areas can now be addressed together and the beauty of our platform is that when companies collect ethical and sustainability data from their suppliers it can be included in their final decision making just as they would consider price, quality and any other criteria.”

The research was conducted by Fly Research during May 2014 and the aim was to gauge respondents’ awareness and views of sustainability and ethics issues. The survey was completed by a nationally representative sample of 1,010 UK consumers and 1,000 U.S. consumers.

Edited by Richard Carufel

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