Ethical Shopper

Ethical Shopper

As part of her MBA Research Project at the University of Auckland, the founder of Ethiclee, Shama Lee, focused her thesis on Ethical Consumerism, and specifically on the barriers and drivers in this space, and how technology aids can help alleviate the barriers as well as enhance the drivers. Her research yielded recommendations for an effective online e-commerce strategy in the ethical consumerism space. A brief excerpt from her thesis as follows:

Ethical Consumerism

There has been an unprecedented rise in ethical consumer activity around the world for over the last twenty years (Newholm & Shaw, 2007; Harrison, 2005). In reviewing research in this area, Newholm and Shaw (2007) found commentators to have referenced increased media communication (Roberts, 1996), heightened awareness (Strong, 1996) and improved options for alternative ethical products (Strong, 1996) as possible reasons for this advancing trend. Amongst other causes proposed in the literature is the empowerment of consumers in the information age (Seybold, Lewis, & Marshak, 2001; Kotler, Jain, & Maesincee, 2002; Berry & McEachern, 2005) and a shift in values (Strong, 1996).

Newholm and Shaw (2007) also found studies to be interested in the evolution of consumption itself. In affluent societies, emancipated from basic necessities, consumers had become  conscientious (Dickinson & Carsky, 2005). Congruent with this analysis,  Brooker (1976), deriving from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, found that higher-order self-actualising individuals were more likely to be socially conscious consumers and concluded that “the more psychologically healthy the person is, the more likely it will be that the person will take action which recognises the needs of others in the society” (p. 110).

Whatever the reason may be for this rise in ethical consumption, ethical consumer decision making behaviour itself has been found to be a consistently complicated affair characterised by an expansive variety of ethical considerations and reactions (Carrington, Black, & Newholm, 2012; Young, Hwang, McDonald, & Oates, 2010; Devinney, Auger, & Eckhardt, 2010; Barnett, Cloke, Clarke, & Malpass, 2005; Cherrier, 2005). Existing models based on predominantly self-interested motives of the ‘traditional’ consumer fail to adequately apply to ethical consumers (Ozcaglar-Toulouse, Shiu, & Shaw, 2006; Shaw, Shiu, & Clarke, 2000; Shaw & Clarke, 1999; Sparks, Shepherd, & Frewer, 1995). Extensions to existing models with moral concerns of ethical obligation and self-identity yielded an improvement in the predictive ability, however there still remains much that is unexplained (Shaw, Shiu, Hassan, Bekin, & Hogg, 2007; Shaw, 2005). Several barriers faced by ethical consumers have been identified, which relate mostly to information access (Berry & McEachern, 2005; Irving, Harrison, & Rayner, 2002; Shaw & Clarke, 1999; Roberts, 1996), information trust (Shaw & Clarke, 1999; Pearce, 1999), and information overload (Shaw & Clarke, 1999).

Given that the internet is claimed to have generally improved traditional consumer decision making processes (Dabholkar & Sheng, 2012; Taylor & Strutton, 2010), it would be interesting to investigate the role it can play in alleviating the inherent complexity and barriers of ethical consumption. Due to the scarcity of literature in the area of ethical online consumers, we first explore online consumer decision making behaviour and extend this out to ethical consumers.

Interestingly, the dominant ethical consumer behaviour model and online consumer behaviour model both belong to the same family of theories descending from the Theory of Reasoned Action/Theory of Planned Behaviour (Papaoikonomou, Ryan, & Valverde, 2011; Taylor & Strutton, 2010; Cheung, Zhu, Kwong, Chan, & Limayem, 2003). Adding to this synergy,  it is claimed that the internet may lead to the development and expansion of overall ethical intent, first by its informational function in the formation of belief and identity; and secondly by providing ethical consumers with a platform for coordinated action, the effects of which get amplified via social pressure (Chatzidakis & Mitussis, 2007).  That is, through self-identity and ethical obligation respectively, which are key drivers of ethical behaviour.

We discuss these pertinent behavioural factors of ethical obligation and self-identity in the context of online activism tools and the social web respectively. We also deliberate on the information-related barriers and explore the role of online decision aids such as cybermediaries in combatting the issue of trust (Pavlou & Gefen, 2004; Palmer, Bailey, & Faraj, 2000; Sarkar, Butler, & Steinfield, 1998; Sarkar, Butler, & Steinfield, 1995), and personalisation in combatting complexity and information fatigue (Brusilovsky, Kobsa, & Nejdl, 2007; Hella & Krogstie, 2011; Dabholkar & Sheng, 2012; Castellano, Jain, & Fanelli, 2009). We conclude this section with a real-life example of an online shopping site tailored for ethical consumers which incorporates these features (J. Wang, 2012).

We begin with defining the ethical consumer, and then present a literature review of ethical consumer behaviour followed by online consumer behaviour. Next we bridge the two themes into the ethical online consumer behaviour where we explore the role of online decision aids in ethical consumption. We then present our critique of the literature and provide suggestions for future areas of research that could be explored to further contribute to the field of ethical consumerism.

Defining the Ethical Consumer

In describing the ethical consumer, motivation seems to be a key element in the definitions of scholars. Harrison, Newholm, and Shaw (2005) describe ethical consumers as those that are “concerned with the effects that a purchasing choice has, not only on themselves, but also on the external world around them” (p. 2), and go on to provide the buying of organic food as an example where those that purchase it because of health reasons are not defined as ethical consumers rather those that are primarily driven by their concern for pesticide use on the environment are properly termed ethical consumers.

This distinction highlights the activism aspect inherent in ethical consumerism. Shaw, Newholm, & Dickinson (2006) see ethical consumption as a “human response to perceived injustice” (p. 1063), and a form of individual empowerment where ethical consumers are those that are willing to use their buying power. Likewise, Barnett, et al. (2005) characterise ethical consumption as referring to “a set of debates and strategies in which consumption is not so much the object of moral evaluation, but more a medium for moral and political action” (p. 21). By the same token, Lang and Gabriel (2005) see ethical consumption as the road to “translating consumerism into citizenship” (p. 53), where ethical consumers “act as the moral conscience of the existing system with a set of principles that is above price or minor product amelioration and diversification” (p. 52). In the same fashion, Kozinets and Handelman (1998) see it as a form of consumer resistance allowing “moral self-expression” (p. 479). Along similar lines, Strong (1996) states that “the increasingly well informed consumer is not only demanding fairly-traded products, but is challenging manufacturers and retailers to guarantee the ethical claims they are making” (p. 7).

The moral concerns of the ethical consumer is diverse. Shaw & Clarke (1999) describe the “gradual emergence in the 1990s of a highly principled group of ‘ethical’ consumers who, in addition to being concerned about general environmental issues, are distinguished by their concern for deep-seated problems, such as those of the Third World” (p. 109). Similarly, Mintel (as cited in Shaw, Grehan, Shiu, Hassan, & Thomson, 2005) characterised the ethical consumer as “those consumers who considered environmental issues, animal issues and ethical issues, including oppressive regimes and armaments when shopping” (p. 185).

Adding to this diversity of ethical concerns is the highly subjective nature of ethical consumption. Cherrier (2005) found ethical consumers to be searching for meaning in life. She argued that those disillusioned with mainstream culture found a sense of control by having more autonomy over their consumption choice, as well as a sense of self. As such, Cherrier (2005) found ethical consumption to be a highly contextual expression of the “inner authentic self” (p. 134).

These varying motivations yield different types of ethical purchasing behaviour, and understanding these behaviours will help shed further light on the underpinnings of an ethical consumer.

Types of Ethical Purchasing

Harrison et al. (2005) acknowledge that behaviours of ethical consumers are quite a “complex and wide-ranging group of phenomena” (p. 2), and attempted to break them down into different types depending on the consumer influence exerted on the product or seller, and how the consumer relates to them. Table 1 below shows their approach to the five main types of ethical purchasing:

  1. Moral Boycotts
  2. Positive Buying
  3. Fully Screened
  4. Relationship Purchasing
  5. Sustainable Consumption

To better understand these purchasing behaviors, we now briefly delve into philosophy to explore a few approaches in moral philosophy. 

Philosophy and Ethical Consumption

It is not living that matters, but living rightly. ~ Socrates

The two dominant propositions in ethics of moral philosophy are deontology, which concentrates on  concepts of obligation; and consequentialism, which centres on notions of good outcomes (Barnett, Cafaro, et al., 2005). Barnett, Cafaro, et al. (2005) argue that both these approaches are too demanding for everyday consumption, with consequentialism requiring an individual to possess the capacity to evaluate all possible alternative actions, and deontology requiring the consumer to strictly adhere to universal rules. Hence Barnett, Cafaro, et al. (2005) claim that such austere philosophical stances are impractical and too abstract for the reality of ethical consumption as “empirical evidence suggests that a sense of moral integrity is more fundamental to the well-being of ethical consumers than either a concern for consequences or rules (though both of these are evident)” (p. 24). They go on to propose virtue ethics as an alternative approach since it entails a dimension of subjective partiality when evaluating competing claims, which they assert is a necessary introspection unavoidable in ethical consumption. 


The common thread amongst these definitions, motivations and behaviours is that an ethical consumer, unlike a ‘traditional’ consumer is not purely motivated by self-interest or value-for-money, rather considers the impact of their purchasing decision in the context of the greater world around them, and may use it as a vote. The focus of this literature review will be specifically on this group of dedicated ethical consumers, as opposed to the wider range of consumers who may sometimes respond ethically to issues but don’t hold it as an everyday value.


Excerpt from MBA Thesis

Shama Lee

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