Ecotrend Blog



The Paradox of Ethical Mentality and Consumer Behavior

Febuary 13, 2023

We all know that ethical consumption is becoming more mainstream across North American society. But does the preference always match the behaviour?

Research says otherwise.

Various factors can influence whether an individual decides to partake in ethical consumption, and how they can do such varies too. For example, one can bring eco-friendly cloth bags to the market yet drive a turbo-engine car.

According to research, a curious effect known as moral licensing occurs when one intentionally and consciously participates in an act of ethical consumption, which gives them leeway to behave in a way that's not always ethically or environmentally driven. For this article, ethical, eco-friendly, and environmental purchasing will be used interchangeably. To give an example, experiments performed with people who grocery shopped with cloth bags found that the people who intentionally brought a cloth bag to the store tended to fill their bags with organic or eco-friendly products. However, they were equally as likely to fill the other half of their bags with unhealthy treats like ice cream and cookies. Those that did not intentionally bring a cloth bag to the shop did not show this tendency.

Statistics show that this paradox stands still; in a 2019
HBR survey, 65% of participants indicated the desire to buy from purpose-driven brands, but only 26% followed through on their inclinations.

So, how can we get people more aligned on their values through behaviours?

Does Eco-Friendly and Ethical Purchasing Make a Real Difference?

In psychology, there's a term called diffusion of responsibility, indicating the tendency to take less action when there are more people around. This can be applied to the way we exercise our environmental habits. Suppose we perceive that because there are 1 million people in the city, and there are enough people who will take on the responsibility of recycling, upcycling, biking etc. In that case, we can get away with doing less eco-friendly activities without harm.

The fact is, almost 70% of GHG footprint depends on which products are used and which are disposed of sustainably.

As such, several studies and experiments have been conducted to determine which factors will make individuals take more environmentally and ethically responsible protocols.

The Ethical Rose Study

Flowers make their way into many households and offices on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis. Moreover, roses are divided into ethical, organic, and conventional roses. Researchers Daniel Berki-Kiss and Klaus Menrad wanted to determine what factors influenced consumers to buy ethical roses instead of conventional ones. They proposed a variety of factors stemming from the Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB). This popular social psychology framework postulates that final behaviour results from behavioural intention. What causes these intentions are

  • Attitude toward behaviour
  • Subjective norm
  • Behavioural control

Individual beliefs form attitudes regarding the outcome of performing a specific action. For example, by recycling, I am contributing to less waste in landfills, reducing my emissions impact. Many previous studies have confirmed the significant influence of
attitude on purchase intent of green and ethical products.

Subjective Norm is the likelihood that a peer group agrees with our specific behaviour, which is seen to positively influence one's behaviour. For example, if my immediate peer group believes recycling is good for the environment, I am more likely to recycle.

Behavioural control is the individual's capability to perform a behaviour.

Other variables included in the study were consumer knowledge, emotions (pride/guilt), and green consumption values.

The study's results displayed significant positive effects (p<0.001) on all variables except subjective norm and behavioural control.

The most decisive influence of purchase intent is attributed to green consumption values. Dr. Haws developed the green consumption value scale to provide a reliable measure of consumer preference for environmental protection through their consumption behaviour.

This study determined that the stronger the values were, the more likely consumers expressed their influence through consumption behaviours. Out of all variables, the green consumption value played a vital role in distinguishing consumers who made environmental purchases from those who did not.

In terms of consumer knowledge, greater knowledge has a positive relationship with ethical consumption or purchasing behaviour. In the discussion, the researcher states that the more information the consumer has, the more receptive they are to consuming more information about environmental conservation and ethics, which contributes to growing values in these areas.

Emotions also influence a consumer's inclination to purchase fairtrade roses—specifically, emotions of pride for choosing ethical roses and guilt when they choose the conventional option.

Demographics and Challenges

According to a Deloitte report, Gen Zs are the least engaged in environmental issues, in contrast to younger Millennials, who are most engaged. However, Gen Zs care about supporting ethical brands the most.

Older Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers are similarly engaged with sustainability issues, with the least engagement coming from Pre-Boomers. Reducing single-use plastics and adopting renewables is more prevalent among older consumers.

Common barriers to sustainable behaviour include:

  • Inconvenience
  • Lack of interest/Apathy
  • Costs
  • Lack of education about issue


The trick to bypassing adverse behaviour and forming better habits relies on how easy it is to accomplish that action. If we're positioned close to a garbage can, and the recycling bin is 5-10m away, we're more likely to use the garbage can, even when the item at hand can be recycled. One thing that can be extremely helpful in habit formation is
cues. Cues prompt us to take a desired action, such as recycling signs, text reminders, or feedback.

An effective way to implement sustainable change is by making systematic changes. A good example is the reduction of school garbage bins and replacement with compost bins and a variety of recycling bins. Or coffee shops and fast-food chains only serving paper straws instead of plastic.

In the study of default pro-environmental behaviour, German researchers found that when green electricity was set as the default option in residential buildings, 94% of people stuck with it.

The bottom line is if you want people to do something, make it super easy for them to do so. Better yet, make it the only option.

Lack of interest/ Apathy

It's indeed difficult to change someone's inherent interests in a subject or area unless it personally affects them.

Fortunately, there are methods one can implement to pique interest. One such is the power of social influence. Numerous studies have found the positive effect of being told our neighbours are performing an action on the individual's behaviour.

For example, in one study, telling online shoppers that other people were buying eco-friendly products led to a 65% increase in making at least one sustainable purchase. Similarly, in another study done with university students, sustainable transport increased by 5 times after students were told that their peers were choosing sustainable methods over driving.


The higher costs of sustainably made products, for example, clothing, is a major barrier to altering behaviour. According to data from Deloitte, the level of affluence contributes to whether an individual purchases sustainable goods. Consumers who make more than $62,900 yearly are more likely to engage in sustainable shopping. Despite rising living costs, there are several creative ways to engage in sustainable activities, such as recycling/upcycling, second-hand shopping, and growing produce at home.

recent survey of 24,000 European consumers revealed that 70% have the intent, or desire to buy more sustainable goods and services, but have a challenging time doing so because of the rising cost of living. Over half of them reported they would not buy from a company they know is responsible for harming the environment. Results like this show how pivotal it is for companies to maintain transparent ESG (Environmental Social Governance) policies to earn customer loyalty.

Lack of education

Education around climate change or sustainable practices aren't always evident unless one does their own research. Even informative campaigns sometimes aren't sufficient to move the needle forward. One way that researchers have found effective in promoting sustainable behaviour is through public display. When people are forced to display their habits in public, they're more likely to behave in a way that benefits the
social good. Conversely, in private, they're more likely to demonstrate behaviours that benefit the self. For example, when hotel guests had to put up a sign on their door that said they were reusing the towels for environmental purposes, the rate at which people reused towels shot up by 20%. Similar accounts are found across experiments where people wore pins affiliated with eco-friendly actions or bumper stickers supporting environmental causes.

Friendly competition can also be a great way to incentivize groups to behave sustainably and raise awareness around environmental or ethical issues.


Environmental sustainability and ethical consumption are hot topics in today's landscape. From a marketing perspective, companies need to know how to market to audiences effectively if they have environmental standards in place. Even with rising living costs, it's still feasible to help nudge consumers in the right direction. Researchers have done the groundwork for us; we need to start implementing these variables in the messaging to move toward a more sustainable future .