Ethical purchases (buying organic food, for example) are not always seen as moral purchases, especially if the buyers are on government assistance. How dare they pay for expensive organic food, for example, instead of the better-priced non-organic food? After all, it’s not their money. New research reveals that society views being frugal as more moral than trying to save the world.
That low-income purchasers face challenges in the marketplace is no surprise, given that they have less money to spend than other groups. However, low-income buyers face an additional, unexpected challenge: based on their financial circumstances, low-income buyers are judged much more harshly by others for making identical purchases. This is most evident with purchases that involve ‘ethical’ choices — choosing products that do not harm or exploit humans, animals or the environment.
The problem is that what marketers call ‘prosocial’ products, such as organic food or hybrid cars, are also more expensive products. New research shows that this price difference colours how others view low-income purchasers of such products — specifically whether they were perceived as more or less moral.
The research revealed the following:
The research was based on a series of five experiments in which participants read different scenarios incorporating the different factors described above (and involving either organic food or hybrid cars). The participants then gave the individuals in the scenarios moral scores based on a morality index (cruel/kindhearted, immoral/moral, uncaring/caring and unethical/ethical). The purpose of the experiments was disguised with the inclusion of a variety of unrelated filler items (e.g., practical/idealistic).
The implications of this research are for the most part related to the public policy and non-profit arenas. Policy makers and non-profit leaders may not be aware that the less fortunate in our society are judged differently from others, even when ethical products are involved.
Companies might pay particular attention to the way in which organizations can be harshly judged based on the ‘deservedness’ of the individuals they serve. In the eyes of many, charities should not give away expensive organic food to the homeless, for example.
Thus, companies engaged in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives should remain equally aware of how an apparently altruistic program might unwittingly harm rather than enhance their moral reputations. The goods and services that the recipients of your charity receive should match their ‘deservedness.’ In some ways, it is an unfortunate comment on societal attitudes that deservedness would play a role in how CSR initiatives are perceived and received by the community. Yet, such moral judgements exist, and cannot be ignored.
Wealth and Welfare: Divergent Moral Reactions to Ethical Consumer Choices. Jenny G. Olson, Brent McFerran, Andrew C. Morales, Darren W. Dahl. Journal of Consumer Research (January 14, 2016).
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