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Are your purchasing habits truly moral? Researchers reveal the truth behind consumer morality

Do you consider yourself moral? Most people do, but how often are your morals reflected in the products or services you buy? Often? Sometimes? Rarely? It is a complicated question for most people, it’s one that researchers have been grappling with for some time — with mixed results.

Assistant Professor Aviva Philipp-Muller and her co-authors provide some clarity in their research paper, Do consumers care about morality? A review and framework for understanding morality’s marketplace influence, published in the Consumer Psychology Review. They explain that the two traditional frameworks for examining consumer morality have significant shortcomings and introduce a third framework which achieves more consistent results.

The first traditional framework, product-level morality, characterizes certain products as inherently moral, inherently immoral, or unrelated to morality.

The second traditional framework, individual-level morality, characterizes consumers as those that care about morality and those that do not. Under this model, people who are broadly moral are more likely to buy Fairtrade coffee and greenwashed products.

The problem with these frameworks is that they deliver unreliable results due to their underlying assumptions. They assume that (1) a product’s moral or immoral features are objective and universally recognized, and (2) that consumers who moralize some purchases will moralize all purchases. This is not the case. Nobody moralizes every purchase, and a product’s moral qualities are 100% subjective.

To address these shortcomings, Philipp-Muller and her co-authors introduce a third framework, attitude-level morality, which considers individual attitudes toward products. This approach accounts for the fact that consumers may moralize their attitudes towards certain products and completely disregard the moral impact of others.

Consumers are more likely to take a moral position if the product’s features are related to their values, identity, or emotions, particularly if they’re negatively valanced. This new approach can help predict when consumers are more likely to care about marketplace morality and can help companies understand how to leverage psychology to increase positive attitudes toward their products.

Philipp-Muller found that consumers are more likely to moralize their attitudes towards products or brands if they see them as related to their values, identity, or emotions, especially if they’re negatively valenced – meaning that negative attitudes are more likely to be moralized than positive ones, and a company’s unethical behaviour will have a stronger influence on the consumer than its ethical behaviour.

Philipp-Muller notes that this new approach is a significant step forward in understanding inconsistent consumer behaviour. “This attitude-level framework helps reframe the issue, so people aren’t left scratching their heads and wondering why their ethical products aren’t flying off the shelves.”