Ethical Consumption

Sustainable coffee initiatives all depend upon and revolve around ethical consumption. Ethical consumption is the act of consuming goods based on feelings of responsibility toward society. There are a number of different aspects to ethical consumption that benefit society in different ways. For example, there are aspects that benefit the environment (e.g., organic initiatives), while other aspects benefit people (e.g., fair trade initiatives).(The Oxford Handbook of Consumption, 2019) These benefits may have an impact close to the consumer geographically or the benefits may be very far away (international) and that may also play into the consumer’s decision (e.g., the locavore movement).

(I have an audio version of this article that includes updated information, or you can just read on)

There are two ways ethical consumption has an impact; directly via purchases of ethical products or indirectly via boycotting or abstaining from purchasing non-ethical products. Direct methods are more easily measured and studied (and likely more effective). Through these studies, we’re finding that consumers’ purchasing behavior is not in line with their ideology of ethics. We know this because market shares of products with ethical labeling are less than 1%.(MacGillivray, 2000)

See also: Coffee Sustainability

This dichotomy has been labeled the consumer attitude-behavior gap and what causes it is the focus of several on-going studies.

An article in The Journal of Consumer Affairs sums it up nicely (original authors’ references removed for clarity):(De Pelsmacker et al., 2005)

On the one hand, consumer perceptions and attitudes clearly influence behavior, as conceptualized and tested in several models of ethical consumption behavior.... On the other hand, it is well documented that attitudes alone are generally poor predictors of buyer behavior...especially in the social marketing area.... While some consumers refuse to buy products with an unethical background..., the majority of people evaluate product attributes jointly in making purchase decisions. Price, quality, convenience, and brand familiarity are often still the most important factors affecting the buying decision....

Therefore, in order for ethical consumption to be successful, retailers must meet more than one of the four decision factors mentioned above (price, quality, convenience, and brand familiarity), but there are several challenges, especially regarding price. It costs more to produce organic and/or fair trade coffee and in many cases, the cost can be prohibitive for producers, as discussed in a previous post titled Organic Coffee.

Ethical consumption is the act of consuming goods based on feelings of responsibility toward society but to truly affect change in regards to organic and/or fair trade a premium must be paid and coffee prices must increase (and if we’re honest, they must increase across the board, but that’s a topic for a later post). There also needs to be mechanisms in place to help ensure that extra price makes it all the way through the value chain to the producer, otherwise it’s a failed experiment from the beginning.

  1. The Oxford handbook of consumption. (2019). Oxford University Press.
  2. MacGillivray, A. (2000). The fair share: The growing market share of green and ethical products. London: New Economics Foundation.
  3. De Pelsmacker, P., Driesen, L., & Rayp, G. (2005). Do Consumers Care about Ethics? Willingness to Pay for Fair-Trade Coffee. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 39(2), 363–385.

This article is part of a series on voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). Below are all articles in the series:

Ethical Consumption
Fair Trade Coffee
Why Fair Trade Has Failed Coffee Producers
Ethical Trade
Organic Coffee

Michael C. Wright

Michael is a licensed Q Grader, licensed Q Processor Pro, an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST), and most recently, a graduate with a degree in horticulture and a concentration in horticultural business management. He has over ten years experience in the coffee industry operating on both the supply and demand sides of the value chain.