Good Deal vs. Good Cause: Meaningful Holiday Shopping

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Many consumers sacrificed their Thanksgiving dinners this year to grab that ultimate pre-Black Friday deal that they can spend the rest of the season bragging about. But according to Saint Joseph’s University sociologist Keith Brown, Ph.D., more and more shoppers are seeking something greater than saving a buck.

Brown has been studying what he calls an ethical turn in markets that has consumers looking to make purchases that make an impact, or can even change the world.

“I think the spirit of the holidays encourages shoppers to think more critically about a lot of their gifts,” he says. “Many are turning to socially responsible products that are produced in sustainable ways or that have economic, social and environmental benefits for producers. In this respect, it’s a double-gift.”

Retailers are latching on to the rise in “do-gooder consumers,” says Brown, and are shifting the way they market to appeal to this population.

“Retailers are doing things like creating more conspicuous labels that allow consumers to show off their status as socially conscious,” he says.

But Brown cautions that many companies are trying to capitalize on this ethical turn and are selling products that are not as socially responsible as they initially appear. 

“It is important for consumers to remember that advertisers’ claims of sustainability do not always align with their actual practices,” he says. “Third party certifications such as fair trade, organic and rainforest alliance provide some baseline assurances that companies are meeting their claims.”

But what about consumers who want to be more socially responsible, but find it less than realistic? Brown acknowledges that cost, aesthetics and quality often complicate decisions.

“Even responsible shoppers often buy products that do not align with their values,” he admits.  “Some consumers willfully ignore where many of their products are coming from. Others rationalize by, say, shopping at Target as opposed to Walmart, when really there’s not a vast difference in things like benefits and pay of entry level workers, for instance.”

Brown’s book Buying Into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality and Consumption is due out in March.

He can be reached for comment by contacting the Office of University Communications at 610-660-1222.



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