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Feeling Good by Doing Good: A Selfish Motivation for Ethical Choice

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This paper examines the question of why consumers engage in ethical consumption. The authors draw on self-affirmation theory to propose that the choice of an ethical product serves a self-restorative function. Four experiments provide support for this assertion: a self-threat increases consumers’ choice of an ethical option, even when the alternative choice is objectively superior in quantity (Study 1) and product quality (Study 2). Further, restoring self-esteem through positive feedback eliminates this increase in ethical choice (Studies 2 and 3). As an additional test of the robustness of our results, a final study examined the effect of self-threat on choice in a field setting (Study 4). The findings indicate that ethical purchases are not just altruistic. They hold purposeful individual value and can help in the self-restorative process. Implications for managers making decisions regarding investment in ethical product features are discussed.
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Vol.:(0123456789)
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Journal of Business Ethics (2020) 166:39–49
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04121-y
ORIGINAL PAPER
Feeling Good byDoing Good: ASelsh Motivation forEthical Choice
RemiTrudel1· JillKlein2,3· SankarSen4,5· NirajDawar6
Received: 30 September 2018 / Accepted: 27 January 2019 / Published online: 23 February 2019
© Springer Nature B.V. 2019
Abstract
This paper examines the question of why consumers engage in ethical consumption. The authors draw on self-affirmation
theory to propose that the choice of an ethical product serves a self-restorative function. Four experiments provide support
for this assertion: a self-threat increases consumers’ choice of an ethical option, even when the alternative choice is objec-
tively superior in quantity (Study 1) and product quality (Study 2). Further, restoring self-esteem through positive feedback
eliminates this increase in ethical choice (Studies 2 and 3). As an additional test of the robustness of our results, a final study
examined the effect of self-threat on choice in a field setting (Study 4). The findings indicate that ethical purchases are not
just altruistic. They hold purposeful individual value and can help in the self-restorative process. Implications for managers
making decisions regarding investment in ethical product features are discussed.
Keywords Ethical consumption· Sustainability· Self-affirmation· Self-restoration· Moral choice
Introduction
The emergence of “ethical” criteria in consumers’ purchase
motivations has led to interest in whether consumers are
willing to buy, and even pay more for, products that are
labeled Fairtrade (FT), environmentally friendly, or that
otherwise claim a benefit for the community or for human-
ity. Research finds that ethical consumption—defined by
Cooper-Martin and Holbrook (1993, p. 113) as “decision-
making, purchases and other consumption experiences that
are affected by the consumer’s ethical concerns”—plays a
role in consumer choices. Consumers like and choose prod-
ucts that they perceive as socially responsible, and consumer
loyalty and even positive judgments of product features can
flow from perceptions of social responsibility (see Sen etal.
2016 for a recent review).
Marketplace surveys show that many consumers profess
to take corporate social responsibility (CSR) into account
when choosing products. For example, a recent Cone Com-
munication (2017) survey found that 87% of Americans said
they would buy a product that supports a social and/or envi-
ronmental issue they care about, whereas 76% said that they
would stop buying products from firms whose ethical stances
they do not agree with. There are concerns, however, that
survey results may overstate consumer intentions and fail
to predict actual choice behavior. This “ethical purchasing
gap” (Bray etal. 2011) could be due, among other factors,
* Remi Trudel
rtrudel@bu.edu
Jill Klein
jillkleinmbs@gmail.com
Sankar Sen
Sankar.Sen@baruch.cuny.edu
Niraj Dawar
ndawar@ivey.uwo.ca
1 Questrom School ofBusiness, Boston University, 595
Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA02215, USA
2 Melbourne Business School, 200 Leicester St., Carlton,
VIC3053, Australia
3 Melbourne Medical School, University ofMelbourne,
Parkville, VIC, Australia
4 Zicklin School ofBusiness, Baruch College CUNY, One
Bernard Baruch Way, Box B12-240, NewYork, NY10010,
USA
5 Sasin Graduate Institute ofBusiness Administration
ofChulalongkorn University, Sasa Patasala Building,
Phayathai Road, Bangkok10330, Thailand
6 Richard Ivey School ofBusiness, University ofWestern
Ontario, 1151 Richmond Street, London, ONN6A3K7,
Canada
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