Millennials' evaluation of corporate social responsibility:
The wants and needs of the largest and most ethical
| Adrian de Kiewiet
Kent Business School, University of Kent,
Newcastle University, Newcastle upon
Elena Chatzopoulou, Kent Business School,
University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, UK.
Millennials are the most ethical generation, yet their evaluations of ethical practice
remain unexplored in academic literature. Recently, the field of corporate social
responsibility is moving closer to the forefront of corporate concerns as it climbs the
hierarchy of consumer needs. Millennials are more aware of company activity than
any other generation and so this presents a crucial opportunity for marketers to
explore the gap between consumer attitudes and consumer purchasing behaviour by
improving their understanding of this unique generation. This study explores how
millennials evaluate corporate social responsibility (CSR), how authenticity percep-
tions are structured within CSR and what factors are most important to their ethical
behaviour. In order to capture these antecedents with adequate depth, 15 qualitative
interviews were conducted and analysed iteratively and rigorously using thematic
analysis. According to the findings, millennials evaluate company activity through a
lens of idealism. They have a natural scepticism for corporate ethics which drives
them to look for cues that company actions are authentic and originate from unself-
ish motives. Activities associated with philanthropy are not trusted by millennials as
they believe that companies should be responsible for their own domains of activity.
This study is significant in providing managers with an in-depth understanding of a
powerful generation and its contemporary mentality.
Millennials, born between 1979 and 1994 (Smola & Sutton, 2002),
are perceived to be the largest and most diverse generation (Amer-
ican Marketing Association [AMA], 2017). Millennials are becom-
ing an important demographic for researchers to consider,
especially as the generation grows and begins to constitute a larger
proportion of the workforce. Overasimilartimeline,corporate
social responsibility (CSR) has moved closer to the forefront of
contemporary literature as consumers become more aware and
socially conscious (Bhattacharya & Sen, 2004). The benefits of CSR
are being studied more and more, the results of which show that it
is a key antecedent in the creation of brand trust, loyalty, and
equity (Du, Bhattacharya, & Sen, 2007; Lacey & Kennett-Hensel,-
2010; Torres, Bijmolt, Tribó, & Verhoef, 2012). Within the wider-
ranging stakeholder perspective, Sen, Bhattacharya, and
Korschun (2006) argue that CSR stimulates a multitude of reac-
tions outside of purchase intention. A critical finding of Du,
Bhattacharya, and Sen (2010), for example, is that CSR is a power-
ful stimulant of word of mouth, making it an important consider-
ation in marketing communications. Equally, Nielsen's (2015)
global consumer survey also showed that 66% of consumers trust
Received: 27 March 2020 Revised: 14 September 2020 Accepted: 16 September 2020
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any
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© 2020 The Authors. Journal of Consumer Behaviour published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
J Consumer Behav. 2020;1–14. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/cb 1
other consumers' opinions. Consumers are arguably the most cred-
ible stakeholder group to take advantage of word of mouth
(Bhattacharya & Sen, 2004); it could be argued, therefore, that mil-
lennials are the most appropriate demographic to target with CSR
initiatives and campaigns.
Having grown up on the front line of the digital revolution, millennials
are more aware of business activity than any other generation (Stewart,
2016), but this alone does not warrant their relevance to the field of CSR.
Several studies have noted that millennials are the most ethical genera-
tion in the UK (and the US) (AMA, 2017; Deloitte, 2017; Mintel(a), 2015;
Mintel(b), 2015; Nielsen, 2015; Inkling Report, 2016). However, the
steady rise of CSR (Moore & Manring, 2009) is increasing consumer scep-
ticism about the motives behind ethical behaviour. Some researchers
believe that there needs to be a congruence between a company and its
campaign in order for consumers to perceive it as genuine. This relation-
ship is termed “CSR fit”in a study by Bhattacharya and Sen (2004), pro-
posing that companies bring attention to the relevance of CSR initiatives
to normal business activity should such a relationship exist. However,
initiatives, the concept of fit is not nearly as straightforward as it appears
(de Jong & van der Meer, 2017). CSR fit is closely related to authenticity
via consumers' desire to verify altruistic and honest motives for corporate
ethicality. Studies following this line of inquiry found authenticity to be a
powerful mediator of CSR's effect on consumer perceptions (e.g., Alhouti,
Johnson, & Holloway, 2016). As the industry for CSR grows in line with
the uptake of information technology, the competitiveness of campaigns
will be decided by managers' understanding of how consumers constitute
The aforementioned studies have firmly established millennials as
an ethical demographic, but the research is severely lacking in its
understanding of their specific wants and needs (AMA, 2017;
Deloitte, 2017; Mintel(a), 2015; Mintel(b), 2015; Nielsen, 2015;
Inkling Report, 2016). There has been very little research into how
millennials value the various dimensions of authentic CSR and which
factors are involved in their evaluation of ethical companies. This
study aims to reveal the barriers between the reported attitudes and
genuine ethical behaviour. A further objective of this study is to dis-
cover which ethical orientation millennials are most aligned with, and
additionally how they perceive ethicality. In doing so, the scope of the
research is to understand how millennials incorporate authenticity in
evaluations of CSR.
2.1 |Corporate social responsibility
Social responsibility has become a valued aspect of business strategy in
the past decade, often forming part of firms' competitive advantage (Choi,
Chang, Li, & Jang, 2016; Servaes & Tamayo, 2013; Mazutis &
Slawinski, 2015; Stoian & Gilman, 2017). Porter and Kramer (2006) were
among the first to propose that the long-term prioritisation of CSR can
bring about “mutually reinforcing”(p. 92) success between the firm and
its stakeholders. Stoian and Gilman (2017) have shown that, by leveraging
social capital and developing ethical credentials, British SMEs are able to
grow and enhance their competitive advantage.
Dahlsrud (2008) analysed the components of 37 previous defini-
tions of CSR (e.g., Wood, 1991) and their frequency of use in online
publications. The results (Table 1) showed the most frequently used
components and concluded that the most widely applicable definition
of CSR was “a concept whereby companies integrate social and envi-
ronmental concerns in their business operations and in their interac-
tion with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis”(Commission of the
European Communities, 2001).
This provides a concise base definition of CSR and its compo-
nents, though a limitation of the method is that the definitions are not
paired with any descriptions of their ideal performance or how the
dimensions should be balanced in decision-making (Dahlsrud, 2008).
CSR is fundamentally subjective, making it difficult to strategise with-
out intense profiling of customers (Crane, Matten, & Moon, 2004). In
a similar study, Matten and Moon (2004) emphasised the need to dis-
tinguish CSR definitions between US and European publications. They
explain that aspects of CSR in Europe are implicit in consumer life-
styles, whereas in the US, concepts like free healthcare would be con-
sidered a CSR activity. In a later study, Lee and Shin (2010) stipulated
that CSR activities may be perceived differently across borders. The
CSR discussed in this study is solely “explicit CSR”–only those activi-
ties which go beyond the basic offerings of firms.
2.2 |Social responsibility as a strategy
CSR's potential to impact business performance has been reinforced
since its conceptualisation in the early 1980s (Carroll, 1979;
Freeman, 1984; Wood, 1986; Wood, 1991; Etzioni, 1988). However,
its introduction as a construct of business strategy is relatively new.
Beckmann (2007) summarised two decades of literature on CSR and
its impact on the consumer decision-making process. Among others
before her (e.g., Auger, Burke, Devinney, & Louviere, 2003; Carrigan &
Attalla, 2001), Beckmann (2007) found that CSR effectiveness is often
impacted by a lack of awareness of company activity. Some studies
argue, therefore, that technology has a mediating effect on ethical
behaviour outside the domestic environment (King, 2016; Dumpawar,
Zeamer, Gupta, Abramek, & Casalegno, 2016; Capriotti, 2016). Since
TABLE 1 The dimension score and dimension ratio for each of
the five dimensions in CSR definitions (Dahlsrud, 2008)
The stakeholder dimension 1,213 88
The social dimension 1,213 88
The economic dimension 1,187 86
The voluntariness dimension 1,104 80
2CHATZOPOULOU AND de KIEWIET
modern audiences differ in their expectations of businesses, they will
respond differently to various CSR approaches (Bhattacharya &
Sen, 2004). These findings provide ample reason to explore the
unique evaluations of authentic CSR.
More recent studies find that the relationship between fit and
CSR success is not as linear as first thought (e.g., de Jong & van der
Meer, 2017). Clearly, focusing on the effects of low versus high fit is
not a representative exploration of the diversity of CSR fit. Alhouti
et al. (2016) relate fit more closely with the field of authenticity,
where the relationship is linked to the motives of the company, rather
than the company's industry. They find that authenticity mediates the
effects of CSR on consumer perceptions, depending on which cues of
authenticity consumers look for. It is no longer enough for companies
to consider the outcomes of their initiatives; instead, they need to
incorporate how and in what circumstances they implement CSR.
The influx of CSR in marketing communications has blurred the
lines between altruistic and profit-driven CSR. Consumers now place
more weight on authenticity in their evaluations of CSR (Skilton &
Purdy, 2017). The term authenticity derives from the ancient Greek
word “αυθεντικός,”which means something trustworthy and original,
not an imitation or imaginary (Cappannelli & Cappannelli, 2004). In
CSR, authenticity determines the degree to which consumers and
stakeholders accept the claims of an organisation (Peterson, 2005).
However, the role of authenticity is better represented by the con-
cept of “CSR fit”(Bhattacharya & Sen, 2004), which describes the
closeness of a CSR initiative to consumers' perception of the com-
pany. For instance, a company which sells exotic fruit, and has a CSR
campaign that benefits South American farmers, may be seen as hav-
ing good fit. The centrality of fit to effective CSR is well-known, but
further examination of its role in the evaluation of initiatives has been
inconsistent as some studies find that medium fit actually has better
outcomes than high fit (e.g., Kim & Park, 2011). This suggests that
consumers may have different perceptions of fit, and that there may
be other, largely unexplored factors moderating the impact of CSR fit
in CSR evaluations.
Having defined CSR and explained its theoretical relevance to this
study, the next section discusses the pertinent topic of authenticity.
This is followed by further review of the contemporary literature on
the millennial generation and its proclivity for ethical consumption.
2.3 |Authenticity in the consumption decision
Authenticity remains an asset to consumers, who desire authentic busi-
nesses, brands, places, and experiences (Kadirov, Varey, &
Wooliscroft, 2013; Lu, Gursoy, & Lu, 2015; Schallehn, Burmann, &
Riley, 2014). However, authenticity can be seen through the lens of dif-
ferent interest groups (by consumers, by the government, or by pro-
ducers) and therefore it is possible to have more than one –typically
positive –meaning (Cohen-Hattab & Kerber, 2004; Grayson &
Martinec, 2004). Authenticity is considered a prerequisite of consumer
behaviour, rather than a route to competitive advantage
(MacCannell, 1973). Many scholars attribute authenticity's value to its
involvement in evaluations of companies in different industries
(Cohen, 1988; MacCannell, 1973; Wang, 1999). Authenticity has been
addressed as an influencer of consumer behaviour in many disciplines,
though it is increasingly being considered as an aspect of value proposi-
tion (Napoli, Dickinson, Beverland, & Farrelly, 2014). As consumers fight
the “homogenising forces of globalisation”(Mazutis & Slawinski, 2015,
p. 139), there are emerging barriers to the influx of voluntary CSR, namely
consumers' scepticism about the motives of ethicality.
Grayson and Martinec (2004) distinguish between types of
authenticity based on codified concepts from Charles Peirce's philoso-
phy of signs (1998). They explain that consumers rely on “indexical”
and “iconic”cues from brands that trigger distinct types of authentic-
ity. Indexical cues are links from a brand or product that assure con-
sumers of originality, setting an object aside from its imitators. On the
other hand, iconic cues revolve around physical appearance, where an
object resembles something that is indexically authentic.
Nevertheless, authenticity considerations are not as straightforward
as they seem since consumers find cues in a variety of sources and inter-
pret them in different ways (Beverland & Farrelly, 2009). The modern
shift of emphasis onto authenticity is, in part, a consequence of increased
barriers to indexical authenticity created by advancements in information
technology (Beverland, Lindgreen, & Vink, 2008). The growth of this sim-
ulated authenticity in online environments is so impactful that some
firms will deliberately minimise advertising and, instead, promote authen-
ticity less explicitly (Beverland et al., 2008). Some organisations will go as
far as to openly critique the use of large advertising budgets to create
iconic status for themselves (Holt, 2004). As early as 2003, Brown,
Kozinets, and Sherry (2003) (p. 21) stated that authenticity had become
one of the “cornerstones of contemporary marketing.”
2.4 |Classifications of authenticity
A study by Beverland et al. (2008) analysed the types of authenticity
created by indexical and iconic cues, revealing that consumers evalu-
ated organisations through one of three types of authenticity: pure
(literal) authenticity, approximate authenticity, and moral authenticity.
These key concepts are important to the understanding of both why
an object is perceived as authentic and when consumers seek authen-
ticity in their purchasing decision. Pure authenticity relates to tradi-
tion, and the consistent commitment to a particular industry,
community, or issue. Approximate authenticity is formed through
symbolic impressions of tradition, conveyed through marketing com-
munications. Moral authenticity relies on sincerity, referring to being
truthful and that one should be true to oneself in order to be true to
others (Varga & Guignon, 2003). As a result, being true to oneself is
seen as a means to forming successful social relations, which rely on
respecting the social moral system (Varga, 2013). Bauer (2017) argues
that authenticity is an ethical ideal and a combination of the ideal of
expressing one's individual personality and the ideal of being an
autonomous and morally responsible person.
In the context of CSR, Mazutis and Slawinski (2015) identified
two key aspects of authenticity as principally important in stakeholder
CHATZOPOULOU AND de KIEWIET 3
evaluations of CSR: distinctiveness and social connectedness. Essen-
tially, stakeholders are more concerned with CSR's congruence with
the company's core mission, and the degree to which CSR had a wider
social impact. The study also noted that while these conditions were
necessary, they were insufficient for perceptions of authenticity to
occur; this paves the way for further exploration of authenticity and
its connection to CSR. Clearly, authenticity is a highly relevant factor
in the creation of effective CSR, but even as it becomes more com-
mon, there remains little exploration of authenticity on the consumer
side. It is important to understand how valuable authenticity is to con-
sumers, because the search for authenticity is often part of con-
sumers' self-identity, meaning that they will actively seek it in their
purchasing behaviour (Gergen, 1991; Goffman, 1978; Grayson &
Martinec, 2004; Tian & Belk, 2005; Cherrier, 2007; Kolar &
2.5 |Millennials as ethical consumers
Contemporary qualitative studies tend to address this generation
as employees rather than consumers; topics generally revolve
around ambitions, work-life balance, work ethic, and employee
qualities (e.g., Weber, 2017; Seago, 2016; Stewart, Oliver, Cra-
vens, & Oishi, 2016; Payton, 2015). Within the context of the
workplace, millennials have shown that they do not tolerate
unethical practice (Payton, 2015). They are natives to globalisation
and the digital revolution, connected through technology to their
peers, family, and brands (Stewart et al., 2016). Millennials' posi-
tion on the “front line of green and ethical consumption”suggests
there is a future for ever more generic attempts at strategic CSR
(Autio & Wilska, 2005).
If a firm's CSR activities are aligned with consumers' own values,
the likelihood of CSR becoming a purchase criterion increases
(Bhattacharya & Sen, 2004; Lee & Shin, 2010). Another study con-
ducted by Anderson et al. (2016, p. 5) found that American millennials
regard an organisation's CSR behaviour to be “substantially more
important than any of [the] six other product attributes (including
price and quality) when making a purchase decision.”Equally, a report
by Cone Communications found that 70% of US millennials are willing
to spend more money on brands using cause-related marketing
(AMA, 2017). Only recently has the difference between generations
been so distinct. Almost three quarters of millennials are willing to pay
more for sustainable brands compared to only half of baby boomers
(Nielsen, 2015). The above literature lacks sufficient exploration of
the needs and wants of millennials regarding their evaluations of CSR
Deloitte's (2017) study suggests that ethicality in millennials is
becoming ever more prevalent. More than 50% of 8,000 millennials
said they feel accountable, primarily for “protecting the environment,”
“social equality,”and the “behaviour and actions of large businesses.”
While these studies are valuable as broad generalisations, they over-
look the vastness of these topics and their relative weight in the eyes
2.6 |Addressing the attitude-behaviour gap
Shaw et al. (2016, p. 2) argue that “caring about”does not necessarily
lead to “care-giving,”which is defined as the attitude-behaviour gap.
The attitude-behaviour gap describes the incongruous relationship
between consumers' beliefs and their actual purchasing behaviour.
The gap is often attributed to younger consumers for being especially
inconsistent in their purchasing habits (Böltner & Sudbury, 2011). A
multitude of studies addressed the causal factors of the attitude-
behaviour gap in the lead up to Shaw et al.'s conceptualisation
(Carrigan & Attalla, 2001; Öberseder, Schlegelmilch, & Gruber, 2011;
Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002; Caruana et al., 2016; Bray, Johns, &
Kilburn, 2011; Böltner & Sudbury, 2011; Hassan, Shaw, & Shiu, 2014;
Antonetti & Maklan, 2015; Caruana, Carrington, & Chatzidakis, 2016).
The variety of approaches in these studies is both a reflection of the
complexity of ethical consumption, and of the difficulty of stimulating
actual ethical behaviour.
Marketers can increase the correlation between attitude and
behaviour, once they understand where consumer groups place their
emphasis of concern (Hassan et al., 2014). It is important to note that
the attitude-behaviour gap is not exclusively related to a lack of “gen-
uine”ethicality or morality as many researchers suggest
(e.g., Böltner & Sudbury, 2011; Carrigan & Attalla, 2001; Shaw
et al., 2016). Instead, its existence is also due to factors that limit con-
sumers' ability to be consistent with their own beliefs (Carrington
et al., 2010). Subsequently, the attitude-behaviour gap is closely
related to the field of virtue ethics, which explains consumers'
ethical decisions from the perspective of their intrinsic values
2.7 |Ethical orientation
Theories of moral philosophy seek to explain internal motivations for
ethical behaviour through either deontological or teleological
approaches to ethical consumption (Davies et al., 2012). The Theory
of Reasoned Action (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980), for example, explains
that the antecedents of ethical behaviour lie in social norms and indi-
vidual attitudes. On the other hand, the Theory of Planned Behaviour
(Ajzen, 1988) suggests three main factors: consumer attitudes, con-
sumer perceptions of societal pressure, and consumers' perception of
control over the purchasing decision. At first glance, the need for
exploration of consumer attitudes toward CSR is obvious, but the
reality is that many practitioners Daniel Kahneman’s work, in which
he claims that consumers' tastes are fundamentally unstable. With a
good understanding of consumers' attitudes, however, managers are
able to reduce the ethical attitude-behaviour gap (Bhattacharya &
Originating in Kantian moral philosophy and normative ethics,
deontological evaluations are consumers' perceptions of moral “right-
ness”; they are made up of ethical standards developed over time by
personal experiences (Shum, Chung, & Kim, 2017). As a result of their
strict moral guidelines, consumers with deontological orientations are
4CHATZOPOULOU AND de KIEWIET
more sceptical of CSR, but they are also more consistent (Xu &
Ma, 2016). On the other hand, teleological approaches are usually
referred to as “consequentialist,”because they evaluate the potential
positive or negative consequences of ethical purchases. Consumers
with this ethical orientation are more utilitarian (Shim et al., 2017);
their perceptions of ethics are contingent on beneficial outcomes.
Parallel to these orientations are Forsyth's (1980) ethical ideologies,
idealism and relativism. Consumers with a deontological orientation
are often more idealistic (Chakrabarty, 2015), which in the context of
CSR means that company motives stimulate purchase intention
regardless of the perceived benefit of the CSR initiative. Conversely,
teleological (consequentialist) evaluations are better aligned with rela-
tivism (Chakrabarty, 2015), where consumers will violate collective
norms in favour of the most beneficial outcome.
The Hunt-Vitell Theory of Ethics (Hunt & Vitell, 1986) illustrates
the role of these evaluations in consumer behaviour, and therefore
their relevance to the attitude-behaviour gap mentioned previously.
In a later study, Vitell, Singhapakdi, and Thomas (2001) found that the
principles of deontology contribute more to consumers' ethical behav-
iour than the principles of teleology. Interestingly, consumers in the
same study evaluated unethical behaviour in the same way, regardless
of whether the consequences of this behaviour were positive or nega-
tive. Deontological factors should therefore be more important in
targeting ethical behaviour and CSR to homogenous groups. This con-
nection highlights an area of managerial relevance for an in-depth
understanding of consumer attitudes toward corporate ethics and
In more detail, the current study seeks to explore the attitude-
behaviour gap of the millennial generation considering their apparent
ethicality. This study covers, in part, marketing fundamentals of CSR
which have not focused on millennials, leaving an important gap in the
literature. In order to fill the gap appropriately, this study also aims to
explore the driving influences behind ethical purchasing behaviour.
The study aims to address the following questions:
What kinds of CSR are most sought after when millen-
nials evaluate brands? To what extent does authentic-
ity play a role in millennials' evaluation of CSR? What
are the fundamental factors influencing millennials'
evaluation of CSR?
To explore millennials' ethical perceptions and attitudes toward CSR,
in-depth interviews are the most appropriate technique for producing
narrative-rich data (Merriam, 2009). As interviews are fundamentally
interpretative (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011), this research incorporated the
relevant epistemological implications in that conclusions are filtered
through the researchers' interpretation of the data. The fieldwork
followed a theoretical sampling strategy and the identification of
information-rich informants who fulfilled the data requirements to
achieve theoretical saturation (Charmaz, 2006). Data collection
reached saturation point at 15 interviews with millennials, people who
were born during 1979–1994 (Smola & Sutton, 2002). No further data
collection was undertaken at this stage because saturation had been
reached, and no new choice elements were forthcoming
(Chatzopoulou, Gorton, & Kuznesof, 2019). The method used targeted
rich data about CSR and authenticity and this fulfilled the data
requirements to achieve theoretical saturation (Corbin &
Strauss, 2008; Skinner, Gorton, & Skinner, 2020).
Interviews were semi-structured, using set questions to explore
the phenomena surrounding participants' perceptions of CSR authen-
ticity and dimensions. Interviews were audio recorded using Audacity
software so that conversations could flow without delay. Once data
were collected, interviews were transcribed and coded using NVivo
11 Pro. The software was useful in increasing the rigour and specific-
ity of the data analysis process and in the visualisation of large
amounts of data to produce initial themes.
This study takes a phenomenological and therefore interpreta-
tive approach to data analysis for its balance of depth and breadth.
Thematic analysis can be applied through a range of epistemologi-
cal perspectives and data types, making it both theoretically and
practically flexible (Boyatzis, 1998; Braun & Clarke, 2006; Cassell &
Symon, 2006; King, 2004). The thematic analysis of the current
paper followed an interpretivist approach by identifying recurring
themes and patterns within the vast amount of data collected
(Crabtree & Miller, 1999). The final step of this thematic analysis is
to build a valid argument for choosing the themes (Aronson, 1995),
which is achieved throughout the findings section where the rela-
tionships between themes and sub-themes are explained. The con-
nections to the literature are discussed in more detail in the
discussion section. The latter stages of this process also include
the creation of a “thematic map”of the analysis, to illustrate any
relationships between codes, themes, and sub-themes. In this
study, thematic maps of sub-themes were created in addition to
the main map to visualise the data efficiently.
Data collection began with face-to-face in-depth interviews
among a convenience sample of millennials of several European
nationalities (e.g., Italian, German). Participants were recruited among
those born between 1980 and 1997 who either studied or worked in
the North East of England. A combination of two purposive sampling
techniques (snowball and opportunistic sampling) was used to secure
respondents (Johnson & Chattaraman, 2019). After the interviews,
some participants introduced the authors to acquaintances of theirs
who were willing to participate, and this snowball sampling aided par-
ticipation. In total, 15 interviews with millennials took place during
March and July 2019 (see Table 3 for participants' profiles).
The purpose of this study was to explore millennials' evaluations of
authentic CSR, to discover how they perceive corporate ethics and to
explore the role of authenticity in the millennials' ethical purchasing
CHATZOPOULOU AND de KIEWIET 5
4.1 |Perceptions of “ethical”or “responsible”
The interviewees separated responsibility and ethicality, although
they described largely similar dimensions and listed similar issues that
they expected ethical or responsible companies to address (Figure 2).
With the exception of two participants, their expectations of ethical
companies did not differ in the area of CSR, the difference was in their
perceptions of how these activities are implemented. The perceptions
of ethical activities were described through a lens of philanthropic
care-giving, where ethical activities were seen to tackle an issue such
as global warming, or animal cruelty:
“I think you can be ethical, but not take responsibility
for it. Giving money to a charity would be not taking
much responsibility, it's not enough just to do ethical
In contrast, responsible companies were seen as being accountable
for their own standards and impact on these dimensions and were
not expected to affect ethical issues outside of their domain of
“If a company is responsible, it integrates processes
that become a standard which makes them ethical.
Being responsible is about making the ethics a part of
the company's routine and its overall motivations.”(P8)
The newly emerged sub-theme is represented in the additional sev-
enth sub-theme, highlighted in Figure 1.
Responsibility was largely described using the same dimensions
as corporate ethics, but in the context of long-term measures to pre-
vent unethical practice. As a result of this perception, responsibility
was perceived as more genuine:
“Responsibility has more of an air of like, being
methodical about things and thinking ahead. You can
be ethical in the short term, but I feel like responsibility
has longer term implications.”(P4)
In contrast, perceptions of ethicality were described in more conse-
quentialist terms regarding the company's actions to impact the above
dimensions. For a company to be ethical, its presence in the market
had to be accompanied either by a positive impact on a particular
dimension, or at least by the lack of unethical behaviour:
“To start with, whatever they're doing should not have
a negative impact on any of their employees or in the
area that they're operating. So, for instance, a coffee
company shouldn't mess up the environment that
they're growing the coffee in.”(P3)
TABLE 3 Participants' profile
Participant Gender Occupation Nationality Age
1 Male Professional English 22
2 Male Student English 23
3 Female Student English 22
4 Female Student English 22
5 Male Professional Welsh 22
6 Male Student Welsh 22
7 Female Professional English 23
8 Female Professional German 24
9 Female Student English 22
10 Male Student Northern Irish 25
11 Male Student English 22
12 Female Student English 22
13 Male Professional Italian 24
14 Male Professional Italian 30
15 Male Professional German 23
FIGURE 1 Map of sub-themes for perceptions of ethicality and
perceptions [Colour figure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.com]
TABLE 2 Types of authenticity
1. Moral authenticity Indicators that the CSR initiatives are honest
and truthful while they are a reflection of
the rest of the company.
2. Pure authenticity Indicators that a company is without false
credentials or deceitful activities.
3. Indexicality with
Indicators of authentic CSR from sources,
independent of an organisation's marketing
or organisations with causes that are
perceived as authentic.
6CHATZOPOULOU AND de KIEWIET
Curiously, interviewees were far more forgiving of responsible compa-
nies, they even condoned “less ethical practices”on the condition that
the company had been transparent about its processes, and took
steps to raise standards:
“If everything's above board, the company should be
able to do that about every accident, they should be
transparent about their problems as well as the good
things they do. So it's not that pretty to see, but every-
thing's as good as it could be.”(P12)
At first glance, these perceptions seem to reflect a deontological ten-
dency as they preferred actions which they could see having upright
motivations. Essentially, responsibility dominated the ethical purchas-
ing decision, because where ethicality was perceived as sporadic,
responsibility was more closely related to commitment. Millennials
viewed this as more authentic:
“It comes across as much more genuine, because you
can see that most or as many decisions as possible are
being made with ethics in mind.”(P4)
Within the six similar dimensions, interviewees most typically
described environmental concerns, followed by concerns for people
involved in the supply chain. These were seen as being directly related
to the company's responsibility over its area of operation. Both
themes were strongly linked to reducing environmental impact,
although it was not described in terms of brand switching. If animal
cruelty or human rights infringements came about as a result of core
business functions, however, the company was branded unethical.
Perceptions of ethicality included strict rules concerning what compa-
nies were forbidden from doing, but it was rarely clear what the
objectives of CSR should be. When the discussion moved on to what
constituted effective CSR, there was a clear reflection back to percep-
tions of responsibility, which were observed more plainly as authentic.
4.2 |The ethical purchasing decision
When talking about how companies could make themselves stand out
as being ethical, the same theme of commitment appeared (Figure 2).
Participants discussed at length the reasons why they would or could
not make the decision, but rarely called for solutions to ethical issues
raised in earlier questions. Instead, companies that ensured their prac-
tices were in line with industry standards were most highly valued,
with little mention of any action to be taken. Authenticity features in
Figure 2 because it played a role in the ethical purchasing decision for
12 of the 15 participants.
Within the ethical purchasing decision, the sub-theme of price
was among the most prominent. Two attitudes were identified within
the theme; one sub-group of the interviewees prioritised price over
ethical credentials, though they maintained concern with ethical
“If there are two products, they're both as good as
each other, they're both the same price, and one of
them has got better ethical credentials than the other,
why would I not go for the ethical credentials one. If
there are two products, I'm looking at a three-pound
purchase, one's two pounds, one's three pounds, one's
got better ethical credentials, I'd probably go for the
“Convenience does sometimes win over. I'd say as
much as possible, I try to make sure it dictates how I
purchase and my buying behaviour. But it's not all the
FIGURE 2 Map of sub-
themes for the ethical purchasing
decision [Colour figure can be
viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.com]
CHATZOPOULOU AND de KIEWIET 7
time, definitely. I know all the bad stuff that Coke does,
but I still buy Coke every now and then.”(P4)
The other group places CSR above price when considering certain
products, but their purchasing decisions are limited by their means:
“It's difficult to make sure all purchases are ethical. It's
going to be top of my mind, most of the purchases,
where I can, will be ethical, but it's also limited not only
by my means, but also the number of companies that
are truly ethical.”(P8)
Despite these differences, a commonality among these two sub-
groups is that authenticity appeared to influence the role of price in
the purchasing decision. The theme of price impacts ethical action
because millennials demand higher standards of authenticity from
brands that charge higher prices:
“I think, if I knew that it was truly authentic, I'd be more
likely to buy it. For example, when I said it affects me pur-
chasing things because it's super expensive.”(P7)
“It depends on the life you have, for me it's difficult to
be ethical and at the same time save money.”(P13)
Another common thread throughout the narratives is the imbalance
of attitudes to positive and negative news about a company. Positive
news is viewed with scepticism, while negative news is perceived as
more trustworthy. Attitudes toward companies going below ethical
standards were more damning than attitudes toward companies going
above and beyond:
“If Adidas were to publicise that they don't use child
labour, I don't care, because that'd be a basic expecta-
tion anyway. So going below a basic expectation is
much more powerful than meeting one, in my opin-
With reference to the medium of positive or negative news, partici-
pants typically looked to independent sources such as the Rainforest
Alliance or the World Fair Trade Organisation for reliable information.
Millennials commit to ethical purchasing in industries where poor ethi-
cal credentials are more common; where “it comes up more”(P6) and
“we all know about that, it's very close to home”(P11). Interestingly,
the common theme that drove such industry purchases was
boycotting unethical companies –millennials shift their spending to
deny unethical companies market share.
Three types of authenticity were identified from the data corpus
Millennials looked primarily for indications that the company itself
is ethical, because the extent of CSR initiatives is less important than
the validity of the company's ethical motivations. Participants often
mentioned that advertising campaigns alone are not useful indicators
“endorsing an idea without showing how you're follow-
ing it through, that can come across as fake.”(P4)
The theme of transparency was interwoven with the narratives of all
15 participants and was an important factor in improving perceptions
of CSR. Even those millennials that said price took priority over CSR
conveyed how important transparency is to making ethical purchases.
Transparency was related to moral authenticity; it reassured par-
ticipants of honest CSR, and that the marketing of CSR is a reflection
of the company's values:
“I think transparency is quite important. I think again,
the fact that we have all the social media right now, it
means that if you're not transparent, it's quite obvious
that you're not putting across a real image of what you
In the same way, the strongest obstacles to authentic CSR also
revolved around honesty and commitment to CSR outside of cam-
paigns. As one participant expressed:
“most of the time it'd be okay if they came out with it
and a plan to do something about it, but when they lie
it makes it 10 times worse.”(P9)
“If I see that there's a gap between what they say on
their website and then what they actually do, that's
definitely something I consider and something I look
Naturally, because openness leads to increased authenticity for ethical
companies, CSR efforts were deemed unauthentic or “disingenuous”
when such standards were not clear in the rest of the businesses' pro-
cesses. Likewise, the participants were less willing to trust companies
with unethical behaviour arising from scandals, than those that were
open about their faults, regardless of their current standards:
“Like BP and stuff, they've had such horrific media
about them, why would I trust anything they say
As evident from this example, BP's “impressive evidence on environ-
mental improvements”(Frynas, 2009, p. 9) are not nearly enough to
negate the negative impression created by previous incidents.
Participants were sceptical of CSR activity; their demands for
authenticity were mostly related to uncovering which companies care,
and which do not. The authenticity of a company's CSR was decided
8CHATZOPOULOU AND de KIEWIET
not on the actions within a CSR initiative, but rather the actions of the
company outside of their dedicated ethical activities. As a result, most
companies are seen as falling short of millennials' standards for
authentic CSR.Effective CSR.
Millennials expressed their demands for substantiated ethicality,
as well as the desire for companies to be open about their CSR from
the outset –ethicality in hindsight is not authentic. Further, we
explored why participants felt CSR is important as a whole, where
other lines of questioning had looked at individual dimensions
As previously mentioned, millennials seem to value CSR standards
more than individual campaigns or initiatives. Companies could stand
out by showing how their CSR was being carried out, differentiating
themselves from competition through pure authenticity:
“I feel like in the long term, if I'm engaging with a com-
pany quite a lot, you'd expect to see some kind of evi-
The perceptions of CSR importance are more varied. Both male and
female participants believe that companies have a responsibility to
drive change because they have the power to do so. An important
area of difference, however, is that female participants placed empha-
sis on their appreciation of CSR for the emotional value in purchasing
“I am encouraging companies to be ethical by spending
on companies that are ethical, it makes me feel good,
and increases the value of my spend.”(P8)
On the other hand, male participants felt strongly that CSR should
revolve around responsibility and showing ethical standards. CSR was
seen as important because it provided an opportunity to reject com-
panies with lower ethical standards:
“An ethical company would be transparent about their
entire operation from front to back, […] that way we
can see that they practice what they preach.”(P10)
“If I could be sure that one place was, as I said, doing
something horrendous to its employees, I would defi-
nitely change, they need to make it easy for us to see
who's ethical and who's not.”(P6)
Participants gave examples of campaigns which confirmed the value
of previous themes on effective CSR. Good campaigns were distinct
because the company's motivations were made authentic through evi-
dence that they served more than just marketing purposes:
“I think Lush has good ones because they're a bit more
obvious about how they're actually doing what they
say they're doing.”(P7)
The line of questioning used for this theme effectively indicated
which of the previous themes are legitimate preferences, and there-
fore which are most relevant for the creation of valued CSR.
Overall, millennials are much more aware of CSR and, contrary to pre-
vious generations, they are the most ethical generation. Even if previ-
ous studies argue that sustainability awareness increases with age and
that younger generations lack confidence which allows other
FIGURE 3 Map of sub-
themes for effective CSR [Colour
figure can be viewed at
CHATZOPOULOU AND de KIEWIET 9
determinants to guide their behaviour intentions (Johnstone &
Lindh, 2018), our study argues that millennials are much more con-
cerned about CSR practices and authentic CSR. As such, our study
suggests that price is not at the top of the hierarchy for millennials,
contrary to previous studies (e.g., Öberseder et al., 2011). Instead,
according to our findings, millennials focus more on authenticity and
the three types of authentic CSR (Table 2). Price is still an important
factor, but not millennials' top priority. Price affects millennials'
conceptualisation of socially responsible consumption behaviour
(SRCB) only when it is about avoiding paying more due to the fact that
their financial well-being is uncertain (Johnson & Chattaraman, 2019).
The structure of the hierarchy differs for millennials in ways that
have bearing on the degree to which CSR can influence purchasing
intention. Millennials place the content (i.e., positive or negative) and
medium (e.g., newspapers, word of mouth, etc.) of information lower
on the hierarchy than authenticity, which in Öberseder et al. (2011)
paper is simply a “peripheral factor.”Millennials' approval of CSR is
contingent on the accurate reflection of ethicality in core business
processes as part of moral authenticity (see types of authentic CSR
for millennials in Table 2). Morality was expected to be part of our
findings since it is recognised as a socially constructed status in which
interpretation is up to each individual who freely decides what is right
or wrong (Caruana, 2007a, 2007b). As millennials search online, they
construct their own opinion and subjective views of moralities
(Ossowska, 1971), which are constructed as a social process both
within online and offline environments. Moreover, there is a positive
relationship between the digital economy and millennials' sustainable
purchasing decisions which in fact makes them loyal to brands
(Gazzola, Colombo, Pezzetti, & Nicolescu, 2017). This way, the subjec-
tive constructed morality of each millennial affects their ethical con-
sumption toward brands and (re)produces important social meanings
through relevant brand identities (Caruana, 2007a, 2007b).
Based on Holbrook's (2006) value typology and Papista,
Chrysochou, Krystallis, and Dimitriadis (2018) study, CSR may lead to
brand loyalty as long as certain consumer perceived value dimensions
exist, such as social value, altruistic value, and economic value. In the
current study, we expand these two studies by adding authenticity as
one of the consumer values (see Table 2). Moral authenticity, pure
authenticity, and indexical authenticity affect millennials' brand loyalty
toward companies with social responsibility. Moreover, the previous
study of Johnson and Chattaraman (2019) argues that millennials' pur-
chase decision is based on a firm's CSR performance, which shows
consumers' commitment to being socially responsible (SR) through
their purchasing decisions and makes the image and reputation of SR
companies crucial. As such, the current study adds fresh insights
regarding the reputation of SR companies, which seems to rely on the
authenticity perception of CSR activities and practices. Therefore, we
expand on marketing and consumer literature which argues that
youngsters perceive marketing of companies to lack authenticity and
to be manipulative in the way that companies sell their products and
services (Heath & Chatzidakis, 2012).
Authentic CSR is certainly central to the present study and millen-
nials' perceptions of corporate hypocrisy; that is, their reactions to the
inexplicit motives behind CSR initiatives, rather than literal congru-
ence between industry and CSR initiative. This newfound emphasis
on CSR activity is a result of the saturation of CSR in marketing com-
munications, coupled with millennials' increased exposure via technol-
ogy/digital platforms, which fosters their cynicism around initiatives.
Our study adds to previous literature about millennials' engagement
with CSR information through social media, as they experience a
sense of belonging and connection according to social identity theory,
and also the participatory and collaborative advantages of social
media which contribute to higher levels of transparency and trust con-
cerning the CSR activities (Chu & Chen, 2019). These findings are con-
sistent with Alhouti et al. (2016) in that consumers find CSR to be
more authentic when companies are believed to act out of altruism,
and to a lesser extent when there is a strong fit between a company
and its CSR objective.
In a pioneering paper, Shim et al. (2017) added ethical orientation
to the list of characteristics which moderate evaluations of CSR.
Through the analysis of in-depth interviews, this study proposes that
millennials lean toward a deontological orientation; they are primarily
concerned with seeking out evidence on the motivations of CSR, as
opposed to the consequences. This means that companies' ethical
actions are not conditional on any particular outcome. The findings of
the present study suggest that consumers of this orientation also tend
to be more ethically idealistic and rigorous; participants are not toler-
ant of unethical behaviour. The participants held little regard for the
potential benefits to any one area of CSR, which naturally poses a
threat to marketing strategies that emphasise contribution to a cause,
as opposed to ethical duty. At least for the millennial generation, the
existence of an attitude-behaviour gap in ethical purchasing does not
appear to come down to the instability of consumer tastes; this study
highlights millennials' inherent standards for moral “rightness”which
filters CSR and would widen the attitude-behaviour gap for compa-
nies choosing to focus on the outcomes of their CSR.
A further finding of Shim et al. (2017) is that individuals with
deontological orientations have stronger negative communication
intentions than those with consequentialist orientations. This sup-
ports findings from this study that millennials are both more percep-
tive of negative news, and more influenced by it. Scepticism about
CSR stimulates unfavourable word of mouth (Skarmeas &
Leonidou, 2013), which is important to note because participants
acknowledged their own scepticism of CSR, a characteristic which is
also consistent with descriptions of deontological orientations (Shum
et al.,2017). This scepticism of CSR motives has been linked to evalua-
tions of corporate hypocrisy (e.g., Shim & Yang, 2016). For a tech-
savvy generation like millennials, it is therefore essential to consider
the risks of poorly planned CSR initiatives. As evident from the litera-
ture, and the findings of this study, understanding the ethical orienta-
tion of consumer groups may offer critical information for the
effective implementation of CSR in strategy.
One noteworthy finding of this study is that, with the excep-
tion of two participants, millennials did not identify as being ethi-
cal. This goes against common thinking that social desirability bias
strongly influences self-reflection in qualitative interviews, that is,
10 CHATZOPOULOU AND de KIEWIET
“the desire of respondents to avoid embarrassment and project a
favourable image to others”(Fisher, 1993, p. 303). It was presumed
that millennials' increased need for impression management
through information technology (e.g., social media) would intensify
the effects of social desirability bias, as would be consistent with
the literature (e.g., Randall & Fernandes, 1991). Perhaps this is
linked to the idealistic moral standards stemming from their appar-
ent deontological ethical orientation. Another possible interpreta-
tion is that the broad cynicism about ethicality may have
somewhat reversed effects on social desirability, whereby partici-
pants may not want to be associated with an attribute they per-
ceive to be inherently unauthentic.
6|IMPLICATIONS AND FUTURE
Overall, millennials seek out authentic CSR as they are quite sceptical
about CSR practices of the past years. Companies need to show evi-
dence of their motivations for CSR and especially through digital plat-
forms, which seem to greatly influence the millennials. The current
study argues that millennials are prone to be influenced by negative
rather than positive online news and opinions, so companies need to
enhance positive e-WOM about them. As such, we offer to practi-
tioners the knowledge of how to promote their brands better to mil-
lennials, and that is by having a clear CSR identity focusing on one of
the three types of authentic CSR (moral, pure, and indexical). How-
ever, it seems that for millennials moral authenticity is conceived to
be the most authentic one. Finally, marketing strategies need to focus
more on presenting CSR as a duty rather than a contribution to a
Concerning the limitations of the current study, data were col-
lected with a qualitative approach aiming to grasp for the first time
the perceptions and meanings of authentic CSR. However, the
number of interviews is quite limited and so, further quantitative
research would be valuable to test our findings in a wider perspec-
tive by comparing millennial males' perceptions with females' per-
ceptions. Another limitation was the refusal of some potential
interviewees to participate. Their participation could have further
benefited the study as they could have offered valuable informa-
tion or interesting insights about authenticity, CSR, millennials,
and consumer behaviour. They may also withhold commercially
sensitive information, such as links between purchase intention,
CSR, and global branding, or links between the quality of CSR and
authenticity. These aspects were not discussed in detail, however
the authors believe that they could have added value to the study
and further assisted the exploration of authentic CSR and quality
aspects. Finally, millennials with multiple nationalities could be
studied in future research to contribute to consumer culture the-
ory and authenticity. More specifically, the investigation could be
about millennial consumers who hold more than one nationality
and the question that remains is which of these identities influence
their purchase intention for SR brands.
DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENT
The data that support the findings of this study are available from the
corresponding author (Dr. Elena Chatzopoulou) upon reasonable request.
Elena Chatzopoulou https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9293-9829
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Dr. Elena Chatzopoulou is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Kent
Business School. She holds a BSc and MSc from Greece (Athens
University of Economics and Business) and a PhD from Newcastle
University. Before joining academia she had 7 years working
experience as a marketing manager. She has accomplished her
PhD Thesis in Marketing at Newcastle University Business School
(Newcastle, UK), supervised by Professor Matthew Gorton. Since
then, she has been investigating authenticity, quality and identity
concepts especially in digital platforms like Instagram and
YouTube. Elena has received several awards, like the “teaching
excellence award”by the Academy of Marketing and the “best
paper award”at the 17th IFIP Conference on e-Business, e-
Services and e-Society. Dr. Chatzopoulou has also given a TEDx
talk: “Back to basics.com: a down-to-earth research.”
Adrian de Kiewiet is a graduate of Newcastle University, UK in
MSc International Marketing, having previously studied BA Entre-
preneurial Business Management at Northumbria University,
UK. The applications of ethics and responsibility in business have
been at the forefront of his studies throughout his time in
How to cite this article: Chatzopoulou E, de Kiewiet A.
Millennials' evaluation of corporate social responsibility: The
wants and needs of the largest and most ethical generation.
J Consumer Behav. 2020;1–14. https://doi.org/10.1002/
14 CHATZOPOULOU AND de KIEWIET