Consumer [dis]Regard for Social Responsibility

by Erin McCune on September 25, 2006

in Caught My Eye

research from Stanford explores why consumers disregard social
responsibility at checkout – despite the fact that they claim to make
purchases in line with their values and pressure companies to behave


Consumers often say
they want to be socially responsible when it comes to buying food,
clothing, office supplies, and the like. But consumers’ noble
sentiments are not often reflected in their actions at the checkout. In
fact, a number of corporations have seen their efforts to sell socially
responsible products fall flat because consumers failed to buy them in
any significant numbers. There are, however, a variety of strategies
that corporations can take to increase their odds of success.


[Edited to reduce length, see full article text with footnotes and complete citations here.]

Becoming a Proactive Organization

Consumers are
clearly an important and complex but overlooked factor in the CSR
equation. That’s why we believe that organizations need to become more
proactive with respect to consumer social responsibility if they want
their corporate social responsibility initiatives to have a greater
impact. The following five steps can get managers started on the way to
being more proactive.

  1. Select the social issue(s) carefully. Our
    research reveals that consumers are concerned about very specific
    issues and are unlikely to react to social product features that are
    too broad or that lack functional relevance. It is critical for
    managers to focus their efforts on one issue, or at the most a few
    issues that can be linked psychologically to their product or service.
  2. Don’t believe the surveys. Companies
    invariably rely on surveys to determine what consumers want. However,
    most consumers when queried will indicate that they care about most
    issues, as there are socially acceptable answers and the cost of lying
    is zero. What companies should do is find out how much their customers
    are willing to pay for a particular product or service.
  3. Don’t underestimate the importance of functional product features. Consumers
    purchase products to fulfill specific needs and wants. They will not
    sacrifice functional features for socially acceptable ones. To be
    compelling to consumers, there must be a clear connection between
    social features and functional features.
  4. Communicate to customers using their language. Consumers
    possess little knowledge of the social aspects of products, and when
    confronted with this fact seek out culturally embedded rationales to
    justify their behavior. This observation has two implications. First,
    consumers must be informed in a way that fits with the issues they care
    most about. For example, consumers concerned about child labor are more
    likely to respond to a campaign focused specifically on child labor
    than to a general labor rights issue campaign emphasizing living
    conditions, wages, unionization, and child labor. Second, different
    cultures rationalize behavior differently. An anticounterfeiting
    campaign in China would need to speak specifically to the issues of
    importance to Chinese and would be unlikely to match up with an
    anticounterfeiting campaign in Spain.
  5. Focus on the consumers’ natural desire to change rather
    than forcing them to drink from the CSR cup. Effective communication
    should not only make consumers aware of your product’s social features,
    but also educate them about how such choices are better for them,
    independent of the benefit to the society and mankind. It is not your
    firm’s job to make people concerned about social issues, but rather to
    compel them to act and give them the opportunity to reveal their true
    social preferences.

The Other CSR
By Timothy M. Devinney, Patrice Auger, Giana Eckhardt, & Thomas Birtchnell
Stanford Social Innovation Review
Fall 2006

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