Sustainable Coffee: Ethical Consumption

Updated July 23, 2017

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). 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).

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%1.

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 Affairs2 sums it up nicely (original authors' references removed for clarity):

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 Sustainable Coffee: 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. MacGillivray, Alex. 2000. The Fair Share: The Growing Market Share of Green and Ethical Products. London: New Economics Foundation
2. Patrick De Pelsmacker, Liesbeth Driesen, Glenn Rayp "Do Consumers Care About Ethics? Willingness To Pay For Fair-Trade Coffee", The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Vol. 39, No. 2, 2005, pp. 364-365

This post is part of a series:

Sustainable Coffee: Ethical Consumption
Sustainable Coffee: Fair Trade Coffee
Sustainable Coffee: Ethical Trade
Sustainable Coffee: Organic Coffee

Updated July 23, 2017: changed format of series links.

Michael C. Wright

Michael is an American expat living in Singapore where he writes about many things coffee-related. A roaster by trade, Michael is also exploring coffee production and how to improve the lives of those who produce the noble bean.