Responsible consumption

Ethical consumers have played a vital role in driving companies towards more sustainable products and practices over the years. But a responsible business shouldn’t wait for consumer demand to make this transition since, ultimately, businesses have the power to make every consumer choice an ethical one.

Companies should go beyond the transactional in their relationship with their customers and engage with them more like supporters with shared values around the Global Goals, while using their privileged position to help bring about wider societal change.

Here are the first steps to responsible consumption, based on our research carried out at the Centre:

Diagram: Simple and trusted labelling, use sustainability traffic lights and third party verification- Circularity: Make it easy for customers to repair, recycle and reuse products- Consumer activism: Engage customers in delivering social value- Socio Political influence: Use your platform and buying power to benefit society.

A new level of transparency and trust is essential for making this relationship work, which the research-based ideas below explore in more detail, along with inspiring case studies and practical tools.

Research and ideas 

Business citizenship

Ultimately, business has the power to make all consumer choices sustainable if it chooses or is compelled to, taking the responsibility off the shoulders – and out of the pockets – of the public. So it might be more worthwhile for individuals to pursue sustainability as citizens rather than consumers, championing the policies, causes and politicians that would push firms to be more sustainable rather than agonizing over which product to buy.

Responsible businesses and many consumers are already united in their shared Global Goals. It’s why the 12th goal is both ‘responsible consumption and production’. The two are so closely interlinked that there can’t be one without the other. In this respect, the roles of business/consumer/citizen/producer collapse into each other. Businesses, like consumers, can assume the role of a responsible citizen, obeying the law, paying taxes and taking an active role in the public sphere, while also making products and services that support their sustainable values and using their purchasing power to buycott producers that share their values.

Within this business citizenship model, the consumer becomes an ally in a shared cause, working side by side for positive social change. Consumer demand in this context is just another expression of these shared values and the relationship between business and consumer fundamentally changes from an extractive transaction to one of belonging to a coalition of supporters or even activists for wider social reform.

Consumers as supporters

Over the years, many businesses have used their products and marketing to encourage people to change their behaviour for the good of society. From Procter & Gamble’s Ariel laundry detergent campaign to ‘Turn to 30’ and reduce energy consumption when using washing machines, to Colgate toothpaste’s #EveryDropCounts campaign to stop people running the tap when brushing their teeth and save water, firms start with influencing how consumers use their products to encourage a sustainable attitude more widely.

In this way, companies are treating consumers as potential supporters of their social purpose too, trying to convert people’s values as well as product sales. The sociologist, Alan Warde, compares this to business operating more like a social movement, whose aim is to change values as well as inform. It’s this added moral or ethical dimension to responsible businesses that reframes their conventional, transactional relationship with consumers into something more akin to an activist’s commitment to a cause. If a company has a strong social purpose and meaningful sustainability targets in addition to making profits, it needs to actively recruit consumers to its cause, not just take their money and ask them to ‘like’ a clever tweet.

To do that, the dynamic of the relationship can’t be too hierarchical or just one way. Instead, the consumer must get involved by sharing the campaign’s message with friends and family and becoming an advocate for the cause in their own communities – with funding even provided by some companies to do it. This consumer involvement goes beyond just campaigns, however. Companies of all sizes are turning to crowdsourcing to help drive their sustainability: whether it’s Unilever’s Foundry platform that invites consumers and outside experts to come up with innovative ideas to help improve the sustainability of its operations, or UK supermarket Waitrose’s customer voting scheme to decide which community projects each store donates to.

It’s not surprising that some of the leaders in this field are social enterprises and cooperatives (like C’est qui le patron?!), where consultations with members and social purpose are integral to all they do. In such mission-driven companies, where profits are considered secondary to their overriding social goal, the distinction between the roles of business, consumer, staff and volunteer blurs and the hierarchy of decision-making collapses. It’s a similar case at many social enterprises, which are often led by the needs of their local community and more dependent on collaborative working arrangements with stakeholders and volunteers.

However open to consumer participation responsible businesses are, what’s important is that they overtly share the same desire for social change with their consumers and provide ways for them to actively support them in this shared goal. As charities have long understood, it’s activism and continual taking part that reaffirms supporters’ sense of belonging and identity with a cause – and it is essential for responsible businesses that need to more deeply engage their customers in their social purpose beyond simply sales.

Consumer paralysis

While a well-informed consumer – both in terms of the availability and veracity of a product’s sustainability credentials – is vital for enabling and influencing more responsible consumption, there’s growing evidence that too much information can have the opposite effect. In a 2017 study called ‘It’s not easy living a sustainable lifestyle’, researchers interviewed numerous individuals who were highly knowledgeable and engaged with living more sustainably but reported often failing to live up to their principles – quite deliberately and often. From purchasing farmed smoked salmon to ordering mass-produced Chinese clothing, these conscientious consumers were wracked by feelings of tension, hopelessness and paralysis over their knowingly unsustainable choices, yet made them anyway. The researchers labelled this behaviour the ‘self-inflicted sustainable consumption paradox’, whereby the more expert someone becomes on sustainability, the more difficult it is to choose any product, since ultimately nothing is truly sustainable or free from negative social and environmental impacts.

What this study reveals is that even if the most committed ethical consumers are furnished with the best sustainability information, they will still make less sustainable choices – maybe even the worst possible ones. That’s because humans aren’t rational and reflective processors of information; we’re impulsive, self-interested, whimsical and prone to social conformity. Moreover, because we have been socialized in irresponsible consumption, consuming responsibly is undoubtedly harder work and we all have limited physical and cognitive resources to apply to the task. So we rely on quicker, non-cognitive and more emotional decision-making far more often than we’d like to admit.

This is why so much business practice around customer profiling is usually wrong, because it’s often predicated on the myth of the ‘sovereign consumer’, who makes rational, cognitive choices that always align with their preferences and values. Unfortunately for businesses pitching their products, people are much less consistent and predictable in reality than in textbooks, Excel spreadsheets or old lab experiments.

Responsible consumption

Watch our Centre research associate, Dr Jennifer TyreeHageman, share her expertise on sustainable consumption and her work examining the consumption behaviours of urban consumers in developed markets in the context of a growing awareness of sustainability issues among the public and business.

Responsible Consumption: Dr Jennifer TyreeHageman, December 2019

Responsible use of behavioural economics

Many biases and emotions affect human decision-making, which businesses need to understand and work with responsibly (that is, not just cynically exploit). From loss aversion and confirmation to survivorship and social conformity, there are numerous types of mental bias, all giving us the illusion of control and cause and effect. Our brain works with stereotypes, instincts and stories rooted in emotional System 1 thinking, often filling in the gaps automatically rather than by conscious, System 2 reasoning. So it’s worth reflecting on whether businesses encourage customers to use System 1 thinking when buying their products and not just the slow, rational cost–benefit analysis of System 2. Does a business’s marketing, point of sale, packaging and pricing only appeal to the myth of the rational economic consumer? Or does it use any mental biases to trigger an emotional and instinctive lifting of the product off the shelf and into the customer’s basket?

Ultimately, a business needs to knowledgeably and responsibly engage with both the rational and emotional thinking of a consumer to really empower them to make more sustainable choices – because when it comes to purchase decision-making, it’s the feeling of power at that moment that often has more impact than any new information imparted. A raft of fascinating new research known as ‘self-validation theory’ has found that the more powerful people are made to feel, the more confident they are about acting on their pre-existing thoughts – and vice versa. So while adequate labelling and communication may be enough to influence consumers who feel less sure of themselves about sustainability, for those most confident and knowledgeable, such information may not be enough to counter their habitual choices and biases. Paradoxically, then, it may be the most experienced ethical consumers who are hardest to reach for responsible businesses with any new or improved products – particularly those who are already convinced that no product is truly sustainable anyway, and who prefer to make minimal or long-lasting purchases.

For this most wary cohort, the whole activity of ethical consumerism can be tainted by negative feelings of anxiety and fatalism that undermine its perceived value and their likelihood of engaging with it at all (what psychologists call ‘task-related affect’). That’s because the tenor of different emotions has been found to have a similar self-validating effect on people’s thoughts as power. So, if after thinking about something you experience unpleasant emotions, like anger or disgust, researchers have found this tends to invalidate those thoughts immediately preceding it – even if they are logically unrelated – because the emotion is misattributed to them. In the same way, pleasant emotions, like awe and surprise, can have the opposite effect and so validate any preceding thoughts.

Given this, it would seem important for businesses to try to create generally pleasant emotions around ethical shopping where possible, and encourage positive associations, even though the nature of trying to address sustainability issues can often be depressing. Fortunately, the ‘warm glow’ of positive emotions experienced by consumers making choices that chime with their personal values is well documented and a powerful driver for responsible consumption. Yet interestingly, for those shoppers yet to consider ethical purchases, researchers have found that negative emotions can also be a useful tool to invalidate any preconceived prejudices and open them up to alternatives. This is because the more pleasant the emotions, the more confident people feel in their thoughts, and so the less receptive they become to new information. If you are in a good mood, you are more likely to go with the flow and be persuaded by special offers or make habitual choices, letting System 1 thinking take control. If you are a bit grumpy (for whatever reason), you are more sceptical and likely to look closer at the label or terms or conditions, triggering System 2 thinking. Emotions, it would seem, are complicated!

Tools and resources


Basic Human Values chart

Developed by the social psychologist, Shalom H. Schwartz, in the 1990s, the ‘Theory of Basic Human Values’ surveyed more than 25,000 people in 44 countries and identifies 56 human values that are related to 10 different goal-driven motivations common to all cultures. He divides those values and motivations into those that are focused on external approval and rewards and so are ‘extrinsic’ and those based on more inherently rewarding pursuits and so are ‘intrinsic’. They can also be broadly split between individualistic and collectivist values.

Many subsequent researchers using this model – most notably in the Common Cause Handbook (see p12 onwards) – have described a ‘see-saw’ and ‘bleed-over’ effect when drawing people’s attention to a specific value. For instance, engaging the ‘wealth’ value through prompting concern about financial loss or reward tended to suppress the ‘social justice’ value, which sits on the opposite side of the chart to it, while prompting the value of ‘a world of beauty’ through evoking feelings of awe and wonder tended to also enhance concern about ‘social justice’ that sits adjacent to it in the chart. So there’s this congruence and antagonism between emotions and the values they engage that responsible businesses should be mindful of when communicating with their customers about the sustainability of their products.

Closing the ‘intention-action gap’

In their seminal, decade-long study, The Myth of the Ethical Consumer, published in 2010, Timothy Devinney, Pat Auger and Giana Eckhardt found limited evidence of consumers choosing the most socially responsible product available to them beyond certain niche products – despite having said it was important to them in surveys. Fortunately, this informative article from experienced researchers lists some practical ways responsible businesses can help bridge this ‘intention-action gap’ and steer consumer behaviour to align with their sustainable ideals, using social influence, the domino effect, and so-called ‘favour experiences’.

Ethical Consumer

This independent, not-for-profit, multi-stakeholder co-operative based in Manchester provides tools and information to empower consumers to make more ethical and responsible decisions.

Ethical Consumer website


Use these neat carbon footprint calculators to work out your personal carbon footprint and that of your business, with step-by-step advice on how to reduce it.

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Goodlife Goals

Discover the Goodlife Goals – a reframing of the Global Goals for individuals – and how they can help your business understand and promote the sustainable values of consumers.


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Responsible consumption case studies


The disruptive co-operative: C’est qui le patron?!

  • Set up in 2019, the co-operative initially aimed to pay more to dairy farmers than big supermarkets and quickly became the forth-biggest milk brand in France.
  • The 7,500 member-owned company takes a customer-led approach, regularly surveying them to match products to their socially responsible values.
  • This collaborative venture reimagines the relationship between production and consumption, inviting consumers to be co-creators of products and supporters of a shared mission.
  • Having expanded into 30 other product lines, including steak and chocolate, the company has inspired and launched similar cooperatives in other countries around the world.

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Cest qui le patron logo

How Heart of Midlothian FC broke the traditional ownership cycle

  • After being trapped in a ‘new owner – new hope – increased debt – disillusionment’ cycle since 1981 Heart of Midlothian FC recently became a fan-owned club.
  • Two crises had struck the club due to traditional business decisions being made by successive owners: the ‘stadium crisis’ in 2004 and the ‘Romanov crisis’ in 2012.
  • In 2013 Hearts was rescued by a coalition of an individual investor, Ann Budge, and The Foundation of Hearts, set up by dedicated fans to purchase the club and revolutionise how it was run.
  • Under the new ownership scheme the financial position of the club improved dramatically, including eliminating all long-term debt, construction of a new stand at Tynecastle Park Stadium, deals with problematic corporate sponsors cancelled, staff being paid a living wage and a reinvigorated role for Hearts in the wider community.

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Hearts of Midlothian logo

The Employee Owned Trust: Richer Sounds

  • The successful UK retailer became an Employee Owned Trust in 2019 after its founder, Julian Richer, sold 60% of his shares to the trust.
  • It marks the culmination of 40 years of responsible business practice that prioritised the welfare of its staff through paying a real living wage, opposing zero-hours contracts and offering year-round access to company-owned holiday homes.
  • The company is committed to becoming carbon neutral, free from conflict minerals and paying its fair share of tax.
  • Having spearheaded campaigns against zero-hours contracts and aggressive tax avoidance, Julian Richer has now launched the Good Business Charter accreditation scheme to encourage more responsible businesses and signpost customers to them.

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Case study - Richer Sounds shop front

How Giki is helping everyone take carbon footprints personally

  • The Giki app helps users scan retail products and see at a glance how sustainable they are.
  • Giki’s website also provides carbon calculators and tools for individuals, companies and groups to reduce their carbon footprint.
  • As a B-Corp and social enterprise, the company ‘walks the talk’ too, boasting a negative carbon footprint and employee policies that encourage no-flying and plant-based diets.
  • The husband-and-wife co-founders’ ambition is to help individuals to link their actions with big sustainability initiatives, like COP26 and the UK Government’s Ten Point Plan.

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Fair For You: The company reimagining buying on credit in the UK

  • Fair For You is a loan company that specialises in household essential goods, such as fridges, heaters, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners.
  • It tailors its flexible products towards people who would not be granted mainstream credit – the so-called subprime market.
  • Its model is customer first and not designed to generate a profit from other people’s financial struggles, measuring success in social value not profits.
  • The company recently launched a Food Club with Iceland supermarkets, providing interest-free £75 loans to help customers with the cost of living crisis.

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