Ethical Consumption and Social Context: Experimental Evidence from Germany and the United States
This research examines the role of social context in ethical consumption, specifically, the extent to which anonymity and social control influence individuals' decisions to purchase organic and Fair Trade coffee. Our research design overcomes biases of prior research by combining framing and discrete choice experiments in a survey. We systematically vary coffee growing method (organic or not), import status (Fair Trade or not), flavor, and price across four social contexts that vary in degree of anonymity and normative social control. The social contexts are buying coffee online, in a large grocery store, in a small neighborhood shop, and for a meeting of a human rights group. Subjects comprise 1,103 German and American undergraduate students. We find that social context indeed influences subjects' ethical consumer decisions, especially in situations with low anonymity and high social control. In addition, gender, coffee buying, and subjective social norms trigger heterogeneity regarding stated ethical consumption and the effects of social context. These results suggest previous research has underestimated the relevance of social context for ethical consumption and overestimated altruistic motives of ethical consumers. Our study demonstrates the great potential of discrete choice experiments for the study of social action and decision making processes in sociology.
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