The Well-Stocked Kitchen of Martha and Mary, Joachim Bueckelaer, 1566 (Courtesy: The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Ideas for Leaders #637

Why Buying Green Is Not Considered Ethical if You Are Poor

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Key Concept

Ethical purchases (buying organic food, for example) are not always seen as moral purchases, especially if the buyers are on government assistance. How dare they pay for expensive organic food, for example, instead of the better-priced non-organic food? After all, it’s not their money. New research reveals that society views being frugal as more moral than trying to save the world.

Idea Summary

That low-income purchasers face challenges in the marketplace is no surprise, given that they have less money to spend than other groups. However, low-income buyers face an additional, unexpected challenge: based on their financial circumstances, low-income buyers are judged much more harshly by others for making identical purchases. This is most evident with purchases that involve ‘ethical’ choices — choosing products that do not harm or exploit humans, animals or the environment.

The problem is that what marketers call ‘prosocial’ products, such as organic food or hybrid cars, are also more expensive products. New research shows that this price difference colours how others view low-income purchasers of such products — specifically whether they were perceived as more or less moral.

The research revealed the following:

  • Purchasing prosocial products is considered more moral for wealthy purchasers, but considered less moral for low-income purchasers. When there’s little money to spare, society considers being frugal as more moral than trying to save the world. Low-income purchasers have the responsibility to save money.
  • If price is removed from the equation, the difference in moral attribution disappears. Both wealthy purchasers and low-income purchasers on government assistant are viewed as more moral if they purchase prosocial products instead of conventional products as long as the price of prosocial and conventional products are the same (as a result, for example, of a sale on prosocial products). This confirms that price explains the opposite moral judgements of wealthy and low-income purchasers making the same purchase.
  • For low-income purchasers, the source of their income is another factor in moral attribution. Low-income purchasers on government assistance are viewed more harshly if they pay for higher-priced prosocial products than low-income purchasers who earn their income from a job. The reason is that the money they are spending is not really their own, but rather money that was originally earned by taxpayers. As a result, low-income purchasers on government assistance do not ‘deserve’ the right to have a choice in how they spend the money.
  • At the same time, low-income purchasers who receive income from a charity (rather than from a government assistance program) can also purchase prosocial products without incurring a lower opinion of their moral judgement. When a charity chooses to give money to low-income purchasers, these purchasers are more deserving of the right to make certain choices on how to spend that money — unlike low-income purchasers spending money that taxpayers never specifically chose to give them.
  • Organizations are not immune to being judged harshly for what might be considered poor spending choices related to prosocial products. Charities that give expensive organic food to low-income people are judged more harshly than charities that give less expensive conventional food.

The research was based on a series of five experiments in which participants read different scenarios incorporating the different factors described above (and involving either organic food or hybrid cars). The participants then gave the individuals in the scenarios moral scores based on a morality index (cruel/kindhearted, immoral/moral, uncaring/caring and unethical/ethical). The purpose of the experiments was disguised with the inclusion of a variety of unrelated filler items (e.g., practical/idealistic).

Business Application

The implications of this research are for the most part related to the public policy and non-profit arenas. Policy makers and non-profit leaders may not be aware that the less fortunate in our society are judged differently from others, even when ethical products are involved.

Companies might pay particular attention to the way in which organizations can be harshly judged based on the ‘deservedness’ of the individuals they serve. In the eyes of many, charities should not give away expensive organic food to the homeless, for example.

Thus, companies engaged in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives should remain equally aware of how an apparently altruistic program might unwittingly harm rather than enhance their moral reputations. The goods and services that the recipients of your charity receive should match their ‘deservedness.’ In some ways, it is an unfortunate comment on societal attitudes that deservedness would play a role in how CSR initiatives are perceived and received by the community. Yet, such moral judgements exist, and cannot be ignored.

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