by Martin Turcotte
What you should know about this study
Proportion of people who buy or boycott a product for ethical reasons on the rise
Men as likely as women to have chosen or boycotted a product for ethical reasons
Ethical consumption less frequent among those 65 years and older
Quebecers and British Columbians more likely to choose or boycott a product for ethical reasons
Recent immigrants less likely to choose or boycott a product for ethical reasons
Ethical consumption more frequent among people who have less confidence in major corporations
People involved with organizations more likely to participate in various activities
A greater feeling of control associated with ethical consumption
Conflicting opinions about ethical consumption
One of the significant movements marking the last decade is the greater awareness Canadians have about the impact their daily activities can have on the environment. This new environmental consciousness is reflected in tangible actions and new habits such as participating in recycling programs, using reusable bags, purchasing organic foods, and using environmentally friendly products at home.
A number of ethical issues have accompanied the growing concern for the environment. For example, there has been condemnation of the working conditions and wages of garment and food (particularly coffee) industry workers, the treatment of laboratory animals, certain marketing practices, and anti-union activities.
In addition to numerous calls to boycott certain companies,1 new products have emerged under the fair-trade banner. These fair-trade products are the result of a production and marketing process considered to be more fair to workers and less harmful to the environment (or at least they are presented as such). Once relegated to a few specialized businesses, products labelled ‘fair trade’ or ‘responsible’ are now available in most supermarkets, on stock exchanges, and even through travel agencies.
The idea that citizens can effect change through their behaviour and consumption choices has become an integral part of the environmental and activist discourse. It follows that many political scientists consider ethical consumption, including boycotting, a form of political participation, because its objective is to provoke social change2 (for other perspectives on the relevance and actual effectiveness of ethical or responsible consumption, see “Conflicting opinions about ethical consumption”).
Survey data from a group of industrialized countries show that from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, boycotting was the form of non-traditional political participation that saw the biggest growth3 (there are no data on the evolution of ethical purchases over that same period).
What is the consumers’ propensity to choose certain products and boycott others based on ethical criteria? Were more of them doing so in 2008 than in 2003? Who is most likely to choose or boycott a product for ethical reasons? And how does the evolution of responsible consumption compare with the evolution of the other forms of political participation? Using data from the 2003 and 2008 General Social Survey (GSS), this article attempts to answer all of these questions (see “What you should know about this study” for details on data and concepts).
This study is based on data collected by Statistics Canada in the General Social Survey (GSS). In 2003 and 2008 the survey collected data on the political engagement, social participation and social networks of Canadians aged 15 years and over living in private households in the 10 provinces.
This study deals with people aged 25 and over. This corresponds to a survey sample of 18,457 respondents representing nearly 23 million people in 2008 and a sample of 21,785 in 2003. Individuals aged 15 to 24 were excluded because most of them were still attending school and living with their parents so they were not necessarily responsible for daily consumption choices.
While the study doesn’t focus on young adults, according to GSS, 17% of those aged 15 to 19 and 28% of those aged 20 to 24 said they had chosen or boycotted a product for ethical reasons in 2008.
Ethical or responsible consumption: Individuals were classified depending on whether they responded “yes” or “no” to the following question: “In the past 12 months, have you done any of the following activities: […] boycotted a product or chosen a product for ethical reasons?” The same formulation was used to measure participation in the eight other types of political activity listed in Table 1.
Feeling of personal control: This variable is constructed from responses to seven questions with the following preamble: “Please tell me if you strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree that...”. Using these response options, respondents then provided their positions on the following statements:
The responses were recoded into a numeric scale such that responses reflecting a greater feeling of control had a higher value. Based on the resulting rankings, respondents were then classified into five categories. For the logistic regression model, this variable is treated as a constant, with a value ranging from 1 to 5.
Participation in organized groups: Respondents were asked whether they had been members or participants, in the 12 months before the survey, in any of the following groups, networks or organizations: union or professional associations; political parties or groups; sports or recreational organizations; cultural, educational or hobby organizations; religious-affiliated groups; school groups, neighbourhood, civic or community associations; service clubs or fraternal organizations; or other groups (and the number of groups).
In addition to voting, citizens wishing to participate in public life and potentially influence political decisions or society in general can also: volunteer for a political party, sign a petition, attend and participate in public meetings, etc. In recent years, some analysts have become concerned about declining civic participation, notably decreasing participation in elections.
The GSS data show that, in 2008, participation rates for most forms of political activity measured by the survey were either lower than or practically identical to those recorded in 2003. For example, the proportion of citizens aged 25 or older who had attended a public meeting was 19% in 2008, down from 23% in 2003 (Table 1). The proportion that had volunteered for a political party remained virtually unchanged, at approximately 3%. Elections Canada data reveal an appreciable decline in the participation rate in federal elections over the past 20 years: from 75% in 1988; to 67% in 1997; and to 59% in 2008.4
However, two types of civic participation increased between 2003 and 2008: searching for political information (up 3 percentage points) and ethical consumption (up 7 percentage points) (Table 1).
This increase in ethical consumption, between 2003 and 2008, was observed among men and women, higher and lower income households, people with and without children, etc. However, there were some significant regional variations. In fact, while the increase in ethical consumption was 8 percentage points in Quebec and 10 in Prince Edward Island it was 1 percentage point in Alberta (Table 2).
Generally speaking, men were more likely than women to participate in political activities, such as attending a public meeting (Table 2). This is consistent with several studies on the subject.5 However, the GSS found that there was no difference between the sexes regarding ethical consumption. Studies have shown that women are more likely than men to exhibit environmental values and behaviour,6 and, particularly in the Scandinavian countries, to purchase products with a view to ethical or social considerations.7 At the same time, other data sources show that, in Canada, men are more inclined than women to participate in a boycott.8 In the GSS, purchasing and boycotting a product for ethical reasons are measured together, which may explain similarities between men and women.
It has been well-established that the most politically involved people are generally better educated.9 The GSS data confirm that education is strongly and positively associated with both political participation and ethical consumption (Chart 1 and Table 2). Specifically, in 2008, the proportion of university graduates who chose or boycotted a product for ethical reasons was 41%, compared with 8% of individuals without a high school diploma. When the impact of other factors (e.g., household income, immigrant status and place of residence) are controlled for, university and college graduates remain more likely than less educated people to have chosen or boycotted a product for ethical reasons (Table A.1).10
Generally speaking, a certain amount of information is required to actively incorporate ethical or political considerations into consumption choices. People with more education have a greater tendency to read newspapers and use the Internet to find information. The Internet is an excellent way to learn about ethical products or boycotts that have been organized.11 It was also observed that, among people who said they had chosen or boycotted a product for ethical reasons, a higher proportion had used the Internet to look for information about products or services in general (81% compared with 60% for others) (results not shown).
An association similar to that observed between education and ethical consumption also existed for income: the higher the household income, the higher the proportion of individuals who engaged in ethical consumption. For example, 24% of people living in households with an annual income between $40,000 and $59,999 had chosen or boycotted a product for ethical reasons, compared with 40% of those with an annual household income higher than $100,000. It often costs a little more to purchase products that have been fair-trade certified and this additional cost will have less impact on the personal finances of people with higher incomes. In addition, those with the highest income normally spend and consume more than others, whether it be for food, entertainment and recreation, or home renovations. All else being equal, the greater the quantity of goods and services purchased by an individual, the more likely that at least some of those products were purchased for ethical reasons.
People aged 65 or older, who are the most likely to vote in elections,12 were the least likely to choose products for ethical reasons (15% compared with 30% of those aged 45 to 54, for example). They were also less inclined to sign a petition (Table 2). Studies have shown that ‘post-materialist’ values are positively associated with ethical consumption13 and boycotting.14 Post-materialist values include self-expression (i.e., emphasizing autonomy, quality of life and freedom of expression) and secularization (e.g., challenging authority and religion). In Canada, as in many other industrialized societies, these values developed in the generations born after the Second World War—as a result, they are less prevalent among those aged 65 or older.15
In general, ethical consumption was more common in the larger census metropolitan areas (CMAs) than in census agglomerations (CAs) and outside these regions (Table 2). It may be that some products that are easily accessible in larger centres like Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver or Ottawa–Gatineau are more difficult to find in more remote areas. Among the largest CMAs, Ottawa–Gatineau and Québec had the highest levels of ethical consumption (34% and 35% respectively in 2008).
In both 2003 and 2008, ethical consumption varied a great deal by province. In 2008, British Columbia (31%), Quebec (29%) and Ontario (27%) recorded the highest proportions of citizens who had consumed or boycotted certain products for ethical reasons. The lowest proportions were observed in Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick (14% for both).
While ethical consumption was less frequent outside CMAs, CAs and in the Atlantic provinces, the same cannot be said for attending public meetings, an activity that requires a higher level of engagement (particularly in terms of time). Participation in public meetings was highest outside CMAs and CAs (Table 2) and higher in the Atlantic provinces, particularly Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island than in other provinces.
Some studies have demonstrated that recent immigrants, particularly those from countries with more limited democratic rights, are less likely than others to participate in non-traditional political activities or ‘protests,’ like boycotting a product.16 Some studies have also shown lower participation by recent immigrants in more traditional political activities, like voting in elections.17 According to the 2008 GSS, recent immigrants were less likely than individuals born in Canada to have chosen or boycotted a product for ethical reasons, to have contacted a newspaper or politician, to have signed a petition, or to have participated in a public meeting (Table 2).
Previous studies have also shown that the longer immigrants had lived in Canada, the more likely they were to have similar behaviour to non-immigrants in terms of political participation.18 That is also what happens when it comes to ethical consumption and other types of participation: in 2008, 29% of those born in Canada had purchased or boycotted a product for ethical reasons, compared with 24% of immigrants who arrived in Canada before 1990 and 12% of those who arrived between 1990 and 2008 (Table 2).
Market research has shown that there are certain values and attitudes characteristic of people who make purchases based on ethical criteria. For example, one study found that those who liked fair-trade coffee, in addition to being better educated than average, were more idealistic and less conventional than other consumers.19
The GSS data are consistent with these conclusions. Individuals who expressed the least confidence in major corporations had a higher tendency than others to be ethical consumers (37% compared with 13% of those who reported more confidence in major corporations). Not surprisingly, individuals with the lowest level of confidence in major corporations were much more likely to sign petitions (Table 2).
Individuals who are religiously active are more likely to vote in elections,20 volunteer and make donations to organizations;21 and, when they make donations, they tend to give more than others. However, individuals who reported a religious affiliation were less likely to choose products based on ethical criteria than those who did not declare a religious affiliation (Table 2). Married people were also less likely to have chosen a product for ethical reasons than single people or those living common-law (Table 2 and Table A.1).
Political scientists have demonstrated that citizen participation in associations and organizations of all sorts (political or not) encourages civic and political participation. In fact, people who participate in political life often do so because they have been in contact with someone who encouraged or mobilized them. The results show that the people who were most involved in organizations were also the most likely to choose or boycott products for ethical reasons (42% of people who were members of 5 or more organizations versus 16% of those who did not belong to any organization).
People who choose products based on ethical criteria may do so because they believe that their actions, combined with those of others who do the same, can have an impact. In keeping with this idea, people who had the greatest feeling of personal control were also more likely to participate in ethical consumption (43%) compared to those who felt they had less control (18%). People with a greater feeling of personal control generally believe that they can influence what happens to them, that they have the resources to meet various problems, and that their future depends mostly on their actions.
Opinions related to ethical or responsible consumption vary. According to some critics, this form of individualized political action requires relatively little effort and, while attractive due to its relative simplicity, will never be as effective as legislation and regulations when it comes to ‘changing things.’1 One of the obstacles to being a more effective form of political action is the inability of consumers to assimilate the huge amount of information necessary to make ethical purchasing decisions on every occasion. Other authors point out that some ‘socially acceptable’ or ‘green’ products are not necessarily so, particularly when it is the manufacturers themselves who designate their products as such.2 Finally, the truly cynical believe that ethical consumption is just a way for the more fortunate to stand out socially without being concerned for anything other than their personal prestige and their reputation, for example, to appear green or morally superior to others.3
In contrast to these viewpoints, others believe—and support their arguments with historical examples—that consumers can have a great deal of power and influence over corporate conduct and government policy.4 Organized movements against sweatshops in the garment industry, for example, led some large companies to overhaul their practices by opening their doors to independent monitoring, increasing minimum salaries and improving health and safety conditions in their factories.5 Some experts also point out that, for many young people, ethical consumption constitutes a new and important way to become politically engaged.6 Finally, recognized fair-trade certification agencies, like TransFair Canada, claim that there is a real improvement in working conditions when this production process is put in place.
In Canada, between 2003 and 2008, participation in ethical consumption increased while participation in most other types of political participation declined or remained the same. In 2008, the proportion of people who had purchased or boycotted a product for ethical reasons rose to 27%, compared to 20% in 2003.
Levels of education and income had an effect on the probability of having chosen or boycotted a product for ethical reasons. For example, in 2008, 41% of people with a university degree had purchased or boycotted a product for ethical reasons, compared with 22% of those whose highest level of education was a high school diploma. Also, people with the highest income were much more likely to have consumed or boycotted a product for ethical reasons than those with a lower income.
The other factors associated with greater participation in ethical consumption were being born in Canada; living common-law or being single; living in a metropolitan area; having little confidence in major corporations; not having any religious affiliation; having a greater sense of personal control; and actively participating in several organized groups.
Martin Turcotte is a senior analyst with Canadian Social Trends, Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division.