Bringing the Farmer to the Consumer: Why Do Consumers Not Buy Fair Trade Products?

Many fair trade labels exist, but do they really work well? Labelling fair products is an easy way to inform consumers without overloading them with information. But it also seems that the success of this strategy is limited. Which raises the main question: what stops consumers from buying fair trade products?

With various scandals of unfair labour practices hitting the news, consumers have become increasingly aware of unfair labour practices around the world. For instance, in December 2021, major fashion brands received backlash about underpaying their Indian workforce (Kelly, 2021). Closer to home, reports have reached the public of seasonal workers in the UK being systematically exploited since Brexit (Levitt & Wasley, 2022). At times, there is a public outrage where consumers use their power to boycott companies and push for more sustainable business models with fair working conditions. Although well intended, these boycott movements only single out certain brands without significantly changing companies’ business models.

The problem is that fair trade products are not yet the default product for consumers. Yes, many consumers want to buy fairly produced products but often fail to do so when shopping. This has been dubbed the intention-behaviour gap (Carrington, et al. 2014). Consumers often state positive intentions to buy fairly produced products. These positive intentions stem from consumers’ genuine desire to do the good thing and echo what the socially desirable thing to say is. Yet these intentions do not directly translate to consumers buying these products, hence the gap between intention and behaviour. 

Fair Trade Beans

To reduce the intention-behaviour gap, many efforts have been made to ease the purchase of fair trade products. One widespread effort is the labelling strategy, with common labels like ‘Fair Trade’ or ‘Fair for Life’. The philosophy of this strategy is that with a single glance, consumers can easily recognise fair trade products. But practice shows that labels in itself are only moderately successful (Gruner et al. 2014). Why are fair trade labels not effective? The answer is complex, and many reasons exist, from individual differences (e.g., how important is fair wage for consumers?), or generational differences to social influence (e.g., what are the others doing?). This blog does not aim to list all the issues that consumers have with buying fair trade products. Instead, the focus is on recurring issues in the academic literature that seem to hold for everyday purchases for the ‘average’ consumer. 

First of all, consumers’ purchase decisions are based on more than just the fair trade label. For instance, products with ‘gentle’ attributes, such as baby shampoo, seem to pair well with ethical claims such as fair trade logos. In contrast, products with ‘hard’ attributes, such as car shampoo, do not (Luchs et al. 2010). Products that have been intentionally greened also thrive less on the consumer market than products that have accidentally been made more environmentally friendly (Newman et al. 2014). Simply put, some products pair better with fair trade labels than others. 

The price premium of fair trade products is another obstacle for consumers. Although some consumers with strong values about fair trade or the desire to signal status may be willing to buy fair trade products at a premium price (Griskevicisus et al. 2009), it is an obstacle for many others. Yes, consumers understand that fairer wages or improved working conditions come with additional costs. Yet, alongside every fair trade product is a cheaper product, which often seduces consumers to buy the less fair and cheaper option. 

Supermarket consumer

Next to price concerns, consumers have expectations, beliefs, and stereotypes about products with fair trade logos. To name a few of these: consumers often assume that ethical products are of lower quality (Luchs et al., 2010), are less strong (Mai et al., 2019), contain less calories (Schuldt et al., 2012), or are more feminine (Brough et al., 2016). Admittedly, depending on the consumer, some of these may increase consumers’ willingness to buy fair trade products. For instance, a dieting consumer may become more likely to buy fair trade products believing they are choosing the low-calorie option. However, many of these also lead consumers astray from fair trade products as these lead consumers to reason that the fair trade product is inferior.

Trust, too, is a recurring problem with fair trade certificates. Greenwashing, lack of transparency about the fair trade claims,  the vast amount of fair trade claims that exist, and limited regulation lead to confusion, doubt, and, in the worst case, distrust in consumers. Ideally, consumers’ doubts or confusion are addressed before it leads to distrust, as the latter is probably harder to resolve.

Lastly, we need to consider the reality of many consumers. Being in a hurry, desiring to save money, or being tired from a day’s work are common feelings in the store. A hurried consumer is unlikely to be patient enough to understand the label. A consumer worried about paying off its mortgage will be unwilling to pay a premium price for fair trade products.  

To summarise, to encourage consumers to use their power to push firms towards fairer business models, it is worthwhile to understand what stops consumers from buying fair trade products and consider consumers’ reality. This way, consumers may become more eager to buy a fair trade product. And as research suggests, buying one fair trade product is likely to set consumers up for more fair trade purchases (Juhl et al., 2017). Hence, stimulating the occasional fair trade purchase may, over time, lead to big changes.

Bibliography

Brough, A. R., Wilkie, J. E., Ma, J., Isaac, M. S., & Gal, D. (2016). Is eco-friendly unmanly? The green-feminine stereotype and its effect on sustainable consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 43(4), 567-582.

Carrington, M. J., Neville, B. A., & Whitwell, G. J. (2014). Lost in translation: Exploring the ethical consumer intention–behavior gap. Journal of Business Research, 67(1), 2759-2767.

Juhl, H. J., Fenger, M. H., & Thøgersen, J. (2017). Will the consistent organic food consumer step forward? An empirical analysis. Journal of Consumer Research, 44(3), 519-535.

Kelly, A. (2021, 16 December). ‘Worst fashion wage theft’: workers go hungry as Indian suppliers to top UK brands refuse to pay minimum wage. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/dec/16/worst-fashion-wage-theft-workers-go-hungry-as-indian-suppliers-to-top-uk-brands-refuse-to-pay-minimum-wage

Levitt, T., & Wasley, A. (2022, 12 January). ‘No running water’: foreign workers criticise UK farm labour scheme. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/jan/12/no-running-water-foreign-workers-criticise-uk-farm-labour-scheme

Luchs, M. G., Naylor, R. W., Irwin, J. R., & Raghunathan, R. (2010). The sustainability liability: Potential negative effects of ethicality on product preference. Journal of Marketing, 74(5), 18-31.

Mai, R., Hoffmann, S., Lasarov, W., & Buhs, A. (2019). Ethical products= less strong: How explicit and implicit reliance on the lay theory affects consumption behaviors. Journal of Business Ethics, 158(3), 659-677.

Newman, G. E., Gorlin, M., & Dhar, R. (2014). When going green backfires: How firm intentions shape the evaluation of socially beneficial product enhancements. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(3), 823-839.

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