Trading values

What we buy or don’t buy reflects our values, whether we like it or not

(featured image: mwewering/pixabay)

Savvy consumers – aren’t we all? – are always concerned with getting value for money. We may not always do a full-blown analysis, making a long list of the criteria we believe are important, assigning them a weight, and then rating our possible purchases. But with the exception of the odd impulse buy, we mostly do tend to make a conscious judgement as to whether what we procure is worth the price.

To make sure it is, we obviously look at the features and benefits on offer, the characteristics inherent in the product. Whether it’s a grapefruit, a pair of running shoes, a saxophone or a car we are buying, we have some requirements that it needs to meet (respectively juicy, durable, cool-looking, and cool-looking, for example).  Our eventual choice will reflect the trade-off between how well it satisfies these needs, and its price tag.

Beyond the features

But is that all? Not always. Sometimes what we eventually purchase is not only determined by its characteristics, but by other factors. My earliest memory of such a phenomenon goes back several decades, to the time of the boycott of Outspan oranges in the early 1970s. These fruit were the product of the Republic of South Africa, led by then Prime Minister John Vorster, a strong adherent of the Apartheid regime. The action started in the Netherlands, but shortly after spread to (in particular the Dutch-speaking part of) Belgium (as told in this comprehensive story) and beyond.

It’s impossible to say how much this specific campaign contributed to the eventual collapse of the Apartheid system, but it was a highly visible action that certainly raised awareness of what truly took place in the country. And what was clear is that consumers’ criteria for selecting fruit were not necessarily limited to taste, texture and price, but could also include the country of origin. A few years on, more high profile evidence of this remarkable instance of consumer behaviour: the Nestlé boycott. This action was not aimed at a loathsome political system, but at the business practices of a company of marketing formula milk to poor women in less economically developed countries. (This boycott is ongoing.)

So there is little doubt that some consumers at least, when they are weighing up the pros and cons of buying a particular product, incorporate moral or political convictions alongside the product’s features. In effect, they are prepared to either buy an inferior product or a more expensive one, in order to satisfy a need that is unrelated to the product itself: the need to act in accordance with their values.

Last week saw a case of indirect boycotting. Stop Funding Hate, a campaign group, is trying to persuade large businesses to stop advertising in The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, which they say have run “divisive hate campaigns”. A supporter of the campaign started a dialog with Lego, which has been running giveaway promotions with the Daily Mail for some time, which culminated in Lego tweeting:


The Co-op, a mutual group of companies, has also said they would be “looking at our advertising for next year to see whether we can align it more closely with our natural sources of support rather than more generic media advertising”. Both the Co-op’s and Lego’s statements are less than clear about exactly what concrete action has been taken as a direct result of the campaign, but their responses in themselves indicate that businesses do take notice of consumer activism.

Predictably, those targeted reacted, calling hypocrisy and even censorship, but it does come across as a little pathetic and alarmist. It is hard to see how the actions of Stop Funding Hate could possibly be regarded as censorship: the right to free speech does not imply the entitlement to other people’s money to fund the publication of one’s opinions. Well over half of the newspapers’ revenue derives from advertising, but where do the advertisers get that money? Indeed: from the consumer. What we see is simply consumers using their economic power – voting with their money.

The price of your values

But is it only the activists who exert influence by what they buy or don’t buy? In a very real sense, all consumers do.

It is not really possible to be neutral in a market place. We have a limited amount of money, and we can only spend it in one way. Most of us are at least aware of the existence of fair-trade bananas or coffee, but the vast majority still buy the conventional equivalents. Even if that is the result of status quo bias and we don’t consciously make a reasoned decision, it still has a significant effect: less money goes to the fair-trade product, and hence to the whole cause of fair trade, than had we chosen differently.

Not only does our choice, however implicit and unreasoned, have an effect, it also reflects our values. Because we make a trade-off: if we truly think it important to make sure the grower of the beans or the picker in the plantation get a decent wage, we can signal that value in our choice, and pay more for our coffee or bananas. If we don’t make that sacrifice, we inevitably signal that we don’t care all that much. And the same applies to the choice we make between organic and non-organic produce, between buying from supermarkets and corner shops, between driving into town, walking or taking the bus.

Whether we want it or not, we all put a price on what we value. Whenever we trade, we also trade our personal values.


About koenfucius

Wisdom or koenfusion? Maybe the difference is not that big.
This entry was posted in Behavioural economics, Economics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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