It feels good to buy a Prius. The hybrid electric car from Toyota is distinctly better for the environment than most cars, so for those who can afford it, it seems the obvious moral choice. But are such decisions really guided by ethics? After all, a Prius isn’t just good for the environment—it’s also a highly visible purchase. Couldn’t some customers’ seemingly ethical desire for a hybrid car in fact be a deep-seated wish to seem ethical?
June Cotte, marketing professor at Western University in Ontario, who has conducted research on ethical consumption, says that social awareness does indeed play a huge role in the ethical decisions we make as consumers.
If people look at how others are behaving and worry that their actions look bad in comparison, they’re likely to change their behavior.
“If someone’s doing something that makes me look bad, I’ll do something to repair my sense of self,” she says. “More publicly visible products are more likely to be contagious because people can see you doing that. There is that social comparison which prompts more herd virtuous behavior.”
This helps explain why highly-visible blue recycling boxes successfully encouraged recycling, as people could see which neighbors were sorting through their plastic and glass.
Of course, at the end of the day, the environment doesn’t know whether you bought a Prius to be good or just to look good. But buying a Prius doesn’t mean you can sit back on your laurels and consider your ethical job done.
Cotte warns that “moral self-licensing” can lead consumers who make one ethical purchase to feel that they have license to ignore other problems. Those who make the ethical decision to buy a Prius may be less morally inclined when it comes to less visible purchases—perhaps they’re not inclined to look at the labels showing where their clothes are made, for example.
“The idea is if I give to charity, maybe I can buy a dress from Bangladesh,” she says. “We often see it in virtuous and vice choices. So if I’ve been good on my diet this week, I can have some chocolate cake. I think this moral licensing happens in lots of domains, and we know it happens in ethical consumption.”