For best experience please turn on javascript and use a modern browser!
You are using a browser that is no longer supported by Microsoft. Please upgrade your browser. The site may not present itself correctly if you continue browsing.
Dianna Amasino (a former post-doc researcher with the ASE Microeconomics section) carried out research to determine how consumers respond to sustainability information (ethical labelling) when purchasing products. She received a grant from A Sustainable Future (ASF) to fund a lab study on information avoidance and framing when consumers select and buy a product.

Other researchers involved in this project were Joël van der Weele (Amsterdam School of Economics), Suzanne Oosterwijk (UvA Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences), and Nicolette Sullivan (London School of Economics).

Earlier consumer behaviour studies show that people seek sustainability information because it is relevant to their intention to make more ethical and sustainable choices.

Avoidance and framing

‘Our research focused on 2 facets of the issue. The first is the tension between wanting to seek relevant ethical  information and the motivation to avoid inconvenient or unpleasant information. For example, people avoid information to reduce conflict or guilt about choosing a more selfish option - one that is cheaper or more appealing,’ explains Amasino. ‘The second is the effect of positive or negative framing of information. Is it presented positively (improving lives or sustainability) or negatively (preventing harm)? Which approach results in more ethical consumer choices?’

Missed opportunities

Sustainability information available to consumers ranges from labour conditions to a product’s environmental footprint. While surveys show that consumers want this information, actual consumption behaviour shows that consumers fail to fully use this information in their choices. This leads to missed opportunities. Consumers could be persuaded to make choices that promote sustainability and contribute to resolving issues facing society such as forced labour, climate change, and poverty. ‘This is why it’s important to develop better strategies where sustainability information is offered in ways that promote curiosity, without triggering avoidance that leads to less ethical choices,’ says Amasino. To do this, the researchers ran studies to measure avoidance behaviour and responses to positive and negative framing among consumers.

Testing consumer behaviour

In the studies, participants made choices between different goods like chocolate or coffee. These goods varied in price, quality, size, and included ethical information about Fairtrade and Organic certifications (negative of neutral framing). In an incentivised lab study, people could select a product and purchase it using money from a budget.
In another study, participants made hypothetical purchases online. To examine information-seeking and avoidance, participants were exposed to all the information on the decision screen in half of the choices. In the other half, they could only reveal the information by hovering their mouse over information boxes. In these ‘hidden’ choices, information is free and easy to reveal, but also possible to avoid. This scenario is similar to when consumers search for a certification on an item’s packaging in the supermarket.

Negative framing has the biggest impact

Amasino: Across studies, ‘we saw a small reduction in purchases of products with certifications when participants had to actively reveal information instead of being confronted with it.
There was a more significant and larger impact as a result of framing. Negative framing led to the largest increase in certified purchases (relative to neutral framing) regardless of whether the information can be avoided or not. Our conclusion at this point is there is mixed evidence for avoidance, but a strong effect resulting from negative framing. Negative framing led to an increase in consumers using sustainability information when making their choice. This is something worth considering when you want ethical labelling to have more impact on consumer behaviour.’