Many consumers implicitly associate sustainability with lower product strength. This so-called ethical = less strong intuition (ELSI) poses a major threat for the success of sustainable products. This article explores this pervasive lay theory and examines whether it is a key barrier for sustainable consumption patterns. Even more importantly, little is known about the underlying mechanisms that might operate differently at the implicit and explicit levels of the consumer’s decision-making. To fill this gap, three studies examine how the implicit judgments that consumers activate automatically shape their consumption behaviors, in concert with their more controlled explicit beliefs about sustainable products. The Main Study investigates the ELSI’s imprint on actual shopping patterns and disentangles the implicit and explicit mechanisms of the lay theory. This paper also asks how this negative influence can be attenuated by examining whether the consumer’s interest in sustainable consumption reduces reliance on the ELSI. Two follow-up studies confirm the robustness from different methodological and practical perspectives. Implications for companies and policy makers are derived.
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Luchs et al. (2010, p. 19) use the term “ethical” to refer to sustainable attributes with environmental or social benefits. For reasons of consistency with prior research, we use the term “ethical = less strong” intuition (ELSI) with a particular emphasis on sustainable products.
Note that we also verified the results using ordinary least squares (OLS) estimation. The influence of the implicit ELSI on the share of sustainable categories in the shopping cart (β = −.306, t = −2.875, p < .01) and on the amount of money spent on the more sustainable options (β = −.317, t = −2.985, p < .01) is robust.
To elaborate on this conclusion, we split the sample into two groups according to their level of explicit belief. One group has a mean explicit ELSI that is located significantly below the midpoint of the metric (M = 2.87, SD = .61, t(48) = −12.944, p < .001), whereas the other group’s reliance on the explicit ELSI is significantly above the midpoint (M = 4.27, SD = .46, t(32) = 3.349, p < .01). Both groups do not differ in their implicit reliance on the ELSI (t(80) = −.211, p > .05), and they implicitly subscribe to the intuition, irrespective of explicit belief in the ELSI (weak MD-score = .58, SD = .43, t(48) = 9.344; strong MD-score = .60, SD = .30, t(32) = 11.549, both ps < .001).
Beyond the Tobit coefficients, we estimated the marginal effects for all models. The patterns are the same and the conclusions do not change; e.g., marginal effects for the interplay between implicit and explicit ELSI on the share of sustainable products (2.20, SE = 1.01, p < .05) and money spent on sustainable options (2.24, SE = 1.12, p < .05).
As another robustness test for the interplay between the explicit and the implicit ELSI, we estimated trend interaction contrasts, which are significant for both dependent criteria (share of products: F(1, 76) = 4.72, p < .05; amount of money: F(1, 76) = 5.45, p < .05). The decreasing linear trend over the levels of implicit ELSI differs between the groups with low and high explicit ELSI.
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Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
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Mai, R., Hoffmann, S., Lasarov, W. et al. Ethical Products = Less Strong: How Explicit and Implicit Reliance on the Lay Theory Affects Consumption Behaviors. J Bus Ethics 158, 659–677 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-017-3669-1
- Ethical products
- Consumption decision-making
- Implicit Association Test
- Shopping patterns
- Consumption data
- Field experiment