Guess which demographic shops most ethically? No seriously, it's not what you're thinking.

Because if you thought either the millennial bracket, or the much older - you were in fact (surprisingly) wrong.

Research published in the UK shows that ethical shoppers are more likely to be middle-aged, a new study has found.

The study, it's authors note, goes against the natural assumption that either young people are most switched on to ethical buying behaviors (looking out for fairtrade, etc.), or conversely - we get more ethical as get older (perhaps more able to afford products which come at a premium). So which one is true? Ummm, neither apparently.

Kevin Morrell, of Warwick Business School, said:

There is the perception that in general people become more ethical as they get older or that today’s young are more in tune with ethical buying and the environment.

But we were surprised to find that it was the middle-aged who were the ethical shoppers. We found a ‘curvilinear’ relationship between age and purchasing fairtrade and organic products: both older and younger respondents were less likely to purchase ethical goods than middle-aged respondents.

Age was also associated with the extent to which people would recommend fairtrade goods, with the oldest respondents also being least likely to recommend fairtrade products to others. This also suggested that younger shoppers were not entirely ‘practising what they preached’.

Young people talking about and recommending trendy ethical products, but then not actually buying them? That sounds like virtue-signaling to me... and we can confirm that millennials sure love to do that.

The study’s findings have implications for advertisers aiming to promote fairtrade, protect the environment and put animal welfare on the agenda.

Professor Morrell:

Our work shows that values play an important part in how many consumers shop, with many aware that their buying habits can have a direct impact on people’s working conditions or the environment. Marketers need to take that into consideration and make sure it is part of their marketing mix.

We know a lot of decision-making in supermarkets is almost sub-conscious and so ethical shopping could be enhanced by useful visual cues and subtle features in the layout of the store that could align with these values.

But the biggest takeaway for me? Your most vocal consumer might not really be the customer you're looking for - the one you ought to be actively targeting. How can we distinguish between our loudest consumers, or a silent majority? This is where social muddies the water even further, and why hard data reigns supreme in the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) world.

Professor Morrell added,

The findings may reflect that both younger and older consumers have less disposable income, especially as fairtrade and organic goods are often more expensive. Certainly, it might explain why younger shoppers recommend ethical foods, but don’t then buy them as they simply can’t afford it.

Older shoppers might just be more engrained in their shopping habits and not as aware of the move to fairtrade and organic foods. Or it might be that younger and older shoppers are purchasing from a smaller pool of products than those middle-aged consumers doing a family shop.

Fancy academia to leave us with even more questions than answers.

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