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hands holding apps with ethical phrases

(T)apping Into Consumers’ Ethics

Sarah Steimer

hands holding apps with ethical phrases

Ethical consumer apps help shoppers make informed decisions about which brands to support

Marketers have known that consumers use their mobile phones for research when shopping, to compare prices or check availability. Marketers also know that consumers give preference to socially conscious and eco-friendly companies. App-makers have tuned into the the intersection of mobile product research and ethical consumption. These platforms, which are typically crowd-sourced, enable consumers to make in-the-moment decisions on which brands to support and which to spurn.

What are ethical consumption apps and how do they work?

Ethical consumption apps allow consumers to quickly and easily see what brands align with their personal causes. One of the most popular consumption apps is Buycott, which prompts users to join campaigns to support different causes, such as animal rights, green energy or ending child labor. Consumers can scan product barcodes and learn more about how the company aligns with their chosen causes. There are options to view alternative products that better relate to a user’s chosen causes, share information about a product or company across social channels, see what other users are boycotting and communicate your decision to the company.

A 2018 study published in Consumption Markets and Culture explored how these apps motivate their users. Christian Fuentes of Lund University and Niklas Sörum of the University of Gothenburg studied three ethical consumption apps, finding they work in two core ways to enable and reinforce ethical consumption. First, the apps put pressure on consumers by making consumption ethically problematic. Ordinary consumption is considered inherently moral because it’s shaped by values such as caring for others, but the process of ethicalization rearticulates a person’s moral code every day. Put even more simply, the apps place a filter over the daily consumer landscape and show how almost every action can be an ethical dilemma. The apps also problematize everyday life by linking consumption with the consumer’s identity and status.

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Sarah Steimer

Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.