Does doing good pay off? Morgan Stanley’s Research Foundation set out to answer the question in a report titled “How important is Sustainability to Consumers?” The answer is that sustainability and corporate responsibility matters to various degrees, particularly depending on the product being purchased. With certain products, however, consumers can be “selfish” and not consider sustainability their responsibility.

corporate responsibility

Does helping society matter to consumers?

Climate change, air pollution, slave labor, healthy living – they are all meritorious concerns that, one might think, are on the minds of consumers.

Morgan Stanley Foundation’s international research team led by Victoria Chapelow wanted to understand just how important sustainability and corporate responsibility was in consumer’s product choice.

“Our aim was to get anecdotal comments about the factors that influence their choice of shop and transport, and so we present the feedback from the sample as interesting thoughts,” the report stated.

Bringing together a small group of eight consumers in London for a detailed focus group – too small a sample size to be scientifically meaningful – the resulting study data points to nuance in products where sustainability matters. But the overriding message was what matters most is what is in the consumer’s best interest.

Corporate responsibility matters in food choice, but not as much in transport or apparel

The study found there is a sharp differential between the product type when it comes to sustainability.

Consumers were generally more willing to spend up for sustainable products they ingest – organic food, free range eggs, fair trade coffee – what they used to adorn themselves with and get them around town.

“The perception was that ‘ethical’ clothing brands were likely to be more expensive and the participants said they would not pay more for these brands,” the report said. “This is in contrast to their purchasing decisions for food. For example, they were more likely to buy fair trade coffee vs other coffee even if this was at a higher price.”

Apparel and transportation were areas where consumers were less apt to consider the corporate responsibility factor in their purchasing decisions. Respondents thought that transportation was already expensive and that the responsibility for making appropriate sustainability decisions should rest with the corporation and government.

“Transport, particularly trains, were too expensive already and therefore any relative environmental benefit should have already been priced in,” the group told researchers.

When it came to apparel, the respondents were aware their goods were produced in Malaysia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India and China, but thoughts of the merchandise being produced under slavery-like conditions didn’t seem to matter. “I am selfish. I just want the cheapest option. I just want to do what is best for me,” one participant told researchers.

This attitude is part of a trend, Morgan Stanley noted:

Overall, the consumers that took part in the focus group appeared to devolve responsibility for improving sustainability to companies and governments/ regulators. Taking old clothes to a charity shop was deemed to be “doing their part”. Driving real change in areas such as human rights, environmental damage and greenhouse gas emissions therefore needs to be owned by corporates and legislators, whether this be through product innovation, incremental taxes or more stringent supply chain checks.

Researchers noted “general apathy” when the consumers thought about sustainability factors. “The participants didn’t proactively offer views on topics such as workers’ rights in the apparel industry or pollution within the transport sector,” the report said. “Even when these issues were presented to them, the consumers were fairly dismissive of them as important factors when making purchasing decisions.”