Last week was Fair Trade week – a time when the importance of fair trade is stressed. The target group seems to be people who are concerned with others’ welfare, typically social-minded or altruistic people. But, is buying fair trade really a selfless act?
In their seminal paper ‘Going Green to be Seen’, Griskevicius, Tybur, and Van den Bergh (2010) argued that buying green products can be construed as altruistic, since these products not only cost more than their conventional counterparts, but also benefit the environment for everyone. A reputation for being a cooperative and helpful group member can be extremely valuable: Such individuals are seen as more desirable as friends, allies, and romantic partners. Importantly, being prosocial by spending a lot of money is associated with status in a group. Griskevicious et al. showed that people did not necessarily have environmental or prosocial reasons for buying sustainable products; the desire for such products was also motivated by status considerations. Importantly, the researchers showed that this was only the case when people were shopping in public. This supports the notion that people are only willing to buy green products if this conveys their status to other people.
The same might apply to Fair Trade products. People pay a premium to ensure products derive from fair trade. The fact that these products are more expensive might in itself qualify them as status goods, and this status might attract a different target group than the usual environmentally conscious and social-minded target group that immediately comes to mind. Knowing these psychological mechanisms thus not only protects marketers from falling prey to stereotypical thinking; it also increases the market for Fair Trade products. What is key is to address each group in a way that fits their needs. If we want to motivate children to eat vegetables, it doesn’t help to explain the nutritional value. This is not their reason for eating them, and it will possibly even make them dislike them even more. Similarly, altruistic people will shun Fair Trade products if they are promoted as enhancing status. The key is to know your target group and what motivates them and to adjust your communication accordingly.