A major study shows how despite their claims consumers are switching between fair trade and non-fair trade brands.
Victoria University branding expert Dr Maxwell Winchester surveyed 8,000 shoppers and found even those claiming a commitment to ethical shopping were more likely to buy large national brands than fair trade when both were available.
"A majority of consumers will confess to having strong ethical attitudes and practices including boycotting, but the reality of their actual behaviour was shown to be otherwise," Dr Winchester said. "Consumers are not taking their ethical concerns to the checkout."
In one example, nearly half the respondents claiming to boycott Nestle products admitted they had actually bought Nestle coffee within their last three coffee purchases.
Dr Winchester said the findings challenged assumptions that ethical brands, because of what they stood for, could achieve more loyalty than would be expected for a normal brand.
"People did not just swap between fair trade brands but between fair trade and non-fair trade, showing there is no excess loyalty to fair trade brands," he said.
He said the implication is that consumers were choosing a brand rather than its fair trade status.
"Purchasing of fair trade brands appears to be more a function of brand share rather than a function of ethical beliefs," he said. "There is no reason why fair trade brands cannot compete with national brands but marketers need to be more realistic as to the reasons why consumers are purchasing fair trade brands."
Dr Winchester said the study was based in England – being the world's largest fair trade market – but that supermarket purchase behaviours were consistent between England and Australia.
He said the study was conducted in a major supermarket chain where fair trade and non fair trade items were sold.
The results will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of International Food and Agribusiness.