Are Asian shoppers from developing countries more conscious consumers?

The results of an Asia-wide consumer survey suggest that shoppers from countries such as China, Thailand and Malaysia are more likely to buy from ethical businesses compared to their richer neighbours. What gives?

Shibuya crosswalk
Crowds of shoppers move through Tokyo's shopping haven of Shibuya. Only 20.4 per cent of Japanese consumers showed a preference for purchasing from ethical merchants. Image: Joshua Damasio, CC BY 2.0

When it comes to conscious consumption, it appears that shoppers from developing countries in the Asia Pacific region are more conscientious than their counterparts in richer nations.

A recently released survey by Mastercard, the Mastercard Ethical Spending and Charitable Giving Survey, found that Chinese consumers were most likely to buy products from ethical businesses with 75.2 per cent of respondents saying so.

Survey participants from Thailand (67.6 per cent), Malaysia (65.7 per cent) and the Philippines (64.6 per cent) also ranked high when it came to choosing to buy ethically.

Meanwhile shoppers from developed countries were the least inclined to spend with responsible businesses. Japan performed the worst with a paltry 20.4 per cent of consumers saying they would buy better, while only 28 per cent and 29.1 per cent of Australian and Singaporean shoppers, respectively, were convinced of the need to do so.

The negative experience of rapid economic growth in many emerging markets could be one factor leading to increased concern about the impact of production and consumption on society and the environment, Mastercard’s senior vice president for communications, Asia Pacific, Georgette Tan told Eco-Business. 

Sustainable goods have long been associated with commanding a higher premium, making the findings of the survey somewhat surprising, since people in developing countries tend to have lower disposable incomes. 

Consumers in emerging markets could be more willing to buy ethically produced items because of the novelty factor, she added.

“Another possible contributing factor could be that developing markets are often where a supply chain begins, so it’s only natural for consumers in these markets to favour fair trade products and merchants that give back to local communities,” she said.

In contrast, consumers from developed markets may find the issue of responsible production and sourcing to be “distant”, said Tan of the results.

The attitudes reflected in the survey do not necessarily mean people in developed countries are not buying ethically produced goods, Tan added. “The increased availability of fair trade and responsibly sourced products means that people are often choosing between products already deemed to be ethical, so price, as opposed to ethics, becomes the key factor.”

The survey, which gathered the opinions of 8,738 consumers across 14 markets in Asia Pacific, found that respondents reacted differently to merchants with different sustainability policies.

Slightly over half of those polled preferred to buy from merchants that are environmentally responsible (50.2 per cent), followed by those that are socially responsible (49.7 per cent) and businesses that partner with or donate to charities (46.1 per cent).

Asians spend the most on products that are made based on fair trade principles, while environmentally friendly products and companies that donate a portion of sales to a good cause were also popular.

Consumers are most willing to open their wallets when making donations to children’s education and health causes. Other causes close to the people’s hearts include local natural disaster relief efforts, as well as poverty and starvation alleviation initiatives.

Asked what the survey’s overall findings meant for companies, Tan told Eco-Business that brands must consider their reputation, supply chain and environmental footprint when attempting to enter Asia’s developing markets. Communicating their contributions to the local community is also key.

“Brands shouldn’t assume that consumers in developing markets are just looking at prices—they have tastes and preferences that come into play,” she said.

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