Davos Pedagogy

with Ela Veresiu


To combat vexing ills such as obesity, global warming, and inequality, we must constantly remind consumers of their inherent moral shortcomings, or so business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum will argue once again during their annual meeting in Davos this week.

But is there a better way to create the responsible consumer? We believe so. Indeed, in a longitudinal study of the World Economic Forum, which ran for 8 years and was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, we found that the forum's biggest hurdle to accomplishing its positive goal of "improving the state of the world" might be its poisonous pedagogy.

Currently, in terms of its treatment of the consumer, the forum is entirely steeped in the mindset of 18th century German Protestantism. If Davos were a person, it would be a schoolmaster from that era - cold, cruel, and called upon to instill obedience and moral virtue in the impure child.

Yet, this approach has surprisingly little effect on making consumers more responsible. Research has shown that inducing guilt trips comes at a high price of creating strong feelings of resentment towards the manipulator. These studies also suggest that enabling others to act more responsibly yields better results than merely chastising their current behavior.

In our field of consumer research, there is a rich body of evidence on designing consumer identities to motivate behavioral change. The World Economic Forum's moralistic approach to creating the responsible consumer violates three key principles: The new consumer identity must be emotionally appealing, easy to learn, and accessible to a wide variety of individuals. If the forum used a more progressive pedagogy - one that embraces empathy, knowledge sharing, and market inclusivity - it might have a more positive social impact.

First, responsible consumption must be more emotionally appealing. Davos is telling consumers time and again that they cannot take anything for granted - their own health, the water they drink, the air they breathe. Yet, rather than motivating the adoption of a more altruistic mindset, these economic scarcity narratives merely trigger the urge for individual utility maximization. As our colleague Russ Belk has shown, people are more likely to adopt an altruistic identity when motivated by the potential benefits to someone they love - their extended self -rater than by the potential costs to their core self. Linking environmental consciousness with family happiness, for example, might therefore motivate more consumers to reduce their ecological footprint.

Second, responsible consumption must be much easier to learn. We have watched WEF leaders struggle to explain the basic principles of financial literacy and highly motivated consumers lose faith in their own money management skills. Adopting a responsible consumer identity should be simple. But why is there only a paucity of information on how to do it right?

We found that responsible consumption raises an important analytical distinction between awareness and capability. Consumers can be fully aware of a particular identity's moral virtue and still not adopt it because of their perceived inability to bring it to life in natural and intuitive ways. Creating the responsible consumer thus entails strategic capabilization efforts.

Currently, the forum focuses exclusively on raising consumer awareness, to the exclusion of providing actionable advice on how to cultivate more ethical consumption habits. If the World Economic Forum's science and market experts would generate more skill-based knowledge about responsible decision-making and spread this knowledge throughout the educational system, consumer ethics could actually become a general subject in schools like Math, English or History. Along the same lines, the forum's scientific experts and business managers could even team up with high school teachers to create concrete teaching modules on healthy eating, green behavior, and money management.

Third, responsible consumption must be made more inclusive. When Davos leaders admonish greater fidelity to healthier eating habits, for example, their calls often sound like the world is one big Wholefoods supermarket. Yet, applying the same moral standards to all consumers - from lower Manhattan to Bangladesh - keeps the circle of responsible consumers artificially small.

Even more important than empathy and knowledge, what allows people to adopt an ethical mindset is a socially inclusive market. Economic arrangements promoting purely individualistic morals, in turn, have long been shown to perpetuate the existing gap between rich and poor. Yet, if economists and food scientists at the WEF teamed up with sociologists to improve market structure with existing inequalities in mind, health conscious consumption could become more widespread than it currently is. Approaching global issues through a political economic rather than a purely moralistic lens would be a radical step for the World Economic Forum but it might improve consumer wellbeing.

But perhaps the most convincing argument is this. As parents, we don't raise our children by constantly reminding them about how lazy and irresponsible they are. And although we may be tempted to do so at times, we know that the best way to make them strong, responsible individuals is to empower them through love, knowledge, and opportunities to participate.

To solve some of the world's most pressing issues, it's not enough to admonish consumers to adopt a more ethical identity. Davos leaders must actively enable it. Otherwise, the state of the world will not improve.

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Further Reading

Markus Giesler and Ela Veresiu. "Creating the Responsible Consumer: Moralistic Governance Regimes and Consumer Subjectivity." Journal of Consumer Research: October 2014.