Not surprisingly, like any livestock farmer I’ve ever met, you’ll find me enjoying a glass of milk, a steak or a hard-boiled egg on any given day. And as a conventional farmer, I believe in the safety of the food system I produce for, so am not likely to buy organic.
They are things I’ve written about before but the two are actually connected when it comes to a consumer’s decision in the grocery store.
Whether we like it or not, guilt has incredible power over us and our daily decisions. The guilt of that kitten in the pound can lead us to bend the “we’ll never have a cat in this house,” rule.
There is the guilt of supporting jobs that have moved offshore, and so we carefully look for the “Made In” label.
There’s the guilt of an animal being sacrificed for our meal.
It is hard not to.
As Wes Jamison of Palm Beach Atlantic University says, guilt is particularly acute among those that are well-educated and affluent. Or, put another way, most of the Western world.
To Jamieson, it starts when we head off to school. We go to learn, many of us wanting to change or better the world. That education then has us looking at our own beliefs, ideas and gets us thinking about what we can do ourselves.
For some, this is where the wheels fall off. Guilt starts to take over as a reason for us to change our behaviour. When it comes to buying food, we start to feel guilty about not feeding our children exclusively organic food. We start to feel guilty for the steer that now finds itself on a meat counter.
But when we dig deeper into that guilt, research suggests that part of that guilt isn’t about what we think. It is about what other people think of us.
From the Network for Business Sustainability, a recent report suggests that when in public places people were more likely to purchase things that they felt were ethically superior. When there were less people around, more shopped on price or comfort.
“In public areas such as retail locations, products with deliberate ethical appeals are more likely to be purchased. The authors find that the presence of others both activates the motivation to appear moral in front of others and the accountability to one’s own standards of right and wrong. In the absence of observers though, consumers are more likely to buy products with subtler ethical cues.”
The full review looks in great detail the research that seemed to find people would say they were willing to pay a premium for products they felt may be more ethical, but when it came to actually having to part with that little bit of extra money, well feelings changed. I’ve heard this come up in a lot of conversations with farmers who are being encouraged to produce for niche markets, only to find the little premium they need, is too much for a consumer to part with.
So how do we get past the guilt?
My own belief is to face it head on. When we identify guilt, can we start to critically assess where that comes from and whether a reaction is warranted or not.
I’m not going to feel guilty having a piece of pie because I know I’ve balanced what I ate the rest of the day.
I’m not going to feel guilty eating a steak, because I’m an omnivore.
I’m not going to feel guilty going for the ‘regular’ Canadian apples instead of the organic ones because I know the safety of the system it was grown in.
I’m now falling into the category of consumer that is turned off by the in your face guilt marketing.
Instead I’m going to worry about those well-educated folks that Jamison talked about that are actually focused on changing the world versus just proving it.
Author Bruce Philp puts it best in an article on why the restaurant Chipotle went too far on guilt marketing when he said, “In the branding business, being morally superior is like being cool: it’s the first thing you should strive for, and the last thing you should talk about.”