Stop expecting consumers to take action on corporate tax avoidance

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By Dr Caroline Moraes, Senior Lecturer in Marketing
Department of Marketing, University of Birmingham

People will tell us that they prefer ethical or sustainable brands. Yet, they will not always behave in ways that resonate with their attitudes.

Corporate tax avoidance has been a topical issue for a number of years. Once again, we are witnessing many calls for consumers to boycott Amazon and other corporations. The drivers of these calls usually relate to tax avoidance and problems with labour rights, including poor working conditions. This is because Amazon continually uses its clout to push for, and benefit from, favourable tax incentives across the globe.

Despite the ongoing boycott calls, consumers continue to shop with the online giant as usual. Why might this be?

This phenomenon may seem intriguing, but is hardly surprising. Research on whether consumers are willing to align their purchasing behaviour to their political and moral beliefs is now abundant. There have been many attempts to find an elusive segment of extremely committed ethical consumers. People will tell us that they prefer ethical or sustainable brands. Yet, they will not always behave in ways that resonate with their attitudes.

In fact, the one thing that all this research consistently finds is that there is a discrepancy between what consumers say and value, and how they behave in practice. Consumers may say that they dislike, or disapprove of, the lack of transparency in Amazon’s tax strategies and labour practices, but this ‘dislike’ will not translate into ‘not buying’ from Amazon.

Most people are flexible when it comes to voting with their wallets. Researchers and the media tend to view this flexibility as a matter or convenience, quality and price over conscience – which is valid, to some extent. But there are other explanations, too. For example, if you ask questions that encourage socially desirable answers on a survey, consumers will tell you that they prefer brands that act in politically or morally positive ways. Meanwhile, they continue to shop with corporate culprits. Lack of information and time also play a role – and so do socio-cultural influences that create the many tensions and conflicting demands in consumers’ everyday lives.

Specific research on boycotts can also shed light on the reasons why people continue to shop from Amazon, such as:

  • Consumers are less likely to boycott a brand if they do not agree with all the negative arguments being presented against the brand.
  • If the brand is not perceived as hypocritical (e.g., if it does not claim to be ethical or responsible).
  • If consumers were to believe that their decision to stop shopping at Amazon would actually have an impact on the corporation’s bottom line, they would be more likely to boycott the online retailer. However, consumers will often think that their individual actions do not have an aggregate effect on the marketplace, which makes them less likely to take action.
  • Moreover, when consumers really like a brand, they are less likely to boycott it. This is because it can be difficult for people to find a like-for-like substitute that they consider just as good. Strong brands are difficult to replace, whether it be for functional, emotional or symbolic reasons. This is one of the reasons that corporations invest so many resources into building strong brands. As we know, there is no other Amazon.
  • It could also be argued that with so many corporate brands avoiding tax, finding a responsible substitute could pose a challenge. If consumers perceive the financial, time, quality or convenience costs of withholding shopping at Amazon to be high, they are unlikely to boycott the firm.

Perhaps a better and more provocative question to ask is why we continue to expect individual consumers to take action on fundamental, macro-level shortcomings of capitalist systems. Rather than asking our governments to step-up to these challenges, we tend to expect and rely on capitalist players and capitalism to rescue us from the debacles of capitalism itself, which is not a feasible idea. What we need are political leaders who are willing to take on the corporate tax evasion challenge collectively, responsibly and globally. Only then will we see the required changes in our global marketplaces.

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