The Grapevine

Millennials May Say They Support Ethical, Fair-Trade Chocolates, But Their Shopping Habits Suggest Otherwise

Chocolate
The majority of millennials say they prefer ethical chocolate in focus groups, but only a small segment purchase these products. Pixabay

Millennials don’t have the best reputation. Considered an entitled generation, this demographic cohort has been pervasively perceived as lazy, narcissistic, and wasteful. In addition to these negative perceptions, new research published in Food Quality and Preference found that this generation may also be hypocrites when it comes to buying ethical products.

After analyzing survey results from nearly 300 millennials, the study authors found that while nearly 90 percent of them had strong preferences for products with certain ethical or social factors labeling characteristics — such as organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified, non-genetically modified organisms (GMO) and Fair Trade — only 14 percent of this group endorsed or purchased these products.

Fair trade and ethically sourced products are usually produced in safe facilities by workers who are treated well and compensated fairly.

"For most participants, their choice behavior reflected minimal concern for ethical factors, whereas their public declarations in a focus group suggested otherwise," Michael Young, lead author of the study, said in a statement. "Participants who modestly preferred a candy with certain labels in our focus group may be unwilling to pay much more to obtain it."

However, it’s important to note that many of these certified ethically sourced products with clean labels that involve simple ingredients tend to cost more money. And with many millennials being over their head in debt and struggling to find jobs, dishing out a few extra dollars for organic products may not be practical

For the study, researchers analyzed data from 80 participants in focus groups and 214 participants for the choice studies. Participants in the focus group were separated into cohorts based on their age — younger millennials were participants 18-25 years old and older millennials were participants 26-35 years old.

"We got the impression in the focus groups that millennials were learning in college what attitudes were popular to express regarding their food," Young said. "But many of the older millennials confessed that they often were not making purchases consistent with those expressed attitudes due to limited financial resources." 

Meanwhile, choice study participants were separated into six clusters based on trends with their preferences: Lower fat and pro-taste cluster, 31 percent; low fat, some sugar cluster, 19 percent; calorie and health conscious cluster, 14 percent; socially conscientious cluster, 14 percent; sweet and tasty cluster, 11 percent; and pro-taste and anti-organic cluster, 11 percent.

Five of the six clusters favored clean labels — defined in the study as a smaller number of ingredients with pronounceable names. The one cluster that didn’t show preference for clean labels preferred higher fat and had a distinctive dislike for organic and non-GMO products. 

However, the survey results from these choice study participants about buying history of average food items revealed they rarely put their money where their mouths are. For example, they found that participants in the calorie and health conscious cluster reported that they did not typically buy things like chocolate milk or cake mixes. 

"The buying demographics validated the emerging picture of the clusters," Young said. "What they were doing in the context of the experiment really did correlate with what they were self-reporting as products that they were buying in the real world."

Researchers say it is too early to tell if the interest in ethical sourcing and fair trade products is a fad or a shift in consumer preferences, but they believe that companies “should lay the groundwork for possible change in consumer preference."

Young M, McCoy A. Millennials and Chocolate Product Ethics: Saying One Thing and Doing Another. Food Quality and Preference. 2016.

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