Asian consumers care more than their western counterparts, according to two new surveys – although the findings need a good dose of context

To many it may seem counterintuitive. However, a growing number of studies and surveys seem to indicate that Asian consumers are more likely to buy a product or brand with an explicit corporate social responsibility agenda attached than without.

A new survey from Neilsen, “Customers Who Care”, found that Asian consumers are more likely than any other respondents (European, or those in North and South America) to pay more for products from a socially responsible company. In India, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, more than two-thirds of respondents to Neilsen’s survey indicated they’d pay a little more for corporate social responsibility. Indians were most willing, at 75%. Even in China, perhaps the country with the worst reputation for CSR and a history of constant conflicts between responsibility initiatives and state policy, nearly 60% of shoppers said they’d be willing to pay a bit more.

A second piece of research is equally revealing. A survey by communications agency MSL Group that questioned 8,000 “millennials” worldwide (born between 1984 and 1996) found that in China, 92% “demand business involvement in addressing social issues”. Looking at the results from China, Ellen Cheng, MSL’s Asia practice group lead for corporate and brand citizenship based in Beijing, says: “Brands that are socially active are perceived as forward thinking and responsible.”

Why do these findings seem surprising? Because the loud voices shouting about responsibility tend to be western. However, those who shout loudest are not necessarily those who care most.

In China, blogging aggressively about air and water pollution, toxic spills and “outing” poorly performing companies with strong links to the government requires a certain level of bravery. Recriminations may occur, even if the censors allow you space to vent. Newspapers, magazines and TV shows tend to avoid the problem – it’s hard, if not impossible, to talk about the state of China’s environment, workers’ rights, labour conditions and poverty without criticising Beijing at some point and possibly facing retribution.

Western consumers, on the other hand, have freedom of expression and a free media to voice their concerns. This means the chatter on TV, in the newspapers and across the internet is so much noisier and in your face than it is in much of Asia. This can lead to two things: 1) we naturally assume that people are more corporate-responsibility-aware in the west because we hear about it more and debate it intensely and 2) seeking out and buying products from brands with corporate responsibility agendas in the west is far less of a conscious political act than it is in more repressive countries, such as China.

Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’ protests

Of course there are other reasons apart from expression through anonymous surveys and buying decisions being political acts. India has extremely high rates of proactive CSR-linked product purchasing. This is partly due to greater awareness as well as Indian regulations that mandate corporate CSR spending aimed at promoting environmental management and improving working conditions. Neilsen points to higher levels of cynicism regarding big business in Europe and America. Perhaps, but then the freedom to report corporate maleficence in the media, to debate it publicly and protest against it on the streets is so much more open in the west than in a country like China. The recent protests in Hong Kong calling for greater universal suffrage and more accountable government show just how brave ordinary citizens have to be in some societies to raise these issues.

Of course there’s a problem with these two surveys, and others of the same kind. They are all about “intention” rather than “action”. Rates of actually buying products linked to corporate responsibility campaigns remain highest in the EU and US. Again there are specific issues – in China few local companies champion their CSR (where they do it) as part of their wider brand building strategy and actually finding affordable (rather than very expensive imported) products that fit the criteria can be a problem. In India awareness may be high but availability of products and services with clear corporate responsibility policies is lower than in the west.

But then, as my school sports teacher always told me as I missed another clear shot at goal or fell over in the mud, showing willing is extremely important.

China  ethical consumer  Hong Kong  millennials  social issues 

Responsible Business Summit Asia 2015

May 2015, Singapore

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