Why Most Consumers Do Not Walk Their Talk? Neutralising and Legitimising Modern Day Slavery

Michal Carrington, Andreas Chatzidakis, and Deirdre Shaw

In our previous blog we emphasized that if consumers are to play a key role in the fight against modern day slavery, they firstly need to be aware of its scale and nature and secondly, recognize slavery as a morally significant issue. Although this sounds to a certain extent achievable – through appropriately tailored communication and public awareness programmes – we know from previous research that this may still not translate into positive consumer action. The so called “attitude-behaviour” gap (refers to circumstances in which consumers say one thing (e.g. that they care about the environment) but do another (e.g. systematically engaging in environmentally unsustainable behavior).12 How do we begin to explain this, let alone change it? One key approach that has been previously proposed in consumer research is to explore the excuses or justifications consumers use to normalize inaction even when recognizing its moral severity.3

Techniques of Neutralisation

Neutralisation theory argues that individuals may engage in illegal and/or unethical behaviour by resorting to a set of commonly employed justifications or rationalizations that can protect them from feelings of guilt or blame by others. In our study, we found three out of the original five neutralization techniques4, namely, “denial of responsibility”, “denial of injury”, “denial of victim”. We also identified an additional technique that we labelled as “denial of definitive evidence”.

The majority of our informants denied their responsibility for addressing modern slavery by shifting onto other stakeholders – namely, government and for-profit companies. For example, Claire suggests that: “It sounds awful, but slavery isn’t directly my issue. It shouldn’t be happening, I don’t want it to happen, but it’s not my issue”.

Another technique commonly used by informants was denial of victimhood, that is reducing the moral claims of enslaved people by viewing particular slaves as being complicit—and even cunning—in their situation and, therefore, less of a victim. For instance, Vicky suggests that enslaved people in the UK “have the opportunity to go to school and to get a proper job. If they don’t take it, it’s their choice. If they don’t do anything about it, it is because they just don’t want to”.

Our informants further engaged in what could be described as denials of injury, a neutralisation tactic that trivialises the experiences of slavery. This enabled deflection of acknowledgement when confronted with the slavery in their consumption. Kristen for instance states that: “slavery has a silver lining, they just have to have hope and keep working so that when an opening of opportunity arises they can take it”.

An additional technique that was widely employed among our informants and was rather more novel, was what we label as denial of definitive evidence. Without concrete evidence of both the slavery itself and the means to tackle it, informants were able to neutralise their sense of internalized responsibility. Chantel for instance claims: “If I had credible information that that was going on [she would report it] but we have to be so careful because the perpetrators are so smart and can be quite powerful and frightening people to sort of cross as well…”

Techniques of Legitimation

In addition to these four techniques, we identified another set of techniques that were of a rather different nature. We labeled these techniques of legitimation (drawing on Ugelvic, 2016). A key difference between these and the techniques of neutralisation is that legimitation techniques directly reduce the perceived moral significance of slavery (rather than coming up with reasons for not acting in relation to slavery).

Techniques of legitimation can be seen as backstage and tacit knowledge that normalizes slavery even when at a more explicit level, slavery continues to be recognized as illegal and morally unacceptable. For example, some of our consumers talked of slaves coming from “Third World” or “backward” countries and this was in turn used to imply acceptability of slavery.

A key tactic used to diminish slaves’ claim to moral status and, thus, sense of moral obligation was that of othering. For instance, Stephan engages in othering practices when referring to the role of the caste-system in India: “…so if you look at the caste system in India… then it’s going to be very difficult for you to break out of that. If that [enslavement] is because you were born of a certain caste, that’s how you’re going to stay”.

In some other instances, informants were observed stripping modern slaves of their ‘humanness’. For example, Alex reduces his consideration of enslaved people to a utilitarian cost-benefit equation to ascertain the value to himself in consuming slavery: “It’s the cost-benefit analysis. There are these slavery problems, but I get so much benefit from it that I continue doing it”.

Finally, a common legitimation technique employed by informants was defence of necessity, that is calling on an overwhelming sense that slavery is an inevitable consequence and, indeed necessity, of society. As Vincent observes: “I need to buy what I need to buy…so regardless of where it comes from or how it’s made, as long as its new and I can wear it, then whether Bob or Billy makes it, if it’s a good price for me—then I’m going to buy it”.

A Way Forward?

In our study these two sets of techniques worked in a synergistic fashion. Together, they explained our key observation: widespread consumer disengagement with contemporary slavery in the supply chains of services and products.

What is to be done? To be sure, some of these techniques may be very difficult to counter given how bounded they are by dramatic histories of postcolonialism, uneven geographic development and more recent geopolitics. Informant accounts of slaves coming from backward and uncivilized countries, for instance, coincided with the shocking declaration of a leading politician that many US immigrants come from “shithole” countries.

Prior research, however, illustrates that if implemented successfully, “de-neutralising” and “de-legitimising” communication campaigns can expose consumer responsibility and provide the ultimate impetus for consumer action.5 But we also need to recognise that the de-neutralisation and de-legitimation of consumer inaction is subject not only to explicit communication campaigns; but also more widespread (and sometimes tacit) representations of slavery by stakeholders, such as, NGOs, national governments, businesses, and transnational organizations. Modern slavery remains a global issue requiring multi-level and multi-stakeholder action.

1 Carrington, Michal J., Benjamin A. Neville, and Gregory J. Whitwell. “Why ethical consumers don’t walk their talk: Towards a framework for understanding the gap between the ethical purchase intentions and actual buying behaviour of ethically minded consumers.” Journal of business ethics 97, no. 1 (2010): 139-158.

2 Chatzidakis, Andreas, Sally Hibbert, and Andrew P. Smith. “Why people don’t take their concerns about fair trade to the supermarket: The role of neutralisation.” Journal of business ethics 74, no. 1 (2007): 89-100.

3 Chatzidakis, Andreas, Sally Hibbert, and Andrew P. Smith. “Why people don’t take their concerns about fair trade to the supermarket: The role of neutralisation.” Journal of business ethics 74, no. 1 (2007): 89-100.

4 Sykes, Gresham M., and David Matza. “Techniques of neutralization: A theory of delinquency.” American sociological review 22, no. 6 (1957): 664-670.

5 Bersoff, David M. “Why good people sometimes do bad things: Motivated reasoning and unethical behavior.” Personality and social psychology bulletin 25, no. 1 (1999): 28-39.


Michal Carrington is Associate Professor, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne, Australia. Michal researches in consumption ethics, business ethics, and consumer culture. Her research is published in a range of international journals, including European Journal of Marketing, Marketing Theory, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Business Research. Michal has published a book and book chapters, as well as giving invited talks on consumer and marketing ethics. Prior to entering academia, Michal spent almost a decade working for Unilever in Australia and the UK.

Andreas Chatzidakis is Professor in Marketing at Royal Holloway University of London. Andreas is a Professor at Royal Holloway University of London, which he joined in 2007, after completing his PhD at University of Nottingham. His doctoral research was focused on social psychological and attitudinal models of consumers’ “ethical” choices such as buying Fair Trade products and recycling. Since then he has become more broadly interested on the intersection of consumption with ethics and politics drawing from diverse disciplines such as sociology, human geography, gender studies and psychoanalysis.

Deirdre Shaw is Professor of Consumer Ethics and Sustainability at University of Glasgow. Deirdre has researched the area of consumption ethics throughout her career, publishing on the subject in a range of international journals, contributing to books and non-academic publications, giving invited talks, teaching, supervising PhD researchers and advising policy, business and third sector. She is Associate Director for the University of Glasgow Centre for Sustainable Solutions and Consumer Ethics section co-editor for Journal of Business Ethics. Her research projects include: Consuming Modern Slavery