Global Citizenship and the Ethics of Consumerism

by Brianna Levesque, Kenyon ’17

You are a citizen of your town, your state, and your country: but do you consider yourself a citizen of the world? Could whether or not you identify as a global citizen have an economic impact based upon the items you choose to buy? A recent study by researchers Gerhard Reese and Fabienne Kohlman set out to discover how defining citizenship in a global context affected the choices people made at the check-out stand. Their hypothesis was that those who more strongly identified as citizens of the world consequently were more likely to purchase fairtrade items as opposed to conventional items.

This prediction was built from the foundation of previous findings regarding social identity theory. Researchers have found that when people expand their in-group to include all of humanity, they increase their likelihood of being concerned over global injustices. This occurs because of the way people tend to focus solely upon injustices within their own in-group. By seeing every person in the world as part of their social group, individuals tend to concern themselves with more evenly distributing justice among all of the members of their group—or, all of humanity, in the case those who identify as global citizens. The authors of this study sought to focus in on the economic repercussions of such a way of thinking. Would those say the world as their in-group be more likely to engage in fairtrade transactions as an action to encourage global justice in one of its many forms?

Reese and Kohlman hypothesized specifically that the strength with which people identified as global citizens would be positively correlated with the likelihood that they would choose a Fairtrade chocolate bar over a conventional one. They also predicted that perception of global inequality would be a partial mediator of this relationship. They controlled for the mood of the participants and measured behavioral intentions to encourage global justice.

The study involved 68 German university students who were compensated in, you guessed it, free chocolate—a very different kind of reward than the typical intangible credits most university students receive for participation in psychological research. Measures included global identification, global injustice, justice sensitivity, mood, behavioral intentions, and chocolate choice. Participants were measured using self-report questionnaires and told that the study was interested in perceptions of global relations. They were also supplied an intermediary questionnaire about daily habits to conceal the relationship between the previous survey and their later choice of chocolate bar at the conclusion of the study.

The results of the study were that—after logistic regression analysis—it was found that participants who identified more strongly as global citizens were more likely to choose the Fairtrade chocolate bar. Justice sensitivity shared variance with global identity, although it wasn’t connected to chocolate choice. However, when justice sensitivity was controlled for, the correlation between global identity and chocolate choice decreased. The hypothesis relating perceived global injustice with mediating global identification and chocolate choice was supported.

One possible weakness of the study was in the belief that the intermediary study would reduce the influence of the first study on chocolate choice. The study states that during the debriefing period following the study, participants responded that they had no idea of the connection between the first questionnaire and their later choice of chocolate. Although they may have spoken truthfully, it is possible that they were simply not conscious of the influence of the previous study on their later behavior. Perhaps it would have been better to have more time to separate the self-inventory from the choice of chocolate to ensure that their choice was consistent with normal behavior and independent of global thoughts encouraged by the first survey.

Overall, however the results of this study are notable in furthering understanding of and supporting for social identity theory. Seeing the world as a collective society–one giant in-group for which equality and justice should be evenly distributed—has effects on prosocial behavior. This study suggests that such prosociality can have profound economic effects on the consumer market and gives hope that the consumer may influence, with their choices, to fight against global injustice. That’s true purchasing power.


Reese, G. & Kohlmann, F. (2015). Feeling global, acting ethically: global identification and fairtrade consumption. The Journal of Social Psychology. 155(2), 98-106, doi: 10.1080/00224545.2014.992850

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