The international search for ethics norms: Which consumer behaviors do consumers consider (un)acceptable?

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Purpose - Businesses cannot rely on their customers to always do the right thing. To help researchers and service providers better understand the dark (and light) side of customer behavior, this study aims to aggregate and investigate perceptions of consumer ethics from young consumers on five continents. The study seeks to present a profile of consumer behavioral norms, how ethical inclinations have evolved over time, and country differences. Design/methodology/approach - Data were collected from ten countries across five continents between 1997 and 2007. A self-administered questionnaire containing 14 consumer scenarios asked respondents to rate acceptability of questionable consumer actions. Findings - Overall, consumers found four of the 14 questionable consumer actions acceptable. Illegal activities were mostly viewed as unethical, while some legal actions that were against company policy were viewed less harshly. Differences across continents emerged, with Europeans being the least critical, while Asians and Africans shared duties as most critical of consumer actions. Over time, consumers have become less tolerant of questionable behaviors. Practical implications - Service providers should use the findings of this study to better understand the service customer. Knowing what customers in general believe is ethical or unethical can help service designers focus on the aspects of the technology or design most vulnerable to customer deviance. Multinationals already know they must adapt their business practices to the market in which they are operating, but they must also adapt their expectations as to the behavior of the corresponding consumer base. Originality/value - This investigation into consumer ethics helps businesses understand what their customer base believes is the right thing in their role as customer. This is a large-scale study of consumer ethics including 3,739 respondents on five continents offering an evolving view of the ethical inclinations of young consumers.[PUBLICATION ABSTRACT]