Understanding Consumer Ethics in China’s Demographic Shift and Social Reforms

Purpose The purpose of this paper is to explore some specific, current social phenomena in China that may influence consumers’ ethical beliefs and practices, focusing on how some top-down, social and political changes could shape consumer behavior that needs to be understood in the Chinese context. Design/methodology/approach Extensive literature was critically reviewed to explore recent macro-societal reforms in China and their impact on consumers’ (un)ethical practices. Findings The authors lay out how China, a government-led society, underwent a series of political reforms resulting in demographic shifts that differentiate it from its western, industrialized counterparts. The authors connect these societal changes with Chinese characteristics to consumers’ ethical evaluations, forming a new angle to understand consumer ethics in China. The authors also draw on two empirical examples to illustrate the argument. Originality/value While consumer ethics are often explained by either cultural factors or individual variations, the authors discuss how one’s ethical practice is shaped by one’s social position, which is a product of national-level public policy. The discussions have ramifications for the study of consumers’ social class and ethical practices because they take into account the elusive social positions and ambiguous social class consciousness of the Chinese population that have resulted from social mobility. The discussions may give practitioners a better understanding of the ethical rationale behind consumers’ changing lifestyles especially in the Chinese context.