An Interview with Dr. Brendan Richardson (Part One)

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Tell us about yourself – family background, personal story, education, and previous professional capacities.

I teach Consumer Behaviour in University College Cork in Ireland. I have been here for almost 16 years. In my time, I’ve tried to teach consumer behavior from a cultural perspective, and not a positivistic perspective.

In that way, I have come across ideas and theories, and some interesting movements and people I might not have otherwise come across. For example, for the PhD thesis, I looked at consumer resistance among football supporters.

I used ethnography as the research method. That meant getting out and meeting people, observing people, taking part in what they were doing. That gave me ideas to use for the interviews in presenting the research.

Gradually, over the years, I found myself drawn towards studying consumer behavior, perhaps not so much from organizational perspectives, but from the perspective of individual consumers and consumer communities. Their experiences might not be as straightforward as the glossy consumer campaigns might have us believe.

That was interesting to me. Eventually, that, in a way, has led me to a situation where I feel maybe it is my role as an academic to question things. I have increasingly asked questions. I have asked questions when I see tragedies like the Rana Plaza disaster. They make me ask questions. Questions about the way that society works and how might we change society for the better.

For instance, I have discovered through research into ethical consumer behaviour that it’s difficult for the individual consumer to achieve change.

I have spoken with a number of consumers. When I interview people, I tend not to use quantitative approaches. I tend to sit down with people. I will prepare some questions, but the interview becomes a semi-structured or an unstructured process rather than a structured process.

Using that approach, the exploratory approach, I have learned about the struggles that individual people have when they want to see change. For example, to continue their own personal relationship with something like fashion, they find their options restricted. It might be because of their own financial circumstances because they see ethical fashion as attractive, but unaffordable.

If Also they are expected to purchase certain brands, shop at particular stores, because their friends expect them to shop in a certain way. It is difficult to transcend those boundaries. So, there seems to be these difficulties that individual consumers face.

Some people seem to be able to transcend those difficulties and pursue an ethical course with respect to their love of fashion. Other people find that’s too difficult. They revert to making choice that they would not necessarily make if they were fully free to make  choices.

I find that incredibly interesting. It has caused me to ask more questions about the relationship between business and society in general, which is where I am today.

With respect to consumer behaviour, individual consumers’ choices based on their level of knowledge, or the level of coercion they might have with marketing and advertising, what misconceptions might consumers have about the fashion and the garment industry?

So, I suppose people’s misconceptions arise out of this inherent need we seem to have to believe in the world as a benevolent place. As ordinary consumers, we want to be able to trust the brands. We don’t look behind the label

We see these attractive brands. We see these high street labels. Because of what they represent to us, what we allow ourselves to believe what they represent, we create a dissonance with the possible realities of the creation of those clothes.

Problems arise with the ways in which we construct our own ideas about those brands in our minds, because we don’t critically unpack the information given to us in advertisements. We tend to grasp on to those attractive images and relate to the positive images of the attractive models.

I’m sorry. That may sound clichéd, but I don’t mean it to sound clichéd. The issue is one of the orientation that we have to believe in the present image rather than the ugly reality. Maybe, that’s an instinctive thing.

Of course, we believe if there’s a problem that the companies behaviour need to be addressed. I came across this thing in the interviews. I interviewed one woman. I won’t name the brand in question, but she placed huge trust in one brand of cosmetic.

She felt that because she was paying a premium price for this brand of lipstick that this money was being spread at a reasonable distribution throughout the supply chain. Since the product demanded such a price, that the product was being produced in a sustainable and responsible manner.

When she found out that this wasn’t the case, that there’s child labor involved, she was deeply upset by that. Her misconceptions arose from the fact that she was buying a high quality product in a luxury, exclusive retail environment.

She was buying a brand that had advertised itself on the high quality. That’s a combination of things. It created this misconception. When she realized that these things she’d assumed were not the case, she abandoned her relationship with the brand.

That’s one aspect of it. Some things come to mind for there. One is the form of advertising and marketing where they’re not necessarily telling any untruths, but they’re not giving the whole story. You can give an advertising campaign that is shifting the focus to “this will make you feel beautiful, make you feel great,” but at the same time there’s no representation of the exploitative child labor.

So, it’s not necessarily an untruth, or a falsity, but it is leaving out various truths that are important and will influence, based on your story, people’s consumer behaviors. I think that’s an important consideration. Also, you are a member of the Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment. What is the Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment?

That is a group that was set up a number of years ago as a campaign against a planning application made by a company named Indaver. They wanted to build a toxic waste incinerator on a site in Cork Harbour. Some people refer to them as incinerators. Other people refer to them as waste-to-energy facilities, which, in itself, may be regarded as something of a euphemism.

The group was created to help organize the campaign against the proposal to build this toxic waste incinerator. A lot of people were upset by the prospect of that happening because they didn’t want a huge toxic waste facility developing on their doorstep.

There was apprehension. There were fears about environmental and health consequences. That inspired a broad coalition of people to come together. One of the extraordinary things that has happened is that even though on the first couple of occasions that this company applied for planning permission to build this facility they were rejected, they keep re-applying for permission.

They were rejected on the first occasion by the Irish Planning Authority. On the second occasion they acquired permission, but this was thrown out by the Irish High Court. This was based on a case brought by members of the Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment.

What has happened in the last number of months, the company came back looking for planning permission for a municipal waste incinerator rather than a toxic waste incinerator. We have been through an oral hearing process as part of the consultation process.

That’s administered by the Irish Planning Authority. We are waiting to hear the outcome of the oral hearing. What has begun to develop from that in the meantime is many people involved in the Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment, whose interest in campaigning against the incinerator was inspired, in part, by their interest in sustainability in general, there is a great amount of enthusiasm among the members for developing Cork Harbour Alliance into a zero waste movement, to turn the Cork Harbour community into a sustainable community.

I am excited by this. Years ago, the whole harbour was a site was for heavy industry. It wasn’t a place for green jobs, sustainable jobs. What has begun to happen over the years, over the last 5-7 years, a lot the new projects and new sources of employment are green jobs.

They are environmentally friendly jobs. They are sustainable jobs. People are keen to build on that. Not only to build on that, they are keen to learn from the experience with attempts to campaign this incinerator as a means to manage waste.

People have become aware. If you’re not going to build the incinerator, if you want to move higher on the waste management hierarchy, what is the long-term solution to avoid this incinerator being built in our neighborhood?

The inspiration for people comes from this. They think, “Zero waste, can we adopt it?” can we cultivate a commitment to zero waste in our community?” The answer people have begun to come up with is that this is exciting and doable. It’s very exciting!

I have found among the friends made through the campaign an interest in the interconnections between other campaigns such as the movement for climate justice on the international stage. In the beginning, people were motivated towards their own local issues.

Nonetheless, people have now begun to see the bigger picture. That’s really good. People can see how we behave affects other people throughout the world, and vice versa. There’s an interconnectedness with everyone.

In itself, that is the thing that makes me feel excited as an ongoing commitment to the Cork Harbour Alliance. If it going to develop in this way, I hope to see this develop in that way. It is going to begin to plug into this wider global movement and community.

I don’t want to overdramatize. I don’t want to suggest this is the local chapter of the Blockadia movement. In Cork, there have been public demonstrations. However, it has not gotten to forms of direct action.

Everything has been ‘by-the-book’. Through people’s experiences, people have become more aware of the connection between Cork and other places around the world. That’s exciting.

I have noticed this too. Even with the small businesses, the owners say, “I do not do this for profit. However, I hope people in the region, or internationally, can see this as the way things can be done.” That’s an undercurrent in an open, honest, positive sense.

Yes! One thing I’ve noticed very, very strongly. The Cork Harbour Alliance has managed in spite of huge challenges to succeed against a big, powerful, international company in some ways. I think community has been resilient because many local businesses have thrown their weight behind it.

From their point of view, they see this as part of how their local businesses can continue to thrive, but the way their family and friends can continue to thrive as well. It is something where the local business community – small businesses in particular – are with us.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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