Why are girls more “moral” consumers than boys?

Iona Bain

Another month, another timely reminder of the moral facets of our finances that we can all so easily forget – but are nonetheless there if we choose to examine them.

A recent survey from the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investments has revealed our affiliation with so-called “wardrobing” – a new-fangled and actually quite extreme way to save money. It basically boils down to this; you buy clothes, wear them once and return them to the shop without blinking an eyelid.

Apparently, this is common practice these days among young consumers and Londoners – so if you’re a twenty something living in the Big Smoke, I imagine your wardrobe is like a dark, dusty, cavernous abyss, containing nothing but dust and the faint whiff of smug thriftiness.

I commend anyone who manages to save money wherever they can – I just can’t imagine putting this into effect myself, for fear that I’d spoil the garment in question with blood, ketchup or lipstick (or all three if I’m having a particularly wild night). Thankfully, the survey shows that this trend abates when we deal with local, smaller clothes retailers because we feel a greater pang of guilt than when we waft into the likes of H&M, knowing their supply chain is probably not whiter than white and therefore doesn’t deserve ethical considerations on our part. This doesn’t, of course, do anything to address the problems with those supply chains, and nor will wardrobing do anything to help our jittery retail economy post-Brexit (or indeed the exporting companies and workforces of much more troubled countries), which is probably why I feel so uncomfortable with such hardcore frugality.

What really drew my attention to this research was another finding – that gender and age are fundamental in determining how “ethical” we are as consumers. Specifically, women are far more likely to behave morally when they’re at the till, filling out their tax return, doing their online banking or making an insurance claim – and probably lose out in the process.

For instance, 29 per cent of men think it’s totally acceptable to “forget” to report a bank error that goes in their favour. That drops to just 19 per cent of women. Even more seriously, 12 per cent of men would have no qualms about underpaying income tax – compared to 8 per cent of women. Nearly one in five men would inflate the value of an insurance claim, but only around one in ten women would do the same.

In the world of work, truly Machiavellian tactics also appear to be a man’s game. More than three quarters of men would use confidential information belonging to a competitor (if they came across it) for the gain of their own employer – contrast this with just a third of women. And 10 per cent of men would allow a colleague to take the blame for a mistake they did not make – something only 5 per cent of women would do. See the table below;

Action % of women who thought this was acceptable % of men who thought this was acceptable Difference
Failure to report a bank error in your favour 19% 29% +10
Failure to pay as much income tax as you should 8% 12% +4
Inflating the value of an insurance claim 11% 17% +6
Keeping a low value gift from a customer without declaring it 37% 44% +7
If you come across confidential information belonging to a competitor, use that information for the gain of your employer 33% 47% +14
Allow a colleague to take the blame for mistakes they did not make 5% 10% +5

This correlates with research undertaken in 2013 by the Universities of Pennsylvania and California, Berkeley, which showed that men seem far more willing than women to sacrifice their ethical values in exchange for money or career advancement.

We can take comfort from the fact that all these transgressions seem to be the preserve of a minority. However, the fact that such behaviour exists at all shows that some of us, at least, are okay with pushing the boundaries and suspect that we might just get away with it.

This has to be the fault of our culture, shaped by changing tastes and values, which in turn are greatly shaped by education and public policy.  For instance, were this survey to ask respondents whether they felt okay with drink-driving or having unprotected sex with a stranger, would we expect any less than 99 per cent of the population to deem these actions as totally unacceptable? But both of these behaviours have become taboo precisely because the consequences of engaging in them (death, injury or a serious sexually transmitted illness) are so severe. Whereas if we underpay tax, overinflate an insurance claim, are we even sure we would get caught, let alone be sufficiently punished to make us think twice?

Humans are particularly torn as to whether we should “follow the rules” when only moral righteousness (and perhaps an easy conscience when we sleep at night) are the only advantages to recommend this route, as seen by the ease with which celebrities such as David Beckham could indulge in tax avoidance schemes for many years by virtue of being outside the PAYE system. His main punishment seems to be a bit of public outrage and the withdrawal of an otherwise guaranteed knighthood – probably well worth the dough he has saved.

We shouldn’t get away from the fact that some of the unethical behaviour raised in the survey goes WAY beyond simple acts of self-preservation and “getting ahead”. Underpaying income tax, contrary to what many greedy companies say, is not simply a case of looking out for oneself (and shareholders). It’s depriving the country in which you live and (relatively) prosper of public services that benefit us all – and drawing out more than you deserve from insurers ultimately makes the cost of compulsory and advisable insurance for the rest of us even more expensive. Such behaviour should be seen for the real Butterfly Effect it causes.

Even ten years after the global financial system collapsed under the weight of “bad boy” behaviour from ethically incontinent bankers like Fred Goodwin, we have seemingly allowed this generation to hold onto a glimmer of doubt about the inherent wrongness of financial dodging.

I would hate to think that this not only impoverishes us all in the long-term but that it accentuates the gap in prosperity between men and women. Whatever women possess that inhibits an otherwise natural temptation to be naughty when it comes to money (be it cultural, biological or invariably a complex interaction of both), we need to see whether that tendency can be more successfully passed onto our boys – lest we breed a new generation of Phillip Greens who care more about themselves than the society which surrounds and helps them.

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