Retail

Theoretically Antithetical To Ethics

Consider your behavior as a consumer.

Before purchasing an item, do you research how and where it was made, the labor conditions under which it was produced, whether or not it’s a sustainable good and what effect its production process had on the environment? And, should your investigation conclude that the item does not meet fair trade standards in any of those (or other) regards, do you decline to buy it, even if doing so would save you money compared to purchasing a similar but ethically made product?

If so, here’s the good news: As far as your consumer behavior goes, you are a thoughtful and conscientious member of the human race.

Quick downside to that: Everybody hates you for it.

Well, not everybody, necessarily. And perhaps not hate; that might be too strong a word.

Let’s say instead that many people — strangers, who knew nothing of you other than your shopping habits — would be inclined to say mean and hurtful things about you behind your back.

The caveat here — the unifying characteristic among this hypothetical group of people that would theoretically express ill will towards an individual who practiced ethical shopping habits — is that they themselves would, of course, not be ethical consumers.

Researchers from The Ohio State University (“The” because … there’s an imposter Ohio State, maybe?) and University of Texas at Austin have put this theory to the test and proven it to be true.

The multipart study, conducted at OSU’s Fisher College of Business, first asked 147 undergraduates — all of whom had previously been established as being “willfully ignorant” regarding the ethical (or unethical) production of the goods they buy — to evaluate four brands of blue jeans according to only two attributes (of their choosing) out of a possible four: style, wash, price and if child labor was involved (alternately, the fourth attribute option given was delivery time, for control purposes. #science). Most of the participants avoided inquiring as to the ethical issue, thus choosing to remain “willfully ignorant;” this result was not unexpected by those conducting the study.

Of more interest to them was the outcome of the study’s next portion, in which the same participants were asked to offer their opinions of consumers who would weigh ethical considerations (in this case, child labor practices); these opinions largely skewed negative, with the participants applying such terms as “odd,” “boring” and “less fashionable” to their more ethically minded peers.

The motivation for this name-calling is so basic that it could arguably be described as childish: Essentially, ethical consumerism hurts the feelings of those who don’t partake, so their instinct is to hurt the feelings of those who do, in turn.

As Rebecca Walker Reczek, associate professor of marketing at OSU and co-author of the study, put it: “Willfully ignorant consumers put ethical shoppers down because of the threat they feel for not having done the right thing themselves. They feel bad, and striking back at the ethical consumers makes themselves feel better.”

One could find a positive aspect, as it broadly applies to basic humanity, in this knee-jerk (and jerky) reaction: At least the guilt behind it signifies that people, for the most part, are aware of what is objectively “the right thing to do” when it comes to making purchasing decisions. The majority of shoppers just don’t do it — at least not on a regular basis.

There are a number of reasons that keep ethical consumerism, in practical terms, from being a black-and-white issue, chief among them being price. There exists a steep divide between the cost of items that are made quickly and en masse on an assembly line and those that are made as part of a more socially and environmentally conscientious process. Not everyone can afford the latter option, particularly in the case of essential items, like food and clothing. This does not make them bad people.

Even consumers that do have the means — at least on occasion — to make the more expensive, ethically minded purchase but do not can still make the convenience argument: Mass-produced goods are easier to find, doing research on products’ sourcing takes too much time, etc. Compared to price-borne necessity, this defense is shakier, but it’s one in which retailers themselves are sometimes complicit.

Alden Wicker (of the sustainable lifestyle blog EcoCult) writes for Refinery29 of how even consumers’ most superficial arguments against ethical fashion (namely, that it’s ugly) can be all the motivation that some brands need to avoid even attempting to produce it, with the fear of potential short-term sales losses overriding larger, longer-term considerations. As The Washington Post points out, even some luxury retailers that already do sell environmentally friendly goods actually make efforts to hide that fact in their marketing, given the less-than-flattering opinion that a majority consumers carry of the practice — or, at least, that retailers believe that they do.

Ultimately, if ethical goods are ever going to become more widely adopted, it’s likely not going to be up to consumers or retailers to make that change; rather, it will be up to both sides of the retail equation, in equal parts. A more reliable — dare we say sustainable? method of addressing the guilt associated with not dealing in ethically produced products than simply trying to ignore it (which the OSU study proves is likely impossible) might be to embrace our better natures that are tending us towards that guilt to begin with.

Easier said than done, to be sure … but it’s a tactic certainly worth considering, given the outcome of another portion of that OSU study: After “willfully ignorant” consumers were confronted with the existence of more ethically minded ones, they actually demonstrated consumer behavior that was more anti-ethical.

“After you denigrate consumers who act ethically concerning a specific issue, you actually care a little less about that specific issue yourself,” said Reczek. “This may have some disturbing implications for how ethical you will act in the future.”

That’s a possibility we can all agree to dislike.

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