Those who can, do; those who can’t, mock? That’s the conclusion a team of Ohio State University researchers drew after questioning consumers about the ethical-purchasing practices of those around them. Published in the online edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the study suggests that even though nobody is actively seeking out products made under appalling social or environmental conditions, people who don’t ask too many questions about what they buy tend to ridicule those who do, perceiving them to be more boring and less fashionable.
Worse, consumers who witness others act ethically, especially when they themselves don’t, risk losing any lingering commitment to pro-social values, according to Rebecca Walker Reczek, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
“It is this vicious cycle,” Reczek said. “You choose not to find out if a product is made ethically. Then you harshly judge people who do consider ethical values when buying products. Then that makes you less ethical in the future.”
Earlier research by Reczek’s collaborator, Julie Irwin, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, found that consumers often choose to be “willfully ignorant” when it comes to how their favorite products are made.
Although they will consider ethical information, such as fair labor or environmentally friendly processes, if it’s readily available on, say, product packaging, they won’t make the effort to gather further information.
Together with Daniel Zane, a graduate student at Fisher College, Reczek and Irwin sought to determine the consequences of this “willful ignorance” by having 147 undergraduates evaluate four brands of blue jeans after choosing two out of four possible attributes: style, wash, price, and either an ethical issue (whether the company used child labor or a control issue (delivery time for the jeans).
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MEDIUM VS. MESSAGE
Most participants chose not to find out if the jeans were made with child labor, researchers said. When asked to provide an opinion of their more conscious peers, particularly those who delve into a clothing manufacturer’s labor practices before making a purchase, those same participants were more likely to dub their counterparts “odd, boring and less fashionable.”
“They judged ethical consumers less positively on positive traits and more negatively on negative traits,” Reczek said.
Participants who didn’t choose to find out about their jeans’ delivery times, on the other hand, didn’t judge those who had concerns about timeliness more harshly. It all had to do with the ethics, Reczek said.
“Willfully ignorant consumers put ethical shoppers down because of the threat they feel for not having done the right thing themselves,” she added. “They feel bad and striking back at the ethical consumers makes themselves feel better.”
“Willfully ignorant” consumers who disparaged their more ethical cohorts were also less likely to care about pro-sustainability causes, researchers found.
Reczek said that the study showed that most consumers want to do the right thing; it just has to be the easy thing, too.
“Most consumers want to act ethically, but there can be a discrepancy between their desires and what they actually do,” she said. “Companies that use ethical practices in producing their products can help by making that information very prominent, right on the packages if possible. People are not going to go to your website to find out your company’s good deeds. If consumers don’t see ethical information right when they are shopping, there can be this cascade of negative consequences.”