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Do These Jeans Make Me Look Unethical?

Malaka Gharib NPR

What if your friend bragged that she'd just bought a brand of jeans because she'd checked out the company's practices and made sure they were ethical — no child labor, no polluting the environment by the manufacturer.

Maybe you'd thank her for the info, even be inspired to change your own buying habits.

But a study suggests a lot more of us would have an opposite reaction: "Boy," we'd think, "that friend is 'preachy' and 'less fashionable.' "


The study, which will be published in the July edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology but is already available online, builds on earlier research suggesting that most shoppers experience a kind of ethical dissonance: If we're actually told that a specific product was produced in an unethical way, we won't want to buy it. Yet given the choice, most of us would rather not know the backstory. We won't make the effort to, say, download an app or check out a website that could give us ethical ratings of manufacturers. And the reason we avoid this extra checking-up is at least partly that we're unconsciously afraid of being upset by what we'll discover.

"Anger is one of the emotions people most often feel if they find out a company is doing something unethical," says Rebecca Reczek, a professor of marketing at the Ohio State University Fisher College of Business. "So choosing not to find out is a way to avoid that kind of negative emotion."

Reczek and several colleagues undertook the new study to explore this shopping dynamic further. Reczek noticed that the proliferation of social media and consumer review sites over the past decade has made it a lot easier to see how other people's buying habits compare with our own. And we can tell not only what others are buying but why they're buying it. Suddenly those few do-gooders who choose ethically made products can alert the rest of us. Reczek wondered how this new information might affect us.

Among other experiments, the study asked several dozen undergraduate students to rate four brands of jeans that would differ along four measures — the style (boot cut or regular cut), the wash (regular or dark), the price and, lastly, whether the company used child labor. The participants were told that due to time constraints they could only view information about two of the four measures before coming up with their ranking.

Not surprisingly, given the previous research, more than 85 percent of students did not opt to find out whether child labor was used. Then Reczek and her collaborators asked those so-called "willfully ignorant" participants a new kind of question: What was their opinion of consumers who choose to research a clothing brand's labor practices before making a purchase?


The answers were scathing. The willfully ignorant participants tended to denigrate these ethical consumers — not just as preachy and unfashionable but as "odd" and "less sexy."

Why the hate? Further testing suggested that the willfully ignorant participants may have been unconsciously compensating for the guilt they felt when compared with ethical consumers.

"You feel badly that you were not ethical when someone else was," says Reczek. "It's a threat to your sense of self, to your identity. So to recover from that, you put the other person down."

How did the researchers determine that this kind of subconscious counter-reaction to guilt was likely at work? Among other things, as part of the experiment, the researchers gave a subset of participants the chance to donate to a charity — in effect, a chance to prove to themselves that they were an inherently good person — just before asking them to give their opinion of ethical consumers. In these instances, the willfully ignorant tended to judge ethical consumers somewhat less harshly.

Perhaps most worrisome, says Reczek, the study found that when we belittle do-gooder consumers, the process may have lasting effects. In a related experiment, the researchers found that consumers who did not consider environmental concerns when choosing a backpack — and who denigrated those consumers who did — were later less likely to support an online pledge to support environmental sustainability.

The takeaway for advocacy groups that want to encourage more responsible consumer habits is clear, says Reczek: "To get people to be more ethical, do not ever present your message as, 'If you're not doing this, you're a bad person.' All that's going to do is to make the person reading the message say, 'You're a lunatic and I'm ignoring you.' "

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