Stakeholder Trends and Insights
Consumers Who Don’t Seek Out Ethical Products Scoff at Those Who Do

The consistent rise in responsibly made consumer products — and growth of a market that says it prefers, seeks out or will even pay more for them — keeps us plenty busy here at Sustainable Brands. And while a majority of consumers arguably doesn’t fit into this category, it’s generally safe to assume even they wouldn’t like to knowingly buy products made with child labor or that harm the environment.

But according to a new study from Ohio State University, not only do many consumers not want to put much effort toward finding out whether our purchases were produced ethically (which is not exactly news), they have a way of looking down on those who do. In fact, the study found that as we turn up our noses at more ethical consumers, it actually undermines our own feelings of empathy toward the issues in question (child labor, environmental pollution, etc).

“It is this vicious cycle,” said Rebecca Walker Reczek, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “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.”

Walker conducted the study with Daniel Zane, a graduate student at Ohio State’s Fisher College, and Julie Irwin, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. The results appear online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology and are slated to be a published in a future print edition.

In earlier research, Irwin had found that consumers will consider ethical information, such as whether a product was sourced ethically or has environmental benefits, if it is readily available — such as on product packaging — but many won’t do their own research or ask a salesperson. For the new study, Reczek, Irwin and Zane conducted several experiments to determine the consequences of what they call this “willful ignorance.”

In the first study, 147 undergraduates were told they would be evaluating four brands of blue jeans that differed on only four attributes: style, wash, price and a fourth attribute. The fourth attribute pertained either to an ethical issue (whether the company used child labor) or a control issue (delivery time for the jeans). Participants were told that due to time constraints, they could choose only two of the four attributes to make their evaluations; most of those who were given the opportunity to know whether the jeans were made with child labor chose to remain “willfully ignorant.”

That was key to the next part of the study, in which the same participants provided their opinions about different types of consumers, purportedly for market segmentation purposes.

Those who weren’t concerned about potential child labor use on the jeans were asked to rate consumers who would choose to research clothing manufacturers’ labor practices before making a purchase: Reczek said they were found more likely to judge the more conscientious consumers as “odd, boring and less fashionable, among other negative traits. They judged ethical consumers less positively on positive traits and more negatively on negative traits.”

It makes sense on a certain level. As Reczek pointed out: “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.”

Another experiment demonstrated why the threat of feeling unethical was a key driver for the actions of the willfully ignorant. This experiment was much like the first. But in this case, the willfully ignorant consumers were later given the chance to click a button on a website that would make a donation to a charity.

In this case, willfully ignorant participants who donated to charity did not harshly judge consumers who acted ethically when buying products.

“If we give people a chance to prove that they are indeed ethical, they don’t judge more ethical consumers as harshly,” Reczek said.

A third study showed what could happen when people choose to remain willfully ignorant about ethical concerns when shopping. In a third experiment, consumers who didn’t consider environmental concerns when choosing a backpack — and denigrated those consumers who did — were less likely to later take a “Think Green Pledge” online.

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

Reczek said the results of this study suggest consumers want to do the right thing – they just need help to do it.

“Most consumers want to act ethically, but there can be a discrepancy between their desires and what they actually do,” Reczek 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.”


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