It’s safe to assume that most people would like to consider their purchasing habits as being at least somewhat ethical. There aren't many people who would deliberately buy a product made with child labor or that harms the environment, after all.
But how hard is the average person willing to work to find out if their favorite product is made ethically? As it turns out, not very. A new study shows that not only do we put minimal effort into it, but we actually dislike those who choose to seek out ethically-made goods after we’ve chosen not to.
Rebecca Walker Reczek, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, calls it a "vicious cycle" that affects many. “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,” she said.
An earlier study by Reczek and her colleagues found that consumers often choose to be “willfully ignorant” when it comes to knowing how their favorite product was made. If ethical information was readily available on the package, they would consider it — but they couldn’t be troubled to consult a website or ask a salesperson. Reczek’s new study examines the consequences of this willful ignorance.
In the study, 147 undergraduates were asked to evaluate four brands of jeans that differed on four attributes: style, wash, price, and a fourth attribute. The fourth attribute had to do with either an ethical issue (whether the company used child labor) or a control issue (the jeans' delivery time). Participants were told that due to time constraints, they could choose only two of the four attributes to make their evaluations.
As expected, most of the participants who were given the opportunity to know whether the jeans were made with child labor chose to remain “willfully ignorant.” The willfully ignorant also selected some unkind adjectives to describe those who had chosen ethically.
Feeling unethical is a threat
Those who went the willfully ignorant route were more likely to denigrate the ethical consumers, describing them as odd, boring, and less fashionable.
“Willfully ignorant consumers put ethical shoppers down because of the threat they feel for not having done the right thing themselves,” she said. “They feel bad and striking back at the ethical consumers makes themselves feel better.”
And the threat of feeling unethical could negatively impact consumers’ future buying decisions.
“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.”
Opportunity to do right
Research findings suggest that consumers want to do the right thing — but often, they just need a nudge in the right direction.
“Most consumers want to act ethically, but there can be a discrepancy between their desires and what they actually do,” Reczek said, adding that companies can help by making information prominent right on the packages.
“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.”