Consumers look for “coping mechanisms” to deal with unethical labor practices, a new study finds
A firm moral compass is great, but a selective memory will do.
Consumers demonstrate a willfully ignorant memory after learning products they like were unethically made, according to new research published in the Journal of Consumer Research. In an effort to “avoid emotionally difficult ethical information” like the use of child labor or non-sustainable practices, the Ohio State University study found, people either forget it entirely or misremember unethical aspects as ethical.
“We don’t want to spend our days thinking about these things, even when sometimes they’re things we should be thinking about,” lead author Rebecca Reczek told Moneyish. “So we often unconsciously, I think, look for coping mechanisms to make the presence of that information less difficult.” If we can’t avoid that info, she added, forgetting is our next line of defense. “I think it’s a natural human tendency to not want to think about it when we’re focused on more hedonic goals,” she said.
In the first of four studies, undergrad students read and memorized attributes of six imaginary desk brands, including whether the wood came from sustainable tree farms or endangered rainforests. While their recall of the wood source was nearly 95% accurate immediately afterward, they were significantly more likely to forget about the unethical conditions after 15- to 20-minute distraction tasks: 60% correctly recalled the tree-farm wood, but just 45% correctly recalled the rainforest wood. In a second study, participants were tasked with creating an outfit that included a particular pair of jeans; some saw a brand made with adult labor, while others saw one that used some child labor. They were less likely to remember correctly in the child-labor condition, Reczek said.
Another study introduced a hypothetical online shopper who purchased child labor-made jeans the following day. Some participants heard he’d forgotten about the labor practices, while others heard he’d remembered but disregarded them. When asked to assess his character, they judged him less harshly for the forgetfulness. “Forgetting is a morally acceptable way to deal with this unethical information,” Reczek said.
Reczek recommends aspiring ethical shoppers whip out their smartphones for on-the-spot fact-finding. “Do your research right there,” she said. “If it’s really important to you to shop with your values … then not relying on memory is the way to go.” Ethical brands can also advertise “positive reminders” at the point of purchase, she added: “Don’t trust that your consumers will remember your competitor did something unethical that you haven’t.”
Convenient forgetfulness, of course, isn’t the only barrier to buying sustainable, ethically made goods: Such brands are often more expensive and time-consuming to find. “There is no doubt that shopping ethically, eating organic, raw and vegan food and only thrift-shopping is the right thing to do. … But the way people shame people who are not able to do that is so elitist,” Sofie Hagen, a 29-year-old Danish standup comedian living in London, told Moneyish in a Twitter message. “When people do preach about these things, they have to bear in mind their own privilege in doing so. If you can live the ‘morally correct’ life, you have more time, energy, physical ability, mental stability or money than a lot of people.”
Sacramento-based writer Jamie Wright, 42, says the issue is “less about ethics and morals, and more about conscientiousness.” “The rabbit hole of ethical shopping can be endless and, quite frankly, overwhelming, but as a middle-class North American, it would be a stretch for me to blame my ignorance on a lack of time or money. The truth is, I have enough of both, but ethical shopping requires me to make sacrifices that I don’t really want to make,” she told Moneyish in an email. “If I have time to binge-watch ‘Stranger Things,’ I have time to research the values of a company or the origins of a product I’m interested in buying. And, if I can afford five t-shirts made by slave labor, I can certainly afford two that weren’t.”
But it’s far easier to make “affirmatively positive” purchases, Racked senior editor Meredith Haggerty said, than to sustain boycotts against unethical brands. While the 32-year-old Asheville resident has tried icing out Amazon (over misgivings from her book-publishing past) and Uber (for their being “particularly evil”), she eventually returned to both — indulging in the Prime-streaming series “Catastrophe” and hailing the occasional car due to a lack of ridesharing alternatives in her area.
“I think most people’s virtue only extends as far as their own convenience,” Haggerty said. “People want to want to care about this stuff, but in practice I’m just not sure that they do. Ultimately you’re going to want to buy the thing that you want to buy, because we’re human animals.”
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