Laugh at People Who Won't Buy Jeans Made by Child Labor? You May Be Uglier Than You Think

Admit it.  You feel a little superior to the people who give shares of Heifer International to to their kids at Christmas (that's where you buy an animal -- or part of it -- to give to a needy family around the world to end poverty).

You laugh at your sister who reuses her silver foil.

And you think buying fair trade coffee is well, for jerks.  At least, I do.

Now a new study says that, while we're certainly against child labor, or anything that harms the environment, we also don’t want to work too hard to find out whether our favorite products were made ethically. And we really don’t like those good people who make the effort to seek out ethically made goods when we choose not to.

In fact, we denigrate consumers who act more ethically than we do, seeing them as less fashionable and more boring. Worst of all, seeing others act ethically when we don’t undermines our commitment to pro-social values.

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

Oh, that's nasty.

Earlier research had found that consumers often choose to be “willfully ignorant” when it comes to how their favorite consumer goods were made. They will consider ethical information, such as whether a product was made using fair labor practices and in an environmentally friendly way, if it is readily available, such as on product packaging. But they won’t go through the trouble of looking on a website or asking a salesperson.

Sound like you?

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.

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.”

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 were willfully ignorant about child labor use on the jeans they evaluated were asked to rate consumers who would choose to research clothing manufacturers’ labor practices before making a purchase. The finding? These participants were more likely to denigrate these ethical consumers as odd, boring and less fashionable, among other negative traits.


However, participants who didn’t choose to find out about delivery times on the jeans they evaluated didn’t judge those who did investigate delivery times more harshly. It all had to do with ethics.

“Willfully ignorant consumers put ethical shoppers down because of the threat they feel for not having done the right thing themselves,” says Reczek. “They feel bad and striking back at the ethical consumers makes themselves feel better.”

I'm ashamed to admit this describes me.  

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 says.

I get around my feeling of superiority by helping out at my church's after-school homework program for disadvantaged kids and I teach Sunday school.  So I guess you could say I'm ethical there.   I also volunteered for many years at a center for developmentally disabled kids.  But go ahead.  Laugh.  I'm probably not going to stop, either.





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