Favorite Product Made Unethically? You May Not Want to Know

Although most people would not want to buy a product if they knew it was made with child labor or if it harmed the environment, new research shows that many consumers would rather remain ignorant of the product’s harms. The findings also show that ignorant-by-choice consumers tend to feel threatened and judgmental toward consumers who do choose to seek out background information on products.

“It is this vicious cycle,” said Rebecca Walker Reczek, Ph.D., co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at 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.”

The study findings are published online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Walker conducted the study with Daniel Zane, a graduate student at Ohio State’s Fisher College, and Julie Irwin, Ph.D., a professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.

In a previous study, Irwin had discovered that consumers often choose to be “willfully ignorant” when it comes to how their favorite consumer goods were made. If the information is readily available, however, as on product packaging, the consumers will often take a moment to consider the information, such as whether it was made using fair labor practices and in an environmentally friendly way.

But, overall, they won’t go through the trouble of looking on a website or asking a salesperson.

In the new study, the researchers carried out several experiments to determine the consequences of this willful ignorance.

In the first experiment, 147 college student participants 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).

The students 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 were asked their opinions about different types of consumers, supposedly for market segmentation purposes.

Those who had chosen to be willfully ignorant about child labor use on the jeans were asked to rate consumers who would choose to research clothing manufacturers’ labor practices before making a purchase. The findings revealed that these participants were more likely to denigrate these ethical 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,” Reczek said.

In comparison, participants who didn’t choose to find out about delivery times on the jeans they evaluated did not judge those who did investigate delivery times more harshly. This suggests that the participants who were willfully ignorant on ethical practices made their harsh judgments out of fear.

“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.”

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 except that, this time, the willfully ignorant 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.

Finally, a third study revealed what could happen when people choose to remain willfully ignorant about ethical concerns when shopping. In this experiment, consumers who didn’t consider environmental concerns when choosing a backpack — and judged more harshly those consumers who did — were found to be less likely to later support a pro-sustainability “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 these findings suggest that 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.”

Source: Ohio State University