The ugly consumer: Ridiculing those who shop ethically

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New York, Jan 5 (IANS) No one wants to knowingly buy products made with child labour or those that harm the environment, but we also don’t want to work too hard to find out whether our favourite products were made ethically, according to a new study.

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, 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,” Reczek added.

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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.

In earlier research, Irwin had found that consumers often choose to be ‘willfully ignorant’ when it comes to how their favourite consumer goods were made.

They will consider ethical information, such as whether a product was made using fair labour 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.

For the new research, Reczek and her colleagues conducted several experiments to determine the consequences of this wilful 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, which pertained either to an ethical issue (whether the company used child labour) or a control issue (delivery time for the jeans).

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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 labour chose to remain ‘wilfully 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 wilfully ignorant about child labour use on the jeans they evaluated were asked to rate consumers who would choose to research clothing manufacturers’ labour practices before making a purchase.

These participants were more likely to denigrate these ethical consumers as odd, boring and less fashionable, among other negative traits.

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“They judged ethical consumers less positively on positive traits and more negatively on negative traits,” Reczek said.

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 the ethics.

“Wilfully 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.”

The study results appeared online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

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