Why are shoppers being asked to buy ethically or not in the first place?

Ask no questions.
Ask no questions.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
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Most people say they care about buying ethically. In fact, 55% of the world’s online shoppers say they would be willing to spend more for ethically and sustainably produced goods and services, according to a 2014 Nielsen survey. But do they make that choice in real life?

That survey, which polled 30,000 consumers across 60 countries, found these principles do translate into sales, but only slightly: Products with sustainability claims on the packaging saw sales increase 2% in March 2014 compared to the year before, while products without such claims saw a rise of only 1%. If a product had a marketing campaign focused on sustainability, it got a boost of 5%.

These results are encouraging, but limited: They focus on what consumers say, and not necessarily what they do. The survey also focused on how shoppers respond to marketing and packaging ploys, which can be misleading. What would shoppers really choose, especially if they had to figure out whether a product was ethical or not on their own?

A series of studies suggests that, while a product’s ethics may influence purchasing decisions, many shoppers choose simply not to know whether something was ethically made. That includes shoppers who care about social responsibility. And shoppers who ignore ethical matters can even develop a negative opinion about people who do express ethical concerns—which makes them even less likely to pay attention to ethical issues in the future.

A study from the Journal of Consumer Pscyhology, which NPR reports will be published in July but is already available online, elaborates on previous research looking at what the authors called “willful ignorance.” In multiple studies, including one from 2005 used as a basis for the new study, researchers have found that consumers avoid learning about a product’s ethical attributes, such as labor or environmental issues, so as not to have to deal with negative emotions, particularly anger.

In the new study, researchers told 147 students they would evaluate four brands of jeans based on different attributes: style (boot cut or regular cut), wash (regular or dark), price ($65 or $75), and a fourth attribute, such as whether a company used child labor. They were only allowed, however, to consider two attributes. 

More than 85% of participants chose not to learn about ethical practices behind the jeans, NPR reported.

And when the researchers asked that group what they thought of those who did want to know in order to make their evaluation, their opinions were not positive. The willfully ignorant found their counterparts preachy, unfashionable, odd, and not very sexy. Their resistance to prioritizing ethical matters also calcified: In yet another part of the study, they were less likely to take an unrelated environmental pledge.

“You feel badly that you were not ethical when someone else was,” Rebecca Reczek, a professor of marketing at Ohio State University and one of the study’s authors, told NPR about the results. “It’s a threat to your sense of self, to your identity. So to recover from that, you put the other person down.”

Other research calls into question just how willing consumers really are to pay more for ethical sourcing. In a small experiment at a suburban US department store, researchers put out two sock displays, advertising some socks as being made in good working conditions. When the prices were equal, half of shoppers noticed and bought the ethically made socks. But as soon as the price increased, that proportion dropped. It continued to decline as the price rose.

None of these studies is definitive. Different people care about different issues and plenty of consumers make shopping ethically a priority every day. As more attention is brought to the environmental strain and dangers workers face to make the world’s glut of clothing, people are increasingly attentive to these problems.

But the studies do suggest something interesting about the average shopper’s priorities: They’re most likely to choose the ethical route when it costs them as little as possible, whether in terms of money, time, or emotional stress.

One solution, according to Dr. Julie Irwin, an author of both the new study and the 2005 study with years of research experience in consumer psychology, would be to make information about the products’ origins abundantly available. But even that might not be enough.

“Sometimes expecting all of the burden to fall on consumers is unrealistic and is not going to lead to the most ethical outcomes,” she tells Quartz. “Why should it be their responsibility?”

International supply chains, she points out, are notoriously opaque, and the free market doesn’t have any good way to deal with the way this system stifles information. It might be best, she says, if these matters were regulated before the products even reached consumers, taking ethical dilemmas out of the shopping equation.

Of the unethical choice, like a polluting car or a shirt made with exploited labor, she suggests: “Maybe we just shouldn’t have it available.”

Implementing these solutions is a whole other matter, of course, and it’s unlikely they would come cheaply—one way or another, consumers will have to open their wallets. But if the majority of shoppers say that they would spend more for more moral goods and services, the best way to put their principles into practice may be simply to make “sustainable” and “ethical” the only option.