When it comes to knowing the dark secrets of where and how consumer products are made, most of us choose to remain ignorant. Worse, it appears that once we have decided to stick our heads in the sand, we ridicule others who behave more ethically.
"You choose not to find out if a product is made ethically," Ohio State University's Rebecca Walker Reczek says about her recent study. "Then you harshly judge people who do consider ethical values when buying products. Then that makes you less ethical in the future."
The study builds on previous work by Reczek’s co-author, Julie Irwin, which showed that we’re happy to read ethical information, such as a Fair Trade label printed on product packaging, but too lazy to actually do our own research. In the new study, 147 people were asked to choose a pair of jeans among four brands differentiated by style, wash, price, whether they were made using child labor, and how long they’d take to deliver.
Participants were asked to choose four of these criteria. The majority chose to ignore the information about child labor, opting to learn about the other attributes instead. But then things got worse.
In the next part of the study, participants were asked for their opinions on different types of consumer (they weren’t told what the research was measuring). Those who were willfully ignorant about child labor were more likely to denigrate consumers who do research labor practices as "odd, boring, and less fashionable, among other negative traits," they found.
These consumers were also likely to exhibit "reduced intention to behave ethically in the future." There’s hope, though—if given a second chance to act ethically by donating to a charity after ignoring the initial information, many took, and were then less likely to denigrate ethical practices in general.
The answer, then, is to work around our inherent laziness. Manufacturers of ethical goods should make sure we know about it.
"Companies that use ethical practices in producing their products can help by making that information very prominent, right on the packages if possible," says Reczek. "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."