Now that we’ve made it through our annual end-of-year consumerist orgy, it’s time for our beginning-of-year slog back to normalcy, complete with glazed looks, a vague and implacable feeling of disappointment, and that age-old false promise of a clean slate — you know, the one that tells you to put down the whiskey, quit your job, and shave off that man bun.
And so, in the spirit of broody self-reflection, here’s some news that should surprise absolutely no one: Researchers have found that a) we’re lazy when it comes to investigating the ethics of our purchases, and b) we resent those who do take the time to research the social and environmental impacts of, say, a six-dollar T-shirt made in Bangladesh, and then opt for a more ethical alternative.
The research will appear in a future issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, but it’s probably best to dive into this now, while the wounds from last-minute shopping are still fresh. Here’s more from press release:
“It is this vicious cycle,” 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.”
To confirm that we are, in fact, the worst, Reczek and her colleagues conducted a study with 147 undergraduate students. The students were asked to evaluate four pairs of jeans based on style, wash, price, and either an ethical issue (were these made by 10-year-olds?) or a control issue (how fast can I get these babies delivered?). The participants got to choose which of the last two criteria to consider.
Most chose to be “willfully ignorant,” opting for the control issue rather than the ethical issue, the researchers report. Which makes sense — child labor is a huge bummer. But when the researchers then asked the participants to evaluate their peers, those who chose the control issue judged those who chose the ethical issue as “odd, boring and less fashionable, among other negative traits,” according to the press release. Those who did choose the ethical issue, on the other hand, were less likely to judge their peers so harshly.
In another study, the willfully ignorant consumers later appeared less likely to support an online pledge for sustainability.
“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.”
On the plus side, when the willfully ignorant consumers had a chance to donate to charity online after making their decision, they no longer felt the need to hate on their goody two-shoes peers so much, confirming that money does, in fact, fix everything.
So here are the takeaways from this study: Unless the ethical issues associated with a product are spelled out for us, we’re going to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with a $1.99 pack of frozen hamburgers. And if you happen to be the token environmentalist in your friend group, everyone will judge you for inquiring about the labor practices behind that made-in-China smartphone.
Now, it’s important to note that this study was done on college students, so the results were always going to skew toward the terrible, but let’s not delude ourselves; this country is full of unethical shoppers of all ages. So this year, let’s all resolve to be better consumers. Or at least, let’s all resolve to be better consumers until Valentine’s Day. Then just remember to opt in on that 50-cent donation to the Generic American Charity Association when you’re buying all that blood chocolate at CVS.
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