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Report shows consumers put down others who shop more ethically

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A study co-authored by colleagues at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business found shoppers tend to be “willfully ignorant” of whether their favorite products were made ethically, even putting down other people who shop more ethically than themselves.

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, revealed people who are threatened by feeling unethical in their shopping choices denigrate others who exhibit more ethical consumer behavior.

Co-author Julie Irwin, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, found in 2005 that people chose not to learn if products they liked were produced ethically, if that information was not easily accessible.

Recently, with the rise in popularity of social media, it occurred to the researchers that now while some people choose to be “willfully ignorant,” they could see online when others choose ethical consumerism, said co-author Rebecca Walker Reczek, an associate professor at Fisher.

“So we wondered what are the consequences of learning that someone else decides to be ethical when you yourself are not ethical,” Reczek said. “We thought this is a good time to investigate this question because social media has made it so much easier to know how others make decisions.”

The team’s research involved three studies. In the first experiment, students were asked to assess four brands of blue jeans and given the option to know if the pairs of blue jeans were manufactured ethically.

Researchers found participants who chose to remain in the dark about ethical manufacturing details negatively judged those who opted in during the first experiment.

The participants felt threatened, and that sense of threat made them put others down, negatively judging them as unfashionable or boring, said Reczek.

“We are uncovering a kind of human nature to compare people: themselves to others,” Reczek said. “It is called social comparison theory, a theory of psychology that shows it is a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others.”

Reczek said that if people found themselves inferior in some way to others, they feel threatened, and a common response to that threat is to put down the perceived superior ones.

Daniel Zane, co-author and graduate student at Fisher, said he thinks the research could help consumers be aware of the tendency, however, he added it would require considerable awareness and effort to not feel threatened and put the person down.

Zane said an extension of this research could be seen in the act of gift giving.

“Suppose you’re an ethical shopper, you specifically buy somebody a scarf that was made in a really ethical way,” Zane said. “But if they don’t shop based on ethical information, they will probably feel threatened even though it wasn’t them who made the purchase.”

Reczek said that their research also gives implications to manufacturers that if they do have products that are produced ethically, they need to make sure that consumers know that.

“Put ethical information on the label,” Reczek said. “Put it in the store, on the shelf. Put it on the package, because most consumers are not going to spend the time to seek out that information. Most consumers want to be ethical. The problem is that the market place doesn’t always make it easy to know what is ethical.”


  1. What is with all this ethics “crap”? Who decided what is ethical and what is not? Who sets the guidelines for what is ethical in the manufacture of a particular article? And upon what are those guidelines based? Perhaps someone’s personal political agenda? What if I disagree with your political agenda and believe that what you think is ethical is, by my standards, unethical, or at the very least less ethical than my standards?

    Bottom line, who elected you God?

    Perhaps the conclusion by those who disagree with or don’t care about the label of “ethical” simply think that those who are claiming a product was made “ethically” are arrogant snobs.

    • I am guessing that ethical refers to products like clothing not produced in sweat shops, cosmetic products not tested on animals, and fair trade products like chocolates and coffee. Anyway, Bob, I think your defensiveness illustrates well the point that they are making in this article.

      • Amy;

        I’m a retired professor and I worked along side arrogant snob professors all my professional life. Not so much here at Ohio State, but at another mid-western university. I detest the holier than thou attitude of those whose political beliefs are different from mine. I go back to my comment — who makes the decisions on what is “ethical” and what is not “ethical”. Use of this term smacks of the gross over use of the term “racist’ or “sexist” in today’s political climate. If you want to insult someone, just call them a racist, or a sexist, or unethical, regardless of whether there is any justified basis for those terms or not. Maybe the unjustified and overuse of such terms is what makes folks like me defensive.

      • BobR makes a good point, though. “Ethical” can be a relative term. Sure, you might buy a product not made in a sweatshop, but the person who put it together may only be making 10 cents an hour. If a living wage in that country is more like 30 cents an hour, then you would hope the company would pay the person something closer to that. But even then, is it still ethical to take advantage of cheap labor when you could have someone in the US make the product instead? Lots of factors to consider. I’m thinking for those who don’t seek out this sort of information about their purchases, it’s more of an out of sight, out of mind mentality.

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