Ethical consumers threatening to their unethical counterparts, study finds

Nancy Huang

Consumers who place a high value on the ethicality of products are often criticized by consumers who don’t, according to a study conducted by UT marketing professor Julie Irwin. 

“We found that when people find out that someone else has been more ethical than them … they respond by feeling threatened. Instead of saying, ‘I really wish I was like that ethical person,’ they actually put down the ethical person. They denigrate them, they actually think bad things about them,” said Rebecca Reczek, professor at Ohio State University and co-author of the study. 

Reczek, a UT alumna, said this reaction is a result of “social comparison.”

“When we look at someone else’s behavior and compare it to our own, [and] our behavior is worse than someone else’s … it makes us feel threatened,” Reczek said.

Irwin and Reczek co-authored the study along with Danny Zane, a graduate student at Ohio State University. The study focused on ethical issues concerning labor laws.

During the study, volunteers were asked to behave as they would in any shopping experience, Reczek said. They were given the option of learning about only two of four attributes of a pair of jeans: price, style, wash and the presence of child labor practices. After the participants made their choices, they were asked how they would describe someone who had chosen child labor — the ethical option — as one of their two. 

“We found people who had not been ethical themselves rating this other consumer, who had been ethical, much more negatively,” Reczek said.

Irwin said companies should promote ethics in their sales. 

“{Marketers can] emphasize how attractive ethics are, in order to counteract this tendency [of criticizing ethical consumers],” Irwin said.

Franchesca Caraballo, social work and history senior and member of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), said garment workers suffer just making a daily living.

“Garment workers are producing our apparel in essentially subhuman conditions, getting paid poverty wages, working in really inhumane factories that are on the verge of collapse or not making enough money to feed their families, and fainting on the job,” Caraballo said. “For someone to say that it’s not important … they’re not really looking at the bigger picture.”

In spite of the study’s findings, Irwin said ethical consumerism isn’t a lost cause.

“Ethical consumerism is still possible, but it will be difficult if consumers who try to do the right thing are denigrated by everyone else,” Irwin said.