Most People Don't Care About Ethical Fashion

CC BY 2.0. Herry Lawford

And those who DO care about ethical production are denigrated by those who do not.

Here at TreeHugger, we have written extensively about why the fast fashion industry is devastating to the planet. People need to start paying the true cost of clothing, so as to ensure that garment workers earn livable wages, that resource-intensive fabrics aren’t thrown in the landfill within weeks of production, and that the industry cleans up its chemical usage.

No matter what a label says – whether it’s fair-trade, direct-trade, organic, B Corp, or what have you – unless people are willing to pay for it, it will do little to change the face of fashion. And this is where the real challenge comes in, getting people to translate the ethical beliefs they claim to have into actual real-life purchases.

An astonishing number of people are not interested in taking ethics into consideration when making fashion purchases. According to a study published in July 2016 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, people tend to judge others who do make ethically-motivated fashion choices, most likely because they feel guilty for not making that same decision.

Consider the following three studies that were part of the bigger research project mentioned above.

#1: A group of study participants was told to select a pair of jeans based on information from two out of 4 categories – cut, wash, price, and labor practices (specifically, if child labor was used). More than 85 percent of participants did not want to know if child labor was used.

What’s fascinating is that, when these 85 percent were asked about what they thought of those who did research production when making a choice, they were scathing in their criticism. NPR cites lead researcher Rebecca Reczek of Ohio State University:

“You feel badly that you were not ethical when someone else was. It's a threat to your sense of self, to your identity. So to recover from that, you put the other person down.”

#2: The participants were given the option to donate to an online charity before judging others’ choices. Over 93 percent chose to donate, which made them much less vitriolic toward those fellow participants who had taken ethics into consideration when selecting their jeans.

From the study discussion:

“When willfully ignorant consumers are given a second chance to act ethically before rating ethical others, they do not feel as threatened by these other consumers since the negative comparison is not as severe and hence do not judge ethical others as harshly.”

#3: Study participants were asked to select a backpack that had only two options, either made with recycled materials or not. Those who did not choose recycled materials, and later denigrated those who did, were found to be less likely to sign an online pledge in support of environmental sustainability. This suggests that the decision not to consider ethics can have lasting effects.

What can we learn from this study?

It’s important for retailers to understand that the majority of shoppers will not dig deeply for information about ethics because it’s one of those uncomfortable shadowy topics about which many people would remain to remain uninformed. Few will make the effort to research prior to purchase, likely because “we’re unconsciously afraid of being upset by what we’ll discover.” (NPR)

This does not mean that companies should not pursue ever more ethical production; rather, their approach needs to be strategic. Ethical claims cannot be made threatening in any way, or that will turn away potential customers, and information should be made readily available to shoppers.

It’s sad to learn that so many consumers are not willing to put their money where their mouths are, but hopefully the trend is changing as increasing numbers of shoppers are asking where and how their clothes are made.