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Who made my clothes? The science of wilful ignorance

Who made my clothes? The science of wilful ignorance 

by Rebecca Walker Reczek and Hannah Elderfield, Canvas8 


Eco-conscious consumers may say they’ll only buy sustainable food and fashion, but their actions don’t always match their words. Canvas8 spoke to Rebecca Walker Reczek, associate professor of marketing at the Fisher College of Business, to find out why we’re wilfully ignorant of ethical issues. 


H&M may have been named as one of the world’s most ethical companies, but not everyone’s convinced by its efforts. Future Garbage, a small, Swedish fashion label, is calling the entire fast fashion sector by taking branded pieces – like denim jackets or sweatshirts from high street retailers – and personalising them with DIY narratives mocking the industry’s ills. Slogans on its garments include ‘Child Labour Couture’ and ‘Ethically Stolen’, with founder David Olson hoping to shine a brighter light on the way brands go about participating in the ethical movement. 

It’s partly a response to the rise of ethical consumerism, with UK sales of such products growing faster than regular products for the fourteenth year in a row in 2017, while Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands grew more than 50% faster than the rest of the business in 2016. Yet despite people saying that they want to make ethical purchases, there’s a disconnect between their intentions and actual purchasing behaviour. “Often, sustainable products are not market leaders,” says Rachel Walker Reczek, an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “And brands that have had multiple accusations of uncelebrated practices continue to sell.” 

According to a study co-authored by Reczek – ‘That’s Not How I Remember It: Willfully Ignorant Memory for Ethical Product Attribute Information’ – there’s a psychological barrier that’s stopping people from making purchases consistent with their ethical values. “People aren’t lying, most do care about being ethical,” she explains. “But, as a coping mechanism, we tend to try to avoid dealing with these issues in any way we can; one way we do that is by being wilfully ignorant.” Canvas8 spoke to Reczek to find out why people have a propensity to forget when products or brands have unethical qualities. 


What do we already know from existing research? 

When we’re shopping, the last thing we want to think about are emotional, difficult issues such as the ethics behind the products we’re buying. So, people try to avoid it and what results is a conflict between what we should do versus what’s easy to do. 

Some of my co-authors have looked into this and found that if you give people the option of finding out whether a set of products is made ethically or unethically, they’ll try to avoid finding out. It’s because if they’re presented with this information, they end up using it to make decisions, whereas when they don’t know, they don’t have to deal with it and can buy whatever they want. 

But amid increasing transparency around how products are made – whether that’s through conversations on social media or through companies being more open about their ethical practices – we wanted to know what happens if people can’t avoid finding this out. What if they do find out that products are unethically made? What do they do then? We hypothesised that if there is a time gap between finding out this information and then using it, people will systematically forget about unethical information to a greater extent than they would ethical information. 

How did you go about conducting your study? 

In one of our studies, we had undergraduate participants come in and read about six different brands of desk, all of which varied on three aspects – type of wood, price, and whether they were considered designer quality. Some were made with rainforest wood, others were made with sustainable wood; some were cheaper, others were designer. We asked them questions about the desks – how much they liked them, which one they thought was the better seller, things like that.  

To make sure they’d learned about each desk, we then asked participants what they remembered. At this point, people had stored information about the items in their memory – they knew which ones were ethical, which were not, which were more expensive, which were cheaper, which were designer, which weren’t. We then distracted them with an unrelated task for about 20 minutes, after which we asked them to recall what they remembered about each brand of desk we’d shown them earlier.  

In another study, we had participants come into the lab and learn about different items of clothing – shirts, jackets, shoes, and a pair of jeans (which was the focal item). Some of the jeans shown were produced using child labour, others were made more ethically. Again, after a series of filler tasks, we tested their memory. This time, we showed people descriptions of six different brands of jeans, one of which matched the pair they saw originally, and asked them to select which jeans they were previously shown. We wanted to find out how likely people were to get that right. 

What did you find out? 

We predicted that people would be more likely to forget the unethical characteristics of products than the ethical characteristics. This forgetfulness could take one of two forms. It could be that they just ignored this quality so didn’t report any memory of it, or they actually believed the unethically-made desks or jeans were made in a more ethical way than they really were. 

We found evidence of both types of forgetfulness and that people had significantly worse memories for recalling that a desk was made with rainforest wood compared to when it was made with sustainable wood. And it was only the ethical attributes for which people had a worse memory for the negative compared to the positive – their memory for price or quality didn’t follow this pattern. 

We concluded that there’s a systematic bias in memory where we’re more likely to forget when something is unethical than ethical, and that’s unique to ethical attributes. I don’t think it’s a conscious process, but rather a learned coping mechanism that develops over time – almost like a self-protective strategy to prevent us from facing up to these awful things. 

How can these findings be applied?  

  • Whether it’s global fashion retailer C&A publishing the names and locations of its 2,000-plus supplier factories, or British food retailers releasing figures on the use of antibiotics in their supply chains, many brands are responding to the growing demand for transparency. And it makes sense given how lucrative conscious consumerism can be; spending on ethical products or services in the UK has grown by more than £40 billion since 2008, with households spending an average of £1,263 on such goods in 2017. With the research finding a cognitive bias for consumers to remember ‘the good’ rather than ‘the bad’, it’s important for brands to preach what they’re putting into practice. 

  • To encourage more ethical consumption, Reczek suggests that brands should be making their credentials more prominent. “Consumers might not remember that ethical brands have superior performance on ethicality,” she says. “And they’ve probably forgotten that their competitors aren’t as ethical.” With 21% of consumers saying they’d actively buy from brands if their sustainability credentials were clearer on packaging or marketing, it’s estimated that companies are losing out on €966 billion by not making their efforts clearer. 

  • According to the Fashion Transparency Index 2017, which ranks some of the biggest global fashion companies, brands still have a long way to go to reach their ethical ideals. The average score was just 49 out of 250, while even top-ranking brands failed to score around 50% on their environmental or social policies and practices, and just 34% made public commitments to fairer supply chain practices. Encouraging people to demand greater transparency from brands, Fashion Revolution is a global movement getting people in over 90 countries to ask brands #whomademyclothes. 

  • Everlane is one brand that’s getting it right. The US fashion retailer swears by its ethical philosophy and is seeing huge success as a result, with sales amounting to $35 million in 2015, up nearly 200% from 2013. Meanwhile, for those consumers who need an extra nudge to make more ethical decisions, DoneGood is a Chrome extension that helps shoppers find such products online. If people are buying from sites of brands that employ unethical practices, it displays a pop-up notification alerting users to companies selling similar products that do meet its ethical set of standards. Similarly, Glia is an app that makes ethical shopping easier by allowing people to locate retailers whose morals match their own. 

  • People aren’t just wilfully ignorant about the unethical qualities of a brand. Research has also shown that we have a tendency to forget our own unethical behaviours, like hopping on a bus without paying – it’s a phenomenon dubbed ‘unethical amnesia’. As a result, we hold an overly optimistic view of our own morals, often believing they’re morally superior to everyone else. But having such faded memories of one’s own immoral actions makes people more likely to act unethically in the future, creating a vicious cycle of dishonesty. 

Rebecca Walker Reczek is a consumer psychologist and associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. Her research explores consumer lay theories, inference making, social influence, self-perception and ethical decision-making. 

Hannah Elderfield is a Senior Behavioural Analyst at Canvas8, and has worked with global clients including Facebook, BelVitaWagamama, the UK Government, the FCO and Superbrands