Checking the tags on a shirt to see where it was made, as well as researching if it was manufactured responsibly are but two ways ethical shoppers act. Researchers from Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business were interested to know more and recently went beyond just studying why people make certain purchasing decisions. Instead, they investigated how consumers feel about the ethical purchasing practices of those around them. Their findings were published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

"It is this vicious cycle," said Rebecca Walker Reczek, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at OSU, in a press release. "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."

For the study, researchers recruited 147 undergraduate students who were told they were going to rate four different brands of jeans on their style, wash, price, and either an ethical (whether or not the company used child labor) or control (the delivery time of jeans) issue. Participants could only choose one of the two issues to make their evaluation.

Next, consumers were asked to judge each other. Those who remained "willfully ignorant" of whether or not children made the jeans were more likely to be mean to consumers who chose to find out. Those consumers were labeled as ethical consumers, and they were considered more boring and less fashionable.

"They judged ethical consumers less positively on positive traits and more negatively on negative traits," Reczek said. "Willfully ignorant consumers put ethical shoppers down because of the threat they feel for not having done the right thing themselves. They feel bad and striking back at the ethical consumers makes themselves feel better."

In a second round, researchers tested what would happen when people chose to remain ignorant about environmental concerns when shopping for a backpack; afterwards they were asked if they wanted to sign a "Think Green Pledge." Those who didn't consider the potential environmental impact were less likely to support the pro-sustainability pledge, and by making the choice to remain ignorant about shopping ethics, they were less likely to act ethically in other areas of their life.

"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. Most consumers want to act ethically, but there can be a discrepancy between their desires and what they actually do."

The researchers believe there's an opportunity for companies to capitalize on their marketing department. No ethical person wants to support child labor or actively harm the environment, which is why openly advertising their products as manufactured ethically, they could possibly increase sales.

"Companies that use ethical practices in producing their products can help by making that information very prominent, right on the packages if possible," Reczek said. "People are not going to go to your website to find out your company's good deeds. If consumers don't see ethical information right when they are shopping, there can be this cascade of negative consequences."

Source: Reczek RW, Zane DM, and Irwin JR. Do less ethical consumers denigrate more ethical consumers? The effect of willful ignorance on judgments of others. The Journal of Consumer Psychology. 2016.