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Why consumers forget unethical business practices

Imagine a consumer, Kate, who enjoys shopping for fashionable clothing, but who also cares about whether her clothing is produced ethically. She reads an article online indicating that fashion giant Zara sells clothing made by allegedly unpaid workers, but a few days later ends up buying a new shirt from Zara. She either forgets that Zara may be mistreating workers, or she mistakenly recalls that they are one of the brands that have agreed to a strict code of ethical labor practices, including paying a living wage to all workers. How could Kate do this if she cares about issues like workers’ rights?

Our research shows that even though most consumers, like Kate, want to abide by their ethics when they go shopping, follow-through is difficult, especially when memory is involved.

In a series of studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research, we uncovered a systemic bias that exists when it comes to trying to remember whether products are ethical. Consumers are much worse at remembering when a product is unethical (e.g., produced by workers who are mistreated) compared to when a product is ethical (e.g., produced using ethical labor standards).

Past consumer psychology research has shown that consumers find thinking about unethical products to be unpleasant. When we’re shopping for clothes, we don’t necessarily want to think about the harsh reality that some of those trendy items might have been made in factories using child labor or using chemicals that damage air quality, and for these reasons consumers often avoid such information altogether.

But what happens if consumers have to face this information? We predicted that they would end up forgetting when a company behaves unethically.

Across our studies, we found that study participants consistently had worse memory for unethical information about a product than for ethical information. For example, even after being given several opportunities to memorize information about different brands of desks, participants in our first study were less likely to remember when a desk was made with wood sourced from endangered rainforests compared to when a desk was made with wood sourced from sustainable tree farms. In other studies, participants were less likely to remember when a pair of jeans was made with child labor versus adult labor. Participants’ poor memory for the unethical product information took one of two forms—they either failed to recall any information about this aspect of the product at all or incorrectly remembered the product to be ethical instead.

Is it that people just don’t want to remember “bad” information? We also looked at participants’ memory for other product information not related to ethicality (e.g., price, quality) and did not find the same memory errors, suggesting there is something unique about memory for ethical product information.

We believe this bias only occurs for ethical product attributes because of consumers’ conflicting desires. They generally believe they should remember ethical information in order to do the right thing, but they also have a desire to feel good by preventing emotionally-difficult experiences (which most ethical issues present).

Our research shows that even though most consumers, like Kate, want to abide by their ethics when they go shopping, follow-through is difficult, especially when memory is involved.

Therefore, these two competing forces, which can be thought about as two separate “selves” of a consumer—the “should self” and the “want self”—conflict with each other when a consumer thinks about negative ethical product information. This conflict is not a pleasant feeling for consumers, so they look to resolve it. And the most likely way to do that? Letting the “want” self win the battle by forgetting the negative ethical information.

So what do consumers think about their poor memory for information about products made in an unethical fashion? A final study using adult participants from an online sample demonstrated that consumers judge the act of forgetting negative ethical information as more morally acceptable than remembering the information but choosing to ignore it.

So, what can companies do to increase the probability consumers will remember that they are ethical? One possibility is to continually remind consumers, even at point of purchase, of their ethical attributes; companies such as Everlane make their ethicality part of their marketing.

What can consumers do to fight this problem of “willfully ignorant memory?” As a start, rely less on memory when shopping. Double back around and revisit that labor practices report before heading out for your next shopping trip at the mall. Relying less on memory takes away the possibility of forgetting that a brand is unethical and purchasing something by accident that does not reflect your values.

Featured image credit: Clothing rack by Lauren Roberts. CC0 via Unsplash

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