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The psychology of consumer ethics, explained

There’s more to clothes, or any consumer product, than the price tag.

By Anastasia Lukianchikov

Jan. 19, 2016 8:20 p.m.

Every product has a narrative.

Someone harvested its fibers or manufactured it in a factory. Someone created the design. Someone calculated its value, demand and supply. Someone carried it. Someone distributed it. Someday it may be used by someone else. Someday it could be fated for a landfill.

A world in a product. So much so that we have a new necessity: to think globally, but act locally.

Time and again, this refrain has gone unheard. In a globalized economy, the ethical dilemmas that accompany foreign sourcing and environmental resources continue to persist. Yet despite the tools of social and informational media, consumers remain unreceptive. How many of us actually take the time to discover, consider and act upon the ethical attributes of the products we buy? Very few – so progress in holding companies to higher standards moves at a glacial pace.

Perhaps if we ask why we behave this way, then we can do better.

Consumer decisions are made in value-laden contexts. We hold various morals and beliefs that are in constant conflict. To act upon them, we are forced to make ethical trade-offs, depending on the particular circumstance. For example, in buying clothes, we consider the labor rights policies, the environmental impact, frugality, personal taste and social identity.

Rather than deal with the stress, we have become ethically dissonant. We become willfully ignorant of ethical aspects to avoid the stress of negative emotions accompanying these issues – emotions like anger, frustration, sadness and anxiety.

In order to understand why we absolutely must navigate these trade-offs, we must understand several important aspects of consumer psychology underlying these decisions. Namely, four aspects: that consumer decisions are socially influenced, that we cope in certain ways with the psychological threats, that we become willfully ignorant when psychologically threatened and that consumer behavior depends differs by mindsets.

Consumer behavior is inherently social

Our consumer decisions are influenced by the judgments of others, and our actions are typically either an endorsement of, or expression of conflict with, a social group. The extent to which we are influenced depends on our motives: whether we seek to understand reality, or maintain certain relationships with others or ourselves. The point being that our consumer decisions always have salient motivations, depending on the kind of person.

The kicker is that we will interpret information using the ideology of groups that matter to us. As consumers, we will choose products that relay certain impressions to others. And the social meanings of products can change if they become morally relevant or if we pay more concern to them.

Consumers have two approaches to the ethics of consumption

Secondly, consumers encounter psychological threats when faced with value-laden decisions. These decisions threaten our sense of self because they carry moral weight – they will relay something about our ethical commitment which relays impressions to our social groups. We cope with the stress in two very different ways: Consumers will either approach threatening decisions with problem-focused coping or avoid it with emotion-focused coping.

Problem-focused coping is linked to positive behavior regulation and focused achievements. It is an active pursuit to deal with a problem driven by guilt. Emotion-focused coping restrains behavior that risks leading to negative outcomes like failure. It is a withdrawal driven by shame.

Many consumers emotionally cope with the stress of ethical decisions. We would rather change our emotional response to an issue than do something about the issue itself. In doing so, we perpetuate a kind of unconscious cowardice – we are afraid of dealing with the ethical stress.

Some consumers ridicule thinking about the ethics of consumption

Consumers that are willfully ignorant of information about a product’s ethical attributes go on to negatively judge others that seek out ethical information. As part of an avoidance mechanism, we are more likely to denigrate others that don’t avoid the issue.This also partially explains why vegans and activists are shamed by others or perceived as “preachy.”

When that stance of willful ignorance is challenged, it is a threat to our sense of self and we respond with harsher judgment – and are more likely to practice self-deception and moral hypocrisy later.

Our personal mindsets influence consumption habits

Lastly, consumers can adopt either fixed or growth mindsets towards products. If fixed, we are more likely to think human nature unchangeable and commit minimal efforts in our decisions. But holders of growth mindsets adopt the opposite orientation and take more opportunities towards self-improvement.

If we keep a fixed mindset about the ethical issues within industries, then they are all the less likely to change. Change occurs incrementally and collectively, but the first step in practicing ethical consumerism lies in changing the mindsets of isolated individuals.

So psychologically, consumers feel threatened by ethical decisions. It is important to ask ourselves how we respond in these situations and to which influences we are most susceptible – because our reactions go beyond simply consumer behavior.

And if we understand, then maybe we can change. Only then can we truly think globally, but act locally.

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Anastasia Lukianchikov | Opinion columnist
Anastasia Lukianchikov is an opinion columnist. She writes about diversity and being a responsible consumer. She also writes for Fem magazine.
Anastasia Lukianchikov is an opinion columnist. She writes about diversity and being a responsible consumer. She also writes for Fem magazine.
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