Fri 30 Jan, 2009
Tags: Consumerism, Fair trade, Moral issues, Slavery, Sweatshop labor
A new study by researchers at the Harvard Business School finds that consumers who highly desire a pair of jeans or sneakers are significantly less likely to be concerned about sweatshop labor or other moral issues involved in their manufacture.
One of my favorite moments in Traces of the Trade occurs when my distant cousin, Elizabeth, offers these thoughts about the parallels between slavery centuries ago and modern injustices:
It’s hard to say because I didn’t live [during slavery] but you know, there’s stuff that goes on today that we all accept as normal that … isn’t, and in a hundred years people might be looking at it in the same exact way.
I buy stuff that’s made by people that aren’t getting paid what they’re worth at all, all the time, you know?
Sweatshop labor and fair trade are merely two examples of moral issues in today’s world with which we could be concerned, and which our descendants may condemn us for tolerating unquestioningly.
This research raises troubling questions about how easily we, as consumers, can set aside our moral qualms about products and services when we desire those goods or feel that we are benefiting highly from their pricing. It may go a long way towards helping us to understand the widespread acceptance of sweatshop labor and other questionable practices in today’s global economy, as well as the nearly universal acceptance of slavery and such slave-produced goods as coffee, sugar, and cotton prior to the 20th century.
In the first experiment in this study, consumers expressed significantly less concern about sweatshop labor used to produce a hypothetical pair of jeans, and about the morality of sweatshop labor in general (“moral disengagement”), if they were interested in purchasing the jeans or thought the jeans would be flattering on them.
In the second experiment, consumers were more likely to exhibit moral disengagement regarding sweatshop labor used to manufacture Nike brand sneakers if they thought the sneakers were purchased at a substantial discount and that they would be particularly satisfied with them.
The authors refer to this effect as “motivated moral disengagement,” because consumers are presumably employing moral disengagement subconsciously in order to justify their behavior — to reduce the cognitive dissonance between their desires as consumers and their concerns as moral human beings about supporting harmful working conditions.