Moral fiber: A wrinkle in the ethical market.

Ethical. Sustainable. The one-for-one model. Just ten years ago, these were topics on the fringe. Now, they’re firmly entrenched in today’s more socially (and environmentally) aware culture, branded with an ethical hot-iron, as it were, into the conscience of a modern, more caring consumer. As trendy talking points, they’re familiar to most; what’s unclear, however, is whether they’re anything more than buzzwordy marketing terms.

But for now, put aside any (entirely reasonable) questions about whether these measures are effective in the causes they champion — or even sincere on the part of the companies endorsing them. The fact remains: They’re now front and center, for better or worse, and increasingly, brands have fallen over themselves to answer the ethical call. But just how widespread are these touch points among current shoppers? Do today’s luxury consumers truly care as much as we’re made to believe, or are ethical measures the result of a vocal minority?

These were questions a recent study by Rebecca Walker Reczek and Daniel Zane at Fisher College of Business (Ohio State University), and Julie Irwin at McCombs School of Business (University of Texas at Austin), sought to answer. Their findings come as a blow to ethical devotees: Although people claim to view ethical products as important when asked, a product’s ethical benefit actually takes a backseat to other features when it comes time to purchase.

In the study, 147 students were asked to evaluate four brands of jeans with different attributes (style, wash, price, and child labor practices). The results were revealing: The overwhelming majority — 85 percent — chose not to learn about the ethical standards of the jeans.

“Sometimes expecting all of the burden to fall on consumers is unrealistic and is not going to lead to the most ethical outcomes. Why should it be their responsibility?”

In earlier research, the team found that shoppers choose to be “willfully ignorant” about how their favorite luxury goods are made, and this new study wanted to find out why. The average consumer, it found, tends to view ethical-first shoppers as a little intense, and a tad annoying, for lack of a better word. Ethical fanatics can be a devout bunch, suggested Ms. Reczek, and any shade thrown their way from your average shopper is a defensive response to feeling morally inferior to their “ethical-first” peers. “If you see someone who is better than you on some dimension, like ethics, you feel threatened,” she told Harvard Business Review (HBR). “It makes you feel bad about yourself. [So you] put the other person down.” (That’s one way of looking at it, but we’ll stick with ‘annoying.’ No one likes a preachy moralist.)

Reading through the lines though, there’s also the suggestion that consumers may even be turned off by brands that push overtly ethical messaging, a conclusion Julie Irwin in a previous op-ed at HBR, seemed reluctant to explore. “Until marketing practices do the best that they can to guide ethical consumerism, we can’t really draw any conclusions,” she wrote.

Karla Gallardo and Shilpa Shah of Cuyana, a Lean Luxe favorite that’s doing ‘ethical’ the right way: quietly. | Photo credit: Racked

The burden of performance, and a counter solution.

Our biggest contention with this research, and the ongoing conversation around ethical luxury practices in general, boils down to something very simple: The study assigns the duty of ethical action to the consumer — not the company making the products. Studies like this one often ignore a tenet of basic consumer behavior: that shopping is undertaken as a cathartic, fun exercise, and is meant to be pleasurable. People shop for luxury goods to feel good. They’re neither expecting nor wishing to be faced with a moral decision — nor does the impetus to ‘shop our way to a better world’ rest on their shoulders, as tends to be argued.

It’s no secret that what people say and what they do can often be at odds. A recent Nielsen survey, for instance, showed that 55 percent of respondents — 30,000 consumers in 60 countries — said they would be fine with paying more for ethically-produced goods. Most people are of course going to answer ‘yes’ to a question like this. After all, who wants to think of themselves as callous or out of touch? But why, asked Lean Luxe subscriber and Quartz reporter, Marc Bain, should shoppers be asked to buy ethically or not in the first place? Why does the burden rest with them? Dr. Julie Irwin, speaking to Mr. Bain, echoed that sentiment herself. “Sometimes expecting all of the burden to fall on consumers is unrealistic and is not going to lead to the most ethical outcomes,” she said. “Why should it be their responsibility?”

In truth, though they may be somewhat ahead of the curve, ethical products and brands face an uphill battle. Dr. Irwin et al’s report recommends that brands should make it easy for shoppers to find a product’s ethical credentials. They suggest placing those credentials on the packaging. But our solution is the opposite: hide it. It should be baked in, and thus placed in the background. Companies that aim to be ethical should do it in a way that lets shoppers shop without facing a moral or political decision. Their business model should focus on creating excellent products first (that just so happen to be ethical), rather than pushing ethical goods (that just happen to be made well).

Warby Parker, to take one example, offers a compelling model. Neil Blumenthal and team have created a well-designed product offered at a fair price, and they’re quietly donating glasses to those less fortunate around the world (‘buy a pair, give a pair’, as they call it). They achieve their charitable mission, but the impetus lies with the product first. Patagonia, Cienne, Aesop, Cuyana, and Kotn are other top examples of ethical and sustainable companies focused on delivering outstanding products with ethical missions discreetly baked in.

If, as a brand, you must go ethical, keep it quiet. Best to dissolve the medicine in a glass of orange juice, than to force it down as a horse pill.

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