If You Want People to Shop Ethically, Drop the ‘Portlandia’ Routine

Researchers find that being holier-than-thou about environmentally correct purchases makes other people less likely to buy green.

Checking out Colin the chicken's life story before ordering him for dinner in an episode of 'Portlandia.' (Photo: IFC)

Jan 8, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Though I have written here often about illegal fishing as a leading factor in the “empty oceans” crisis, I still feel like an ignoramus every time I attempt to make an ethical purchase at my supermarket seafood counter. As a crude rule of thumb, I could just assume that everything imported is illegal. But only about a third of imported seafood fits that description, and in any case, supermarkets seldom bother to label their merchandise by origin.

So why not just break out my Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide to help me make a sustainable choice? That’s what I tell readers to do. But I am a hypocrite: Shopping this way makes me feel like those hipster restaurant customers in Portlandia fretting about whether the woodland-raised, soy-fed heritage-breed chicken named Colin is really the ethically pure choice for dinner. By default I end up buying anything other than shrimp, because I know shrimp is almost always terrible for the environment. Then my wife goes and buys the shrimp anyway, and we have a fight.

Is it any wonder that consumers everywhere opt for willful ignorance? If it’s pretty and the price is right, we buy it—and try not to think about whether somebody cut down a rainforest to produce it, or dumped antibiotics into waterways, or relied on child labor, or committed any of a hundred other ethical sins. Even consumers who care about such things seldom follow through by doing the research and sorting out the information to make the ethical choice. It’s just too damned complicated.

It turns out, according to a new study in The Journal of Consumer Psychology, that it’s worse than simply throwing up our hands. We also ridicule people who try to do better. Even worse, that ridicule (which is half the pleasure of watching shows like Portlandia) also makes us less likely to behave ethically in the future.

Ohio State University consumer psychologist Rebecca Reczek and her coauthors started out considering two opposing views of human behavior. One optimistic perspective held that seeing other people behave ethically would elicit “a built-in emotional responsiveness to moral beauty,” leading to what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has called “warm or tingly feelings, positive affect, and a motivation to help others,” summed up as “elevation.” The other theory proposed that seeing ethical behavior might just lead to a lot of nasty commentary.

In the new study—surprise!—the second, pessimistic view of human nature turned out to be more accurate. Skip the elevation—bring on the denigration!

Reczek and company asked 147 test subjects to choose a pair of jeans based on a limited number of criteria, picking just two from a list that included style, price, color (dark or regular wash), or some ethical consideration. Most consumers skipped right past the ethical consideration, as the researchers expected from their previous work on willful ignorance.

But the real point of the study came afterward. Asked to comment on the behavior of other consumers, willfully ignorant test subjects conceded that ethical consumers might be more compassionate. But good luck with that: They were also odd, boring, and plain. Exactly why did these unsexy, fashion-blind little wackos even bother to buy jeans in the first place?

As Reczek interprets these results, “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 them feel better.”

Beyond that, the study also found that the implied moral admonition tended to make willfully ignorant test subjects even less likely to behave ethically in the future. “They think, ‘That person’s just weird and boring and stupid, and now that I’ve said that, I care even less about being sustainable in the future.’ ”

So what should we take away from this not altogether flattering view of how we behave? How should we act when the choices we make—for instance, whether to buy that beautiful and incredibly inexpensive bed made of Vietnamese rainforest wood—are destroying wildlife habitat everywhere? And when our seafood purchases are helping to empty the oceans?

First, says Reczek, manufacturers and retailers need to step into the breach. “We know that people are not going to seek out the information about ethical considerations. So it’s not enough to put it on your website and assume people are going to find it. It needs to be right on the shelf or on the product.” If you’re the manufacturer or the retailer of that bed, say, you need to tell people where the wood comes from and whether it was from a certified sustainable forest. “The onus is on you as the manufacturer to push that information out to the consumer,” she adds.

Consumers like me also need to overcome our fear of looking like ethical idiots and ask the questions, or at least confine our shopping to businesses that provide the answers: Where did this wood come from? How were these fish harvested? Because of social media, says Reczek, willfully ignorant consumers are now more likely to find out when a friend goes the extra mile on some ethical consideration. That means we also need to beware this “vicious circle where you put down people who make ethical choices and then that leads you to care less and act less ethically in the future.”

Finally, for people who are making the ethical choices and hoping to get other people to follow their good example, it may help to step off the moral high ground. Reczek has a vegan friend who blogs about it as “this very moral choice, and every time I see it, I think, ‘I know you’re trying to win people over, but you’re turning them off. They think you’re weird, and it makes them hostile.’ ”

In short, hold the sermons. (No promises here, but maybe we’ll hold the disparaging comments too.) The road to better behavior is paved with high spirits and good recipes.