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Consumers Think Sweatshops OK If 'Shoes Are Cute,' Research Reveals

June 28, 2013 – If people really want something, they are likely to ignore the fact that the product was made at a sweatshop, according to a new study by a Georgetown business professor.

Neeru Paharia, an assistant professor at the university’s McDonough School of Business, recently published a study called “Sweatshop Labor is Wrong Unless the Shoes are Cute: Cognition Can Both Help and Hurt Moral Motivated Reasoning” in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Despite the demand for “sweatshop-free” products, she says many consumers still find ways to rationalize buying products made at clothing companies with questionable labor practices.

Fitting Research Topic

Georgetown has been in the forefront of the anti-sweatshop movement and has a strict code of conduct for clothing companies making apparel with its logo.

In 2000, it established a Licensing Oversight Committee to assume leadership within the university on these issues.

Georgetown is also founding affiliate of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), and university leaders and students have served as members of the consortium's board of directors over the years.

The WRC assists in the enforcement of manufacturing codes of conduct adopted by its 186 affiliated colleges and universities. These institutions appoint representatives to the WRC University Caucus, which consults with the WRC board on policy and best practices for protecting the rights of workers involved in  collegiate goods production.

In addition, Georgetown has supported the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic, which provides its workers with a living wage that offers them a path out of poverty.

Morally Flexible Topic

Swweatshop Cute Shoes Photo

Despite the demand for “sweatshop-free” products, Georgetown business professor Neeru Paharia says many consumers still find ways to rationalize buying "cute shoes" and other products made at companies with questionable labor practices.

Working with Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota and Rohit Deshpandé of Harvard Business School, Paharia determined that consumers use motivated reasoning, product desirability and moral hypocrisy to justify questionable labor practices.

“Unlike cheating or lying, sweatshop labor seems to be a morally flexible topic,” Paharia says.

The study showed that people were more likely, for example, to endorse the use of questionable labor practices involved in a Caribbean vacation for themselves, but tend to oppose that use if the vacation in question is for their friends.

“This phenomenon, known as moral hypocrisy, is used by consumers in situations to benefits themselves but not others,” the professor explains. “They also made economic development justifications, such as convincing themselves that sweatshops are the only realistic source of income for workers in poorer countries, without which they wouldn’t develop, that the labor offers products not otherwise be affordable to low-income people and it’s OK because ‘companies must remain competitive.’ "

Consumer Loyalty

Paharia’s study also shows that if a consumer strongly desires a particular product made by sweatshop labor, he or she is likely to agree with economic "justifications."

“A great sale or exclusive offer can increase the desirability and value of a product, which can further justify the labor practices used to create the product,” Paharia says. “The strength of a brand and consumer loyalty may also influence reasoning – causing consumers to view companies such as Nike and Apple as subsidiaries that are not directly involved with the labor conditions.”

The professor says the notion that sweatshop labor is morally wrong is rooted in human instinct and feeling.

Identifying the Unethical

The study found that when consumers are stressed, distracted or preoccupied, they are less likely to justify sweatshop labor, due to a lack of mental capacity to convince themselves of something that isn’t true.

“When study participants were asked to memorize a lengthy string of digits, they were less likely to justify questionable labor practices even in situations where they strongly desired a product,” Paharia says.

Finally, brand loyalty and favoritism may cause consumers to excuse certain companies from unethical practices when viewed on an individual basis, according to the study. But when consumers compare two entities with different labor practices, it is easier for them to identify an unethical organization.

Good Moral Choices

“Our findings show that consumers will actually change what they believe if they strongly desire a product,” Paharia says. “As long as companies continue to create value and maintain loyalty, it is likely store shelves won’t see ‘sweatshop-free’ products.”

She hopes her research makes a difference in how people view the issue.

“I think it may help consumers to be more introspective about their moral judgments,” the professor explains. “When faced with an appealing sweatshop-made product, they may now consider whether their views are informed by their beliefs or a true motivation to make good moral choices.”

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