Thursday 18 August 2016

Polling Clean And Buying Dirty: Why We Say One Thing And Do Another.

There is a problem with ethical consumers. Polls and research make it clear that we want to buy in a way that rewards companies who look after their workers and the environment. But, when it comes down to it, those good intentions don't match what goes on in the marketplace. We still massively support brands with proven ethical issues.

It's called the Attitude-Behaviour Gap, and it's a real stumbling block to getting a clearer idea into how ethical shopping can become more mainstream. To put it simply: we say one thing and do another. Why is that?

A short article over on the Ethical Trading Initiative website digs into the problem, and comes up with some interesting conclusions. There are a number of factors at play which, when put together, means that we're not quite as ethical in action as we are in intent.

The first issue is that of information overload. Anyone that spends an amount of time a day on the interwebs can sympathise with that, of course. An acquaintance of mine often says 'the more I research, the more confused I get.' And therein lies the problem. Contradictory reports, the lack of clarity as to what action to take, or even how effective that action can be, leads us to make a lot of encouraging noises without actually doing that much.

Then there's the problem of what to do when you actually need a new outfit. You may head to the shops with the best of intentions, but the fact remains that ethical choices on the high street are still thin on the ground. Even brands that make a big noise about their conscious standpoint like H&M only stock a limited range of ethically-sourced products, with a tiny selection of colours and sizes that shrinks the choice still further. What you want to do and what ends up happening may diverge simply because the items you have in mind aren't available. This doesn't just apply at an individual level, either. You're just as likely to be buying for a friend, child or loved one as for yourself. How easy is it to buy ethically then?

Social pressures play a part as well. Fitting into a group can mean dressing in a certain way or spending time and money in certain shops. What if someone you want to impress drags you along to Primark on a Saturday afternoon? How do you say no to that based on your conscience? If your moral judgements and those of a larger societal group are different, it becomes that bit harder to make and stick to the right decision.

It's clear that this disconnect works across the board: look at the surprising results that have come out of big political events like the Brexit vote, which most polls indicated would be a whitewash for the Remain camp. If we're not telling the whole truth when we talk to researchers or fill in an online survey, then we shouldn't be surprised when results don't match up to expectations. Does this mean the whole idea of the 'ethical consumer' is largely fictional?

Well, no, but with caveats. We've seen how easy it can be for fashion brands to roll back on controversial decisions with a well-aimed dose of Internet ire. People, at heart, want to do the right thing by garment workers and the environment. But the terrain is still dense and difficult to navigate, and it shouldn't be surprising if our best intentions can be overridden by the choices we have to make in the real world in order to get things done.


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