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Out of Sight


It’s not like my nearly 3 year old book (!) is going to sell many more copies, but it sure is relevant in context of the fact that people simply don’t care who dies or suffers making their clothing.

Many consumers have found a way to cope with the knowledge that products they like have been made unethically: They simply forget they ever knew it.

In a series of studies, researchers found that consumers conveniently “forgot” that brands of desks were made with wood from rainforests or that jeans may have been made with child labor.

In fact, consumers not only forget the uncomfortable truth, but sometimes misremember the facts and believe that the offending product was made ethically.

“It’s not necessarily a conscious decision by consumers to forget what they don’t want to know,” said Rebecca Reczek, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

“It is a learned coping mechanism to tune out uncomfortable information because it makes their lives easier.”

The study appears online in the Journal of Consumer Research and will be published in a future print edition.

In one study, 236 college students were asked to read and memorize descriptions of six made-up brands of desks. The descriptions discussed quality, price and an ethical dimension – the source of the wood. Participants read that the wood either came from sustainable tree farms or endangered rainforests.

When asked immediately after memorization, participants accurately recalled whether the wood came from rainforests or tree farms in 94 percent of the cases.

But those memories faded quickly. After the participants completed 15 to 20 minutes of tasks meant to distract them, they were then given a sheet of paper with all six desk brand names and were asked to write down as much as they could remember about each desk.

Participants were right 60 percent of the time about desks made from tree farms, but right only 45 percent of the time about desks made of rainforest wood.

“It is not that the participants didn’t pay attention to where the wood came from. We know that they successfully memorized that information,” said study co-author Daniel Zane, a doctoral student in marketing at Ohio State.

“But they forget it in this systematic pattern. They remembered the quality and price attributes of the desks. It is only the ethical attributes that cause people to be willfully ignorant.”

It’s simply easier to not really care. Doing so means you don’t have to seriously question your privilege or position in the global economy. Doing so certainly means you can claim no responsibility for the conditions of workers or environmental consequences of what we consume.

Of course, corporations already know this, which is one advantage for hiding production processes as much as they can. Whether by moving production overseas or intentionally hiring largely powerless undocumented immigrants or placing unusual amounts of security around their factories, corporations are determined to not let you find out anymore about production than you need to. If you realized it was close and you could do something about it, you might well do that. This was of course why there were such major reforms after the Triangle Fire. But by moving apparel production to Bangladesh–a nation most Americans can’t even identify on a map–corporations make sure that even if consumers find out something about what is going on, they will forget soon enough. That only changes if you LGM commenters care enough to do something about it.

Speaking of such topics, I am briefly speaking tonight in Boise at the Drinking Liberally meeting about my research on the history of the modern Pacific Northwest I have been researching, at a site I assume if findable on the internet. And I am also giving a talk about blogging, Out of Sight, and other such things at Bradley University in Peoria on January 25. Don’t know all the details yet, but will let people know. For LGM readers who live in southern Idaho or central Illinois, come say hi.

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