Memory Bias Lets Us Keep Buying Unethical Clothes

October 31, 2018
Memory Bias Lets Us Keep Buying Unethical Clothes

I pitched this (or something along these lines) in January just after the study came out and it didn’t get picked up. I then kept thinking about it but didn’t really do anything with the information. Maybe I forgot I had a website or something. Anyway now, a mere 10 months later, I present it to you…

When so much – SO MUCH – readily available information about the perils and pollution of fashion exists, it’s hard to understand how anyone can possibly go on buying garments that are cast under its shadow. I can’t help but wonder how someone can, for instance, justify buying a brand new £3 top when they understand completely that whoever made it cannot have been paid fairly. How can someone buy a cheap beaded skirt if they know that there’s every chance each bead was stitched by a child, chosen for their tiny, dexterous fingers?

There may be a few answers. The first of which is financial constraints. If someone is reliant on the government’s pathetically insufficient provisions, for example, then of course they can’t afford to spend the type of money that would ensure the new pair of jeans they’re buying their child have been ethically produced. Investment buys and ‘voting with your wallet’ are only applicable when you actually have the cash to do so. Another consideration is sizing. The ethical and sustainable sectors of the fashion industry have, on the whole, fallen woefully behind in providing anything above a standard 6-16 size range. You can’t wear what doesn’t exist.

But what about the people who can saunter up to any shop and find their size on the rail? And the ones who have a sizable disposable income? How can they continue to buy from companies that mistreat workers and the environment?

Are they selfish? Evil? Maybe some of them. But there’s another theory: memory bias. A study conducted by Ohio State University at the end of 2017 found that in order to justify a purchase, subjects would simply forget anything particularly unsavoury that they’d been told.

The study was conducted in two parts. In the first, participants were asked to read about a selection of different desks. The descriptions included information on price, quality and ethical attributes; in this case whether the wood was sourced from a sustainable tree farm or an endangered rain forest. After completing a series of tasks meant to distract them, the participants were asked to recall the information. Less than half remembered when the wood for a particular desk came from an endangered source. They were much more successful, however, at remembering details of price and quality.

The second part of the study was undertaken online. Participants were asked to create an outfit which included a pair of jeans. Half were presented with a pair of jeans that had been made using child labour, and half were presented with a pair that had been made ethically. Showing a similar pattern to the first group, those who used the ethical jeans were able to recall the information when asked, whereas those who used the jeans made under exploitative conditions could not.

The researchers found that it wasn’t that people had simply not been paying attention, rather that they were employing willful ignorance in order to make themselves feel better. “Because consumers find thinking about emotionally difficult ethical information (e.g., that a product is made with child labour) to be aversive but believe they should remember such information in order to do the right thing,” the abstract reads, “the presence of negative ethical information produces conflict between consumers’ want and should selves. [They] resolve it by letting the want self prevail and forgetting the negative ethical information.” Essentially, in a fight between want and conscience, want wins.

The researchers also found that forgetting information was a completely acceptable excuse for buying something ethically questionable. Simply dismissing the information, however, was not. “Consumers judge forgetting negative ethical information as more morally acceptable than remembering but ignoring it,” the abstract continues, “suggesting that willfully ignorant memory is a more morally acceptable form of coping.”

Given that this willful ignorance will often come into play when someone wanders in the direction of a till or hovers over the ‘buy now’ button, merely educating people on ethics and expecting them to make the right choice isn’t a catch-all answer. We need to overcome the so-called want/should conflict. But how do we do that? Do we force brands to put cigarette packet-style warning labels on their product? “THIS PRODUCT CAUSED HARM TO A YOUNG CHILD”, “THE PESTICIDES USED TO MAKE THIS FABRIC MAY CAUSE A SLOW AND PAINFUL DEATH”, “IT TOOK 3,000 LITRES OF WATER TO MAKE THIS T-SHIRT”, “FASHION KILLS”.

Would it work? I don’t know. People still smoke, of course but photos and warnings have reduced the amount of young people starting smoking and have increased the number of people quitting, according to the World Health Organisation. Maybe it’s extreme but it’s clear we need to do something. We’re quite literally running out of time. We can’t afford to forget.

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