The Psychology Behind Our Un-Ethical Fashion Choices

The Psychology Behind Our Un-Ethical Fashion Choices

The Ethical Fashion Guide came out last week, and has once again shaken up the NZ fashion market, with brands like Kowtow, Common Good and Freeset coming out on top, while others, including Trelise and Karen Walker, chose to opt out and not disclose their production information. Launched after the 2013 Bangladesh factory collapse, the survey hoped to empower consumers to make better choices when shopping, but has it really changed our habits? We sat down to talk to honours graduate Reuben Yates, who spent last year researching the motive behind consumption and choice of non-ethical purchases -  is it selfishness, ignorance or just plain contempt?



Can you tell us a bit about what you studied?

I have just completed my honours year in Psychology, in particular I researched why so many people tend to not be so good at following through with their (often fairly ambitious) ethically-minded attitudes or intentions.

Recently, people have expressed considerable concern for issues social and environmental justice – think marriage equality, climate change, the gender-pay gap: these are all causes that strike a chord for many of us. The norm of caring for people and the environment is a pretty great bandwagon that millennials have embraced, but the activists we see on TV don’t represent the whole.


So, do we seem to say one thing but do another?

Lots of literature notes a thing where ethical intention doesn’t always translate to ethical action; it’s the whole “oh yeah I care about the environment” in word but not deed. This is called by various names; the ethical purchasing gap, the attitude-behaviour gap, the intention-behaviour gap, take your pick.

I used ‘buying clothes’ as my case study for this phenomenon. There is rising awareness around some of the issues relating to the life-cycle of clothes, particularly within the ‘fast fashion’ industry. Whether it’s exploited workers in ‘sweatshops’, or mass disposal of garments, many of us have heard something somewhere along the way. Yet, for most, consumer behaviour remains unaltered.


What are the common conditions for someone who works in a sweatshop?  

A ‘sweatshop’ (not the unfortunately named bar on Sale Street in Auckland) is what people call garment production factories that have some unjust working conditions. Typical conditions may include little or no pay for workers, unsafe conditions, long hours, and forced labour. Sweatshops are typically associated with more low-income countries where production is outsourced, places like Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and Pakistan.



Would you say that on the whole, western society is pretty selfish?

The way I see it, the short answer is kind of yes, but mostly no.

The long answer: It’s not as simple as people are either self-interested or not. The reality is that everyone is a bit of both, where the extent of each varies person to person. I’m much more likely to think about the wellbeing of mankind while at University, Church or when I’m with my ‘greenie’ mates than I would be when I’m browsing stores looking for a pair of new jeans. So our ‘selfishness’ is constantly shifting, if you like.

That said, when you stop looking at the individual and look at society, I would certainly say many aspects of society and culture privileges concern for our own wants and needs over those of others. It is commonly noted that ‘western’ countries do tend to be more individualistic, success and wellbeing is sought in relation to the individual, rather than to one’s community - you can do anything, live your dream etc.

Research has linked individualism with a greater motivations toward hedonism, higher levels of materialism and correspondingly with less value toward community or a sense of collective responsibility of beyond the self. So the broader societal and cultural stuff certainly does influence us to think more individualistically.

Many of us then describe that we are caught between a forced dichotomy of acting either with our own individual good in mind, or the good of others in mind. The people who act most ethically do so when it’s part of a stable, fixed aspect of their identity (like a religion or social group) that they’re not willing to compromise on.


So people know where their clothes come from, but buy them anyway - did you find out why

There’s lots of stuff at play here. For most, we just don’t think about it while shopping.

People need reminding, and there’s nothing in the shop to do that. Instead, we get swept up in the process of buying this shirt and thinking about how it’ll look for Friday night, and we don’t stop to think. Often the issues are just so distant that people don’t link what they saw on TV with what they’re buying at H&M. So people describe feeling too disconnected, which can mean that 1) we don’t feel responsible or 2) and we don’t feel personally affected.

Still, some who are aware of the ethical issues while shopping find some way to reason out of it. The first way is often this idea that it’s too costly (in convenience, time, money and effort) to buy ethical. Others have this thing I call a ‘learned helpless consumption’, which is this idea that the issues like sweatshops are so massive, and buying one item of clothing is not going to do anything. So we kind of block out the knowledge we have, otherwise it would make us feel bad.



What advice would you give to someone who wants to start making more ethical purchases, but it seems like huge leap?

Knowledge is the first step

Research and educate yourself on the issues – the details of the ethical concerns of clothing, of good ethical alternatives, etc.

1. Opshops

Whether it’s the local Save Mart, St Johns or a walk down K road (check-out our BABL shoot for inspo!)  purchasing ‘pre-loved’ items is a plus. Firstly, your demand supports the second-hand industry. Secondly, you’re not buying more items which will eventually end up disposed, and you’re subtracting your support from retail environments.

2. Buy locally made

There is a greater chance that those items made locally were done so fairly. You’re also supporting local businesses which is always a good thing.

3. Buy less

Less consumption means less clothing items in landfill waste sites causing all sorts of environmental damage.


4. Check out your favourite brands

The brands you do buy, are they transparent with their production practices? What do they do to protect people and the environment? It might be worthwhile jumping on board with those that are doing some good things.

5. Budget for it

One of the biggest things you hear is ‘oh it’s just too expensive to buy ethical’. To me, this speaks more to what people prioritise and what people don’t. Maybe sacrificing a couple coffees a week, buying out less, and so on, might allow wiggle room to buy a slightly more pricey ethical item.

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