Sweatshop Labor is Wrong (Unless the Shoes are Cute)

May 15, 2013

Nike did it. Apple has done it. In both instances, consumers protested reports of unethical labor practices that would be illegal in the United States.

But despite the implied demand for ‘sweatshop-free’ products, these items are not overcrowding store shelves. Baffled by this economic imbalance, Georgetown University McDonough School of Business Assistant Professor Neeru Paharia investigated consumer reasoning and decision-making processes behind purchasing items made from sweatshop labor.

In the study “Sweatshop Labor is Wrong Unless the Shoes are Cute,” Paharia determined that consumers use motivated reasoning, product desirability, and moral hypocrisy (or self relevance) to justify questionable labor practices.  

“Unlike cheating or lying, sweatshop labor is a morally flexible topic,” said Paharia. “Consumers will justify this type of labor with economic development reasoning in situations where they have an invested interest or desired outcome.”

These economic development justifications include topics such as:

  • Sweatshops are the only realistic source of income for workers in poorer countries
  • Without sweatshops poorer countries could not develop
  • Sweatshop labor offers products that would not otherwise be affordable to low-income people
  • Sweatshop labor is okay because companies must remain competitive

Unfair Labor Resorts? Good for Me – Bad for You

When considering vacation destinations that operate with questionable labor practices, consumers were more likely to agree with economic justifications if they were going on the trip. On the other hand, consumers were less likely to justify unethical labor practices when considering a group of friends taking the exact same vacation. This phenomenon known as moral hypocrisy is used by consumers in situations to benefits themselves but not others.

It’s Okay…I Got it On-Sale

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. 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.

Too Tired to Justify

The notion that sweatshop labor is morally wrong is rooted in human instinct and feeling. When consumers are stressed, distracted, or preoccupied, they will be less likely to justify sweatshop labor due to a lack of mental capacity to convince themselves otherwise. 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.

The Obvious Choice

Brand loyalty and favoritism may cause consumers to excuse certain companies from unethical practices when viewed on an individual basis. However, when comparing two entities – it is easier for consumers to identify an unethical organization if there are differences in labor practices.

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

“Sweatshop Labor is Wrong Unless the Shoes are Cute: Cognition Can Both Help and Hurt Moral Motivated Reasoning.” Neeru Paharia, Kathleen Vohs, and Rohit Deshpande. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes: May 2013.