Sweatshop Labor is Wrong Unless the Shoes are Cute


Given that consumers say they care about ethical considerations such as sweatshop labor, the continued demand for goods made using questionable labor practices is vexing. A number of companies are continually cited for their violations (or suppliers’ violations) of fair labor practices. Consumers vow not to purchase products from such companies, but despite the recurring violations, these companies continue to experience success in the marketplace. Research by Neeru Paharia and colleagues suggests that it is not only indifferent consumers supporting companies utilizing sweatshops, but even those that condemn exploitative prac-
tices inevitably support such companies under certain conditions.

In a pilot study, Paharia found that participants were more likely to agree with economic justifications regarding sweatshop labor when considering a desirable pair of jeans made under poor working conditions than when participants considered the jeans specifically stated as having been made without sweatshop labor. They propose that although consumers generally may take positions against sweatshop labor, they may endorse it when their level of motivation is high (based on the self-relevance of the situation or product desirability), cognitive resources are available to engage in motivated reasoning, and the decision context is flexible enough for cognitive resources to maneuver. Under these conditions, consumers engage in motivated reasoning to justify choices that indirectly endorse less than moral practices.


Research in motivated reasoning suggests that people are likely to arrive at conclusions they prefer, as long as they maintain an “illusion of objectivity.” By engaging in this rationalization process, people may be able to consciously think of themselves as moral even as they engage in unethical behaviors by justifying the ethical burden away. Over three studies, Paharia and colleagues examined the conditions that contribute to motivated reasoning during ethical purchase dilemmas. They found that consumers exhibited increased motivated reasoning in favor of sweatshop-made products when a product (shoes) was of greater desirability; additionally, they were more likely to indicate that they would purchase the product (shoes) even after knowing it was sweatshop produced. Consumers were also more likely to engage in motivated reasoning to justify their own hypothetical vacations where the labor was not treated well, but not when justifying hypothetical vacations of their friends.

The data indicates that contrasting moral standards exist in order to protect one’s self-concept. It is also consistent with past studies which have shown people believe that they are more fair, honest, and trustworthy than others. To examine the issue further, Paharia asked a second set of consumers to evaluate hypothetical vacation choices while performing a concurrent, cognitive resource demanding task. Under this condition, consumers no longer exhibited motivated reasoning. This suggests that the motivated reasoning necessary to overcome ethical purchase dilemmas requires significant cognitive resources.

In other words, people do sometimes endorse sweatshop labor by internally justifing a reason. When they lack the resources needed for internal justification, they are unable to endorse such morally questionable practices. Paharia and colleagues also looked at the effect of brand favorability when brands were evaluated in isolation or jointly (i.e. two brands were assessed). When judging brands’ questionable labor practices in isolation, consumers were more lenient toward highly favorable brands than toward less favorable brands. However, when brands were jointly evaluated, favorable brands did not enjoy the same leniency.



For brands that are connected to questionable practices, such as sweatshops or environmental damage, the research suggests consumers, for better or worse, will be more forgiving than one may anticipate. Desirable products or products created by favorable brands seemingly get a free pass, as long as consumers have the mental resources to justify their purchase. Selfishly however, consumers do not believe it is permissible for their friends to do the same.

This research suggests that brands which engage in morally responsible practices, when others in their industry do not, should encourage side-by-side product comparisons (i.e. joint evaluation settings). For example, it may look bad that a company uses sweatshops, but evaluations of the company should decrease when competitors show they can provide an equivalent product without the moral cost. Lastly, the work suggests that consumers will be extra susceptible to these comparisons (or simply less willing to forgive immoral practices) while experiencing decreased cognitive resources. Accordingly, ‘moral’ brands could potentially benefit from low browed ‘political style’ attacks of competitors’ immoral practices.

Neeru Paharia

Assistant Professor

Neeru Paharia is Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.  She conducts research on judgment and decision making, consumer behavior, signaling through brands, social media, political consumption, moral psychology, and digital marketing.

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