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When it comes to ethics, why do consumers care more about coffee than clothes?

The death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh has now surpassed 1,000, intensifying international scrutiny on the labor and safety conditions of garment workers in the country. And while some have called for boycotts of major retailers like Primark or Gap, the tragedy -- the worst in the garment industry's history -- has also generated debate about why people have a harder time exerting their power as "ethical" consumers when it comes to clothing than when it comes to, say, fair trade coffee. 

On Thursday, an article in the New York Times suggested this dynamic might be changing. "The revolution that has swept the food industry is expanding to retail: origins matter," the report began optimistically. Citing the catastrophic events in Bangladesh as a catalyst, the article went on to provide several examples of new labeling and transparency in the clothing industry. A coalition of retailers that includes giants like Nike and Walmart, for instance, is developing an index to measure the labor, social, and environmental impact of their supply chains. The paper adds:

New research indicates a growing consumer demand for information about how and where goods are produced. A study last year by professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard showed that some consumers - even those who were focused on discount prices - were not only willing to pay more, but actually did pay more, for clothes that carried signs about fair-labor practices.

But there's good reason to keep your optimism in check. The study cited by the Times, which only tested whether an "ethical" label made people more inclined to buy goods priced equally, found that "[a]mong customers shopping for lower priced women's and men's items, labels with information about labor standards (or information about other product attributes besides price) had no statistically significant impact on sales." The labels only had a positive effect on sales for one group: female shoppers looking for more expensive items.

And the findings appear bleaker when you compare them to what we know about the way consumers approach fair trade coffee. When it comes to coffee, this and other studies note that not only are people far more likely to opt for fair trade products, but they are also sometimes willing to pay more for fair trade, making the label attractive for companies. As with clothing, shoppers looking for savings are unlikely to pay a high premium for fair trade coffee. But they still opt for fair trade when price differences are minor.

In a blog post earlier this month, Stephan Manning, an assistant professor of management at the University of Massachusetts Boston, addressed the question of why people may care more about the origins of the coffee they're drinking than the clothing they're wearing. After all, he notes, labor and environmental concerns about the coffee industry in the 1970s and 80s led to profound shifts in consumer and retailer practices. By 2015, Starbucks, the world's biggest coffee company, will be 100-percent fair trade. It's hard to imagine the same being true of Walmart in 10 years. Manning continues:

So why is it that certification seems to work in coffee, but not in clothing? Why is it that sustainability standards in coffee look way beyond health and safety issues, whereas the Clean Clothes Campaign and their partner organizations struggle to get major fashion brands to sign very basic agreements, such as the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement which would promote independent inspections of supplier factories, public reporting, training and mandatory repairs and renovations?

Manning puts forward a couple of theories. First, coffee is a good where quality inherently matters to most consumers (because we literally consume it), which may go a long way in explaining why we are willing to shell out more for the stuff. It's a theory echoed by the MIT/Harvard study, which suggests that one of the reasons people are attracted to fair trade is because they associate higher quality with the product. We tend to value clothes for a host of attributes that go beyond quality, including style, cut, and color.

Manning also points out that "unlike the café latte which consumers might enjoy while looking at a poster of happy coffee farmers, the aesthetic value of a piece of clothing is quite unrelated to the purchasing experience." We wear clothes outside of the store, where it's all too easy to forget their origins.

Another study mentioned by the Times -- entitled, "Sweatshop labor is wrong unless the shoes are cute: Cognition can both help and hurt moral motivated reasoning" -- seems to support Manning's hypotheses. The study "found that the complex supply chain in retailing made it easier for consumers to justify poor labor practices," the Times explains. While people may theoretically oppose poor labor practices (and even find themselves outraged and horrified at the images coming out of Bangladesh), they manage to put their morals aside when they come across a pair of cute shoes.

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

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