'Selfish desire' stops Kiwis buying ethically made clothes, says study

Kiwis get so wrapped up in the buzz of buying new clothes that they're unable to make rational decisions based on how ethical their purchases are, a new study shows.

The research, which comes from representatives of several University of Auckland departments, also found that "desire takes over reason" when consumers go shopping - and quickly becomes "a hedonistic affair".

Clothing consumption has increased 400 percent over the past two decades, with 40 million people employed in the industry. Many clothing industry workers operate in oppressive and exploitative conditions.

Undergraduate student Reuben Yates, who carried out part of the study for his honours dissertation, claims the shopping environment has been deliberately constructed to make us forget all that by "involving our emotions and desires".

"The shopping environment is designed for the consumer to 'lose oneself' in the process," he said.

"People describe clothing as making them feel good, confident, boosting their self-esteem or mood. The process of shopping is addictive, gratifying and stimulating.

"Pretty much, selfish desire negates rational thought of the consequences of someone's actions."

Mr Yates says people don't incorporate ethical concerns into their clothes shopping experience for four reasons.

While shoppers often simply lose control of their drive, ethically sourced clothes also cost too much and are hard to access, fuelling a feeling of helplessness in making a palpable difference and a disconnection from the consequences, he explained.

Auckland University masters student Ellie King, who was involved in the study, says her research shows people care about ethical clothing when they're educated on it - but still not enough to actually change their behaviour.

Her research saw a group of students undertaking in-depth lessons into the dark underbelly of the clothing industry, which is one of the world's most exploitative industries, and one of its heaviest pollutants.

But while Ms King will have to carry out follow-up research next year, her initial survey data shows a gulf between having concerns about the clothing industry and actually altering patterns of consumption.

That's confirmed by Mr Yates' research, which showed shoppers think it takes "too much money, too much effort and too much hassle" to make a change.

"What we see is that people do care about sustainability issues related to clothing, but think that it's not achievable to implement them," he said.

"Because of that, many shoppers make a trade-off - do I do the right thing and buy ethically, or do I do what's best for me and buy this $5 item of clothing from Bangladesh?

"In this way, convenience wins over values."

Ms King says part of the problem is not actually knowing the extent of problems stemming from the clothing industry. She admits the research she's undertaken has wised her up to its environmental and social issues.