You there, sipping your Fair Trade coffee after your hybrid run to Whole Foods!

You care about the environment, yes? You use your individual purchasing power as a vote for sustainable, socially conscious modes of production, while minimizing your household's exposure to pesticides and hormones.

And you look super while doing it, too, but I can't help but notice that your ironic teeshirt was made in China from cotton produced in Uzbekistan, and is thus an ecological and ethical nightmare. What gives?

Organic cotton, which you'd be wearing if you really cared, dude.
A new study in the Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal says that the answer is your basic unwillingness to front the extra cash to upgrade your $20 shirt to one made from lovely, sustainable organic bamboo (for example). It would cost a lot more, and afterwards you'd be worried that you wasted your money on something that wasn't substantially better than the conventional alternative. Researchers also think you've got concerns relating to the cost of keeping your teeshirt looking snappy: all those trips to the green drycleaners, I guess.

And that makes a lot of sense. Why should you pay all that extra money when you could get something very similar for maybe less than half the price? That would be really silly, wouldn't it? Except that people do that all the time, if the product is considered desirable. (You do it all the time, judging from the contents of your coffee cup, your garage, and your fridge.)  Luxury brands are built on our hunger to own things that are marginally better but significantly more expensive than other things.

Researchers Jiyun Kang and Sang-Hoon Kim note that "it is dif´Čücult to distinguish environmentally sustainable apparel from conventional ones when people are wearing them," and that the use of visible eco-friendly labels or logos on sustainable apparel might help boost the role of social risk in consumer decision-making. They believe people might be willing to spend more money for clothing that publicizes their sustainable decision-making. Your hybrid car makes your environmental conscience a visible part of your commute; perhaps if your jacket made a similar statement, you'd gladly pay more for it.

I don't disagree with the conclusion that "marketers need to persuade young consumers" that buying sustainable clothing "will enhance their personal images." However, this point is not actually supported by Kang and Kim's study, in which they merely asked participants if worries about what others might think deterred them from buying sustainable clothing. They did not ask whether it was the lack of universal kudos and approving nods from passersby that made the prospect of spending twice as much on an identical teeshirt seem pointless.

In other words, Kang and Kim have established that consumers don't believe that sustainable apparel is worth the extra money, not why. While I think the "why" is fairly intuitive, I wish they had designed their study to make this point explicit.