Imagine you’re shopping for new shoes. You’ve been wanting to make more ethical choices as a consumer—you know you shouldn’t be supporting cheap labor and that you should be making more environmentally friendly purchases—but you come across a cheap pair of shoes already made, just waiting to be bought.
Maybe you justify that purchase to yourself, despite your convictions. You might think, as marketing professor Neeru Paharia puts it, that “some person already suffered to make this piece of apparel or the environment was already polluted, so anything I do right now is going to have no consequence.” The damage is done, and even if you feel a little bit guilty about your purchase, you figure at least the labor and materials won’t go to waste.
But what if we lived in world of on-demand production? Those shoes produced with poor labor practices and plastic would only exist if you specifically ordered them to be made. You might be a bit more reluctant, then, to directly contribute to those processes that you don’t actually want to support.
Giving consumers more control of production allows them to weigh those ethical components, like underpaid labor, pollution, or the use of recycled materials, more heavily than if they’re simply choosing a pre-made item off a shelf, according to Paharia, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Business. In a paper soon to be published in the Journal of Marketing, Paharia outlines this effect and shows how companies that are trying to be more ethical can use this to get potential customers more personally invested in the footprint of their purchasees.
Paharia is interested in why consumers don’t care about some of the big issues in the supply chain. “One interesting way of thinking about it is: If you had to lock a child in your basement to make your clothes so they would be cheap, no one would do that. But if you look at the way the market is structured, we all do that, we just hire [a] brand [to do it],” she says. At the crux of this is the fact that we don’t really know how our products are made.
Some brands are trying to be ethical and sustainable, but in general, we don’t know the details. “If you had a structure where things were made to order, now you’re going to ask yourself those questions a little bit more, like, ‘Where is this going to be made?’ and ‘How are these people going to be treated?'” Paharia says. “And, ‘Do I want this thing if I’m going to be responsible for causing some problems?'” In one study, Paharia found that people were willing to pay a premium for recycled products—books made of recycled paper, compared to the exact same book on standard paper for a cheaper price—when they had control over whether or not that book would be produced in the first place.
Most of these ethically created made-to-order products would likely be a bit more expensive, but there’s a market out there for that. And made-to-order production does have its benefits for businesses, too. If a company doesn’t produce anything until it has a demand, it may be more costly to produce (things tend to be cheaper to make at a larger scale) but then they don’t have an overstock or understock problem, which can be costly either way and can also end up with less waste.
For companies that are intentionally trying to be fair trade or sweatshop-free or sustainably sourced, combining that effort with this made-to-order production could be even more effective than just creating their already commendable products, Paharia says. Sometimes companies are concerned about spending all the money needed make sustainable or conscientious products, because they think people won’t buy them. But when combined with this on-demand strategy, those companies will find the customers who are willing to pay that premium for a clear consumer conscience. When customers are involved in this way, they’re more invested in the product.
Some companies are already trying different types of on-demand business models—from the option to customize your Nikes to Amazon’s The Drop, which offers limited clothing items made on-demand and designed by influencers. These existing options have a different bonus beyond ethics: the idea of something unique and tailor-made to the shopper, which people are often willing to pay extra for, also. Ultimately, though, shoppers may still have to do their own conscientious calculations. “Should consumers even have to be thinking of this stuff? It’s quite burdensome,” Paharia says. Not everyone has the time or resources to do their own ethical calculations. But until there’s more oversight or everyone is on board with ethical production, this made-to-order model gives consumers more responsibility and could get them to become more invested in their ethical decisions.