Joan Ellis holds up two white cotton t-shirts printed with state college logos. The tees appear identical, but one is sourced from conventional cotton and the other from organic. Would that difference, Ellis and her Washington State University colleagues wondered, change the price consumers are willing to pay for the shirts?

As consumers become increasingly conscious of how their purchases influence labor practices and use natural resources, some make product choices that show concern for people and the planet.

That may include a willingness to pay more - about 25 percent more for organic apparel, said Ellis, associate professor of Apparel, Merchandising, Design & Textiles (AMDT), referencing a pilot study funded by the WSU Agricultural Research Center and recently published in the International Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management.

"If the consumer is not willing to pay, then everything upstream - the growing, processing, distribution and selling - has no ramifications,” Ellis said. "You have to start with identifying the consumer. If the consumer won’t buy it, everything else is moot.”

The research team is particularly interested in understanding the relationship between what people say they’re willing to pay versus what they’ll actually pay at market.

Consumers’ intentions often don’t match their purchase behaviors, Ellis said; everyone has their price.

The pilot study was one of the first to use a type of experimental auction methodology to evoke the true price a person will pay for a product.

The team - Ellis and AMDT graduate student Emily Hunt with Vicki McCracken, professor, and Nate Skuza, former doctoral student, from the School of Economic Sciences - used a sample of two large university classes. They found that:

* Students who pay for their own clothing had a lower willingness to pay for both organic and conventional tees than students whose parents, for example, buy their clothing. 
* Students who believe organics are of a higher quality were willing to pay more for both organic and conventional cotton tees.
* Students who had a history of purchasing organic products were willing to pay more for the organic than the conventional variety.

Ellis said the pilot study opens opportunities for continued research into organic apparel and consumer behavior. For example, the team hopes to look at the influence of social media and social norms, willingness to pay for organic high fashion versus organic low fashion, interest in buying apparel versus textiles like bedding, and willingness to pay based on consumer interest in fashion.

"The pilot study’s traction definitely shows an interest in consumer behavior and marketing implications for organic apparel,” she said. "It validated what we knew about interest out in the market and the potential to push forward on this particular topic.”

See the article by Joan L. Ellis, Vicki A. McCracken, Nathan Skuza, (2012) "Insights into willingness to pay for organic cotton apparel" in the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, Vol. 16 Iss: 3, pp. 290-305, here.