“Better than just good publicity, being ethical allows companies and corporations to systematically re-shape the world that we live in for the better.”

The term ‘ethical business’ is thrown around a lot in modern society, but can any brand ever truly be ethical in a consumerist world? Increasingly brands are feeling the pressure to be socially responsible and appeal to a new wave of conscious consumers. Cause-led marketing campaigns are emerging every week, designed to depict brands ‘doing good’ rather than directly selling or promoting a product or service. While on the surface it might seem like ethical business is on the rise, in some cases this is simply profit-driven strategic marketing. This is not a new phenomena, the term ‘greenwashing’ emerged in the 80’s, when brands put an environmentally positive PR spin on their products by exaggerating benefits or making misleading claims. There are more stringent laws and guidelines are now in place to address this issue but has the tactic of greenwashing simply shape-shifted into something subtler, designed to appeal to a ‘woke’ generation?

While it’s true that some brands are trying to capitalise on social movements, there are many brands that are genuinely grappling to integrate more ethical and sustainable practices for good. When viewed through a slightly less cynical lens, the world is rapidly changing and so to is the approach of business leaders. The process of globalisation has expanded our perspectives and growing environmental and social justice movements are quickly educating the corporate world. So, beyond tokenistic gestures designed for advertising clout, can brands do business ethically?

The first step in answering the question is defining what it means to be ethical from a business perspective.

How to make your Brand more Ethical?

When companies talk about becoming ethical they generally consider ethics from a branding perspective. Being ethical is more than corporate identity demonstrated through branding, marketing and public perception. Beyond logos and campaigns, an ethical brand is defined by its actions. Therefore the first step in being ethical is to understand that it is the fundamental policies, strategies and actions that characterise an ethical brand.

In the book Ethical Marketing and The New Consumer author Chris Arnold encourages readers to consider the more progressive term ‘ethos marketing’. An ethos, by definition, is a set of moral ideas and attitudes that define a group. This implies a set of values that a company is willing to prioritise, perhaps over profitability, in the interest of doing what is morally right or correct. Having principles and integrity that an organisation actively demonstrates through their actions will result in building a reputation.

Some brands might interpret ‘being ethical’ as having to do everything perfectly, and as a result deem the whole concept as too difficult. On the contrary, being ethical is about education and gaining knowledge so that business leaders can determine what values are important to them. They can then take significant action to uphold these core values.

Some of the relevant steps to consider for brands that want to be more ethical are:

1. Sustainability

As the impacts of climate change become more apparent, the concept of sustainability has made its way into mainstream public discourse. At its core, sustainability aims to address the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. By considering the impacts of our actions in the long-term, businesses can reframe their thinking from only focusing on short-term gains and profit. Sustainability encourages people to consider the environmental, social and human impacts of consumerism and commit to change.

Humans are slowly becoming cognisant of the fact that single use plastic is rarely recycled and that every wrapper we have ever thrown in the bin still exists today. Many of us have seen the shocking images of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and marine debris floating in the ocean. In response to these concerns the UN has outlined a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”.

Companies are increasingly making their own list of sustainability goals and creating strategies that consider specific ethical concerns, such as:

  • Reducing emissions
  • Limiting waste
  • Workers rights and compensation
  • Energy efficiency
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Animal rights

In the last decade sustainability has made great strides, with global companies actively putting it on the agenda.

2. Social responsibility

Social responsibility goes beyond the traditional notion of a company making profit and doing no harm. Social responsibility is a concept that encourages businesses to act in a manner that benefits the greater society. In this sense a company is socially accountable to the public and are responsible for their actions. Much like sustainability, social responsibility considers the broader social and environmental impacts of business activities.

Brands, in this sense, can be active leaders in creating a better future. Instead of only making internal goals within an organisation, social responsibility involves brands becoming involved with community organisations and donating money or corporate resources to selected charitable organisations.

3. Company culture

Creating an ethical business starts with company culture. If a company presents an ethical façade but is still found to have a toxic or unhealthy company culture, its brand reputation is sure to be damaged. In order to create an ethical company culture, brands must start with a mission statement and clearly communicated values. These messages must be consistent and employees should feel comfortable to raise ethical concerns with management.

An ethical company culture will place a high value on fairness and will hold people across the entire company accountable for their actions. Importantly, a company should have policies in place that protect employees from discrimination and harassment. An ethical business model should be diverse and inclusive and create programs that actively support and empower underrepresented or marginalised groups within and outside of an organisation.

4. Building better relationships with conscious consumers

There is growing research that suggests that people are becoming more conscious of their purchasing behaviour and want to invest in ethical business. A 2019 Unilever study revealed that purpose-led, sustainable living brands are growing 69% faster than the rest of the business and delivering 75% of the company’s growth. Largely millennials are leading the charge, as they are more cautious of how they spend their money, choosing to align with brands that consider sustainability and pro-social messages. As people learn more about social causes they expect more from brands.

In many ways operating an ethical business can be profitable and do wonders for brands reputation. Better than just good publicity, being ethical allows companies and corporations to systematically re-shape the world that we live in for the better.

By focusing on issues that are important to your company, a brand can truly have a significant impact on a more sustainable and equitable future.

Register with us at Misio to progress your ethical and ESG journey.