The limits to ethical business

12 May 2010 at 6:41 pm 1 comment

Eloise Keightley writes:

Consumers may claim they want ethical brands – but what do they really mean? American evidence suggests that a desire to be ethical does not necessarily correlate with a propensity to buy ethical: Brandweek has reported a survey that found that even among consumers who called themselves “environmentally conscious”, more than half could not name a single green brand. A study at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found that while people were likely to buy energy efficient light bulbs from the shops, they tended to opt for less efficient traditional bulbs when shopping online – and this attitude extends to white goods, electronics and domestic cleaning products. There is a classic disconnect here between stated attitudes and actual knowledge or behaviour.

This is partly because of the nebulous way in which “ethicalness” is measured, from the consumer’s point of view. For instance, whilst a vague sense of altruism may drive consumers to make choices they deem ethical, it’s unlikely that the majority fully understand what ethical trademarks denote. There is a recognition that Fair Trade, for example, equates with some sort of ethical standard but consumers often cannot define what that standard is. Consumers also find it hard to distinguish between ethical trademarks and can confuse their policies.

In any case, ethical innovation has historically proven to have a limited shelf life – due as much to legislative progress as shifting consumer values. Only a few years ago, cosmetic brands in particular were falling over themselves to tell consumers that their products were developed without the need for animal testing. These days, few brands bother. Lack of animal testing has become a hygiene factor (mainly due to changes in legislation) and consumers have established new, less standardised and more subjective ethical benchmarks for brands to respond to.

It’s unfortunate that the value of ethical trademarks deflate the more ubiquitous they become. If McDonalds can win awards for its free range eggs, consumers may well wonder about the rigour of free range certification and imagine that ‘free range’ is a tiered or varied notion. Bad press also dilutes the currency of ethical initiatives: the BBC has accused Live Aid of misappropriating the money it raised and there has been a rise in well-publicised literature that calls into question the very nature of humanitarian aid. We have no commonly understood, credible metric for ethics.

Some pioneers of ethical retail have argued that it is not enough to use ethical standards as a USP.  American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, whose business is synonymous with the anti-sweatshop movement, has remarked: “If you want to sell something, ethical or otherwise, appeal to people’s self-interest.” In other words, brands need to marry sound ethical values with products that are inherently desirable if they are to last.

The picture at the top of the post is from Green Mountain Coffee, and is used with thanks.

Entry filed under: consumers, innovation, marketing, social responsibility. Tags: , .

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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

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