What if we’re getting ethical business wrong?

When I told a friend about my start-up, I was full of enthusiasm for ethical businesses. I had spent years promoting the concept through a charitable organisation, and before that, I had been a passionate consumer of goods marketed as ethical. On my desk, I have the print of the artwork from the exhibition celebrating Parliament’s 800th anniversary that represents the abolition of the slave trade. I know the power of consumer activism and have always been a great advocate for it, so I was puzzled when I was met by a simple question: “why?”. As a Christian, I had a clear answer about it being a practical way to live a Christian life (caring for others and caring for creation), but I knew she knew the Christian answer as well as I did. Her “Why?” went deeper, so I could only take a step back and evaluate.

There is a danger, when identifying your brand with ethical business, of creating a divide between the good people who care and buy from you, and the bad people who don’t, whether you really think that of a portion of the market, or you don’t intend to. Marketing a business as “ethical” will attract those people who already engage with conscious decisions, or those you can guilt into that without pushing them away (like Christians). However, I’m sure that people care very much about the issues at stake, and their buying decisions aren’t driven by a desire to harm people.

My personal answer to the question was that many beautiful, elegant, and stylish products which also happen to have a positive impact on the lives of others or our planet (which indirectly impacts the lives of others and ourselves) simply were not reaching consumers because there is a stigma attached to the label “ethical”. The first image that comes to mind when talking about ethical fashion (and it affects interiors too) is that of hemp and hippie style. There is nothing wrong with liking those things, and those who do are lucky to have such availability, but it’s not everyone’s style, and certainly, it isn’t mine. I’m Emily Gilmore 40 years before Gilmore Girls started. I know I wouldn’t embrace that style just because I embrace the philosophy behind it. As a consumer, what I care about first and foremost is the style of the purchase. It has to be my style. I want to own things that are beautiful and make me happy. So why would I expect everyone else to make decisions based on other considerations?

Alongside this, I was also witnessing a slow but significant change in the attitude of mainstream brands. I can buy my bedding at IKEA confident that it’s sustainable cotton, but it’s not something they shout about, and I only know it because, despite what I said about beauty being my first consideration, I have an interested in the subject and the time to research it thanks to my job being in the field. That’s not a privilege many have, and I would like to think I would make the time if I didn’t have it but, as unpopular as it would be in such circles, I probably would have a less-than-pristine record of ethical buying because life happens, and the convenience and availability of something are serious considerations. Did you ever buy a bag on the go because you had a formal dinner in half an hour and your bag broke down on the way? It’s an extreme example of something that really happened to me, but even less extreme ones make it painfully clear that we might be preaching to the converted while pushing away everyone else by shaming them.

I thought hard about the question my friend asked, and the truth is I don’t have an answer beyond “it’s the right thing to do”. As plenty of climate sceptics argue against any new research into the link between climate change and human behaviour, “the right thing” sounds like too relative a claim to be significant. If that answer convinces you then you aren’t the person who needs to be buying ethical, because you would do it of your own volition anyway.
And the truth is, we can’t make a significant impact unless change happens where people are spending the most. Yes, there are people who can be persuaded to change their shopping habits, especially if presented with things they like and a choice between an option that is ethical and an equivalent one that isn’t, but I’ve come to the conclusion that ethical is a collateral effect of our buying decisions, and not the driver for them (and research backs me).
I wish I had an answer to how we can bypass this. Maybe you have some ideas you can throw in my direction in the comments. At present, I feel the onus is on businesses to step up to the ethical standard so consumers can just go about their day as they normally would, but it’s hard to achieve when the demand is high and turnaround fast, so there is a role for consumers to be the drivers of this change still. The question then remains, how do we reach out to people in a way that doesn’t push them away?

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