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Thought Leadership

Ethical Purchasing
In Adweek

Jonathan Hanson, Unconquered’s cofounder and CCO, was published in Adweek in an article titled, “Dear Skeptics: Ethical Purchasing Requires Ethical Marketers”. You can read the full article here. 

All marketers need to be aware, if they aren’t already, that a growing contingent of people are beginning to understand that consumption does not lead to happiness. Over the past several years research has shown a shift, indicating people are seeking a more balanced life filled with meaningful connections to people, community and the environment over the prioritization of possessions and status. The COVID-19 pandemic, among other things, accelerated the existing trend and has also helped amplify awareness of social and environmental issues. This is statistically reinforced by a new study from IBM and the National Retail Federation: 70% of consumers in the U.S. and Canada think it is important that a brand is sustainable or eco-friendly, further emphasizing that the appetite and opportunity is there. 

Ethical consumerism, the practice of buying products based on how they are made and how  harmful it is to the environment or society, is having its moment as people prioritize their connection to people and planet. Brands that are authentically able to communicate their values and efforts in sustainability are able to capture these customers, creating brand loyalty and attracting those who are prioritizing similar values.

 There are skeptics of ethical consumerism. Some believe the consumer is not personally responsible for the social and environmental issues caused by unethical corporations and feel that only regulations will govern how corporations behave. There is merit in this belief because ultimately, large legacy brands who are too big and too slow to move will not be able to integrate fully sustainable practices into their core business model and that it will require government regulation. Corporate responsibility needs to be baked in from the beginning and applied to all facets of the business instead of an afterthought. But practicing where to spend your money does create impact as evidence in the Montgomery Bus boycott in 1955 and others since. There is a new wave of startups and early stage companies who have embraced a sustainable business model that brings together sustainable efforts for people, planet and profits.

Contrary to what this article suggests, shopping is not a moral act and does not make one person better than the other simply because of where they shop. This type of thinking leaves room for judgement on those who can not afford to purchase sustainable brands and causes us to lose sight of why we have to make these decisions in the first place, because of unethical corporate practices. We will always need to buy stuff so outside of curbing consumption in general, the best next step is to help people make the best choices which requires brands and marketers to work to educate, create accountability, develop a standardization of information and do it all in a way that’s authentic to the brand. 

In a Getty Images’ Visual GPS report, they polled 10,000 people across 26 countries and found that half of consumers (50%) say they only buy products from brands that are eco-friendly. But, the other half, (48%) say that convenience takes priority even though they feel they should care about the environment. This suggests that marketers and brands need to make it easier for people to make that decision to buy responsibly made products and services. Below are steps to get started. 


Educate your customers

As brands and marketers dive further into intersectional sustainability, the marketing community faces a collective responsibility to inform the public how to make responsible choices. There is an opportunity for brands to provide additional value by educating people which supports accessibility and nudges people in the direction of choosing better products over convenience. Broad terms like “sustainability made”, “eco-friendly” or “fair labor practices” do not offer specifics and require customer interpretation. Marketers and brands need to educate people on what these mean for their brand. It also creates room for brands to be held accountable which helps establish trust in the brands messaging and offerings.


Choose certified

Marketers will need to help individuals translate brand actions into something that can be used to judge against the larger competitor landscape by providing brand differentiation through reliable information about the impact on the environment and society. Using accountable third parties that can be verified while in the shopping aisle through a shopper’s smartphone will help hold brands accountable. Certifications such as fair trade, organic, B Corporation, 1% for the Planet, Global Organic Textile Standard, Climate Neutral, Green Guard, Made Safe and Clean Energy Partner, can back up what brands are saying. As accreditation takes hold, marketers will need to dig in and find innovative ways for shoppers to easily access information and speak to values and efforts on labels.


Product labels & messaging

People may have ethical motivations when making a purchase but how, where and when they receive the information used to make the decision will affect how those motivations go into action. Product labels and messaging help leverage the product into an education and communication tool around their mission or purpose. It serves as a key place for brands to speak to their customers and offers an opportunity to speak to their production footprint, product ingredients, packaging techniques and distribution among other things. This  enables brands and marketers to expand upon the experience using AR to show how their products are different in an interactive way. Including certifications, supply chain transparency and product/packaging facts can help give buyers the reasons they need to make the purchase.  

As people’s priorities have shifted to meaningful connections with people and the planet, long-term success will come from developing ways to innovate products and services that support the reduction of consumption and lead people to realize a collective effort of small actions can lead to big gains for self, community and planet. There is a significant opportunity for brands to successfully deliver on people’s desire for change and connect with them in unexpected ways. People are more likely to be brand loyal and advocate for that brand if they share values which have increasingly been focused on environmental sustainability and societal impact. This presents a sink-or-swim circumstance for brands born from the old consumer model where profits are prioritized at all costs and products or services are created in ways that harm the environment. 

Through the power of marketing, marketers have an opportunity to create real environmental and societal progress by educating the general public. This will require honesty and transparency from brands. Ethical consumerism as part of a plan to reduce consumption and regulate the practices of large corporations will get us where we need to be, but it will take a collective effort. When this generation of marketers retires and looks back on their career, do we want to remember the ads we made, or the efforts toward a greater good?