Making a commitment to being known as an ethical and conscious brand is more than just a label. It’s a constant journey of learning new things, challenging assumptions and trying every day to do better than the day before.
There’s an argument going around that ethical and conscious businesses are held to a higher standard, and fall harder when they fail to meet every expectation. Social media means that feedback is instantaneous and it’s loud and it can escalate faster than you can form a response.
If you’re making that commitment to do good things, you have to be open to criticism and understand that consumers are putting their faith in you to live by your promises.
As an individual, over the last couple of years, I have tried hard to make consumer choices to buy (where I can) from companies and brands that have strong ethics that align with my own, which included quitting fast fashion and going vegetarian.
Several times throughout 2020, companies I had bought from and recommended to others came under fire for failing to meet some of their promises and taking action that contradicted the values they claimed to stand for.
Some partnered with people or other brands with a history of exploitative practices. Some were sanctioned by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for making consumer promises they did not deliver upon. Some even faced accusations of sexism, racism and fatphobia throughout the company, but most tellingly within the leadership team.
As a consumer, it’s extremely disappointing to try and make better choices and lead by example, only to find out the companies I’ve put my faith in, have failed to hold up their end. When I don’t have endless money, and making more ethical choices sometimes means missing out or alienating some people, it feels like a betrayal to discover it was all for naught.
And so far this has felt very aimed towards product-based businesses, but services-based businesses have a responsibility as well.
Ethical and sustainable consumerism is becoming trendier every day, and wanting to make better consumer choices has expanded beyond the clothes in our cupboard and the food in our fridge. And in a year where so many people started to work from home, and many side hustles were launched, 2020 saw dodgy sales tactics called out like never before. (See here and here).
So if conscious brands are held to such a high standard, and put at such a high risk of disappointing their customers, why would you even make that commitment in the first place?
Because you want to make a difference. You want to do good things and lead with your values. You wouldn’t be here, reading this if you didn’t.
Any company, whether they lead with their values or not, should be held to a minimum standard of ethics, especially over sexism, racism and exploitation. And with ethical and sustainable consumerism rising in popularity, it is so important for brands to be called out on greenwashing or ethics-washing or woke-washing (whatever it is).
Even brands that have done everything they can to avoid exploitative manufacturing processes, should be held accountable for failing to be inclusive of all bodies (for example), and sustainable companies that have actively participated in racism should absolutely be spurned for it. Because when we rise, we rise together after all.
And I get why we want to act like we’re perfect and have never made a mistake. People are afraid of being criticised. People are afraid of being wrong. I’m not immune to that, but I definitely haven’t emerged as a fully formed, fully ethical person and business. I’m still learning; I myself was only introduced to ethical marketing in the last 6 months. I’ve worked in marketing for 8+ years so it only stands to reason that I’ve been complicit in harmful sales tactics that no longer align with my values today.
And god knows I’ve spent time in a fast fashion shop or two, and I’ve definitely thrown plastic in the trash because it was easier that way.
We live and we learn. We’re constantly presented with new information and it’s our responsibility as change-makers to accept that information and move forward with the commitment to doing better while honouring and acknowledging our past and our mistakes.
If you want to avoid being “cancelled” or criticised for failing to meet your consumer expectations, you have to own those mistakes. Being transparent doesn’t just mean being transparent about what you’re doing NOW, it’s about being transparent about what you did before.
And for myself, and you, and individuals, and companies that have misstepped ethically, pick yourself up, learn from it and move forward with the confidence to do better. If you’ve made promises, deliver on them. If you aren’t able to, be honest about it, because it’s going to come out sooner or later.
Make the declarations so that you can be held accountable, and so you can lead with your values and attract a like-minded community. Make the difference you want to make in the world, and then accept it with grace when you do mess it up. Because you will mess up, because we’re all human. In fact, chances are, you already have messed up.
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