Companies that prefer to be on the side of the angels have great brand stories. So why are so many reluctant to tell them to their customers?
No one plans to buy from a company with poor ethics, but that doesn’t mean we never do. It might be the clothes we buy from a warehouse that sources garments from countries that pay workers 20c an hour, or the fish we buy from a shop that sells endangered species. Most of the time we just don’t know it. Sometimes the seller doesn’t really know it either.
Consumers don’t knowingly choose to do business with a company that exploits its workers or depletes the planet. Companies generally prefer to let us know when they’re doing the right thing, not the wrong thing.
For the past decade, our largest businesses have paraded their corporate social responsibility (CSR) credentials because they show that company objectives reach beyond maintaining shareholder value. Their customers, who wish to feel good about the choices they make, certainly welcome this. Brands that desire respect and admiration want to appear on the side of the angels.
The Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility releases an annual report that ranks the top CSR performers in Australia and New Zealand. It found the most important goals were gender equality, good health and wellbeing, decent work and economic growth, industry innovation and infrastructure, and climate action. In 2016, the top-ranked Australian businesses were infrastructure specialist Abergeldie, accountancy firm Deloitte and fan manufacturer ebm-papst A&NZ. Stories about their work on worthwhile projects typically end up hidden on corporate websites or the back pages of annual reports.
More customer-facing brands tend to try harder to make us believe in them. It’s not just non-profit organisations, such as World Wildlife Fund Australia, that like to show us where our donations go. Everyday retail brands often beat their ethical drum. The Coca-Cola Journey website, for instance, runs stories about the feel-good projects that go better with Coke. In 2016, for instance, Coca-Cola donated $106 million to community organisations, including Landcare Australia and Ronald McDonald House.
Local and international coffee and chocolate companies tell us why they believe in sustainability and the use of Fairtrade suppliers. Nespresso recently ran a branded content story via Guardian Labs that explains its partnership with the World Bank – they aim to support reforestation of coffee farms in Ethiopia to improve the farms’ resistance to climate change. That’s a righteous pursuit for a company that also spends millions of dollars on ads starring George Clooney. Even Taylor, a quality US-based guitar manufacturer, makes a big play of its sustainability and recycling practices in its customer communications.
Companies that choose to act honourably and sustainably offer customers a feel-good factor that lingers well beyond the sale. These companies are also more likely to attract and keep employees, who feel happier and more fulfilled in their jobs. So why wouldn’t businesses with a genuine desire to behave ethically want to be much bolder in telling everyone how truly good they are?
The concept of business “ethics” has a number of dimensions. US observers would note the recent case of department store Nordstrom no longer stocking former model Ivanka Trump’s fashion products. Although Nordstrom said the decision was based on poor sales, others said it was a protest against the policies of her father, President Donald Trump.
Nordstrom’s “ethical stand”, and its timing – within weeks of Trump’s inauguration – was seen as direct and political. A simultaneous Twitter-led campaign, #GrabYourWallet, encouraged buyers to boycott goods with ties to the Trump family.
Most businesses (at least those not owned by Trump) tend to face ethical disputes that are less political, if no less public. They’re likely to stem from media revelations of illegal practices or behaviours that society may deem cruel or outdated. For retail businesses, ethical scandals often revolve around where their goods are sourced or how contractors treat their workers.
This was certainly the case in 2013 when large Australian brands, including Target, Big W and Kmart, were implicated in a Fairfax Media expose about the exploitation of Bangladeshi workers. Bangladesh not only has the world’s second-largest garment industry, behind China, it had some of the worst conditions for clothing and textile workers on the planet.
In 2016, the ABC reported that some Australian fashion brands, including Oroton and Seed, were criticised by Baptist World Aid and Oxfam for not publicly disclosing where they sourced their clothes. “We’re encouraging those companies to do more to be more transparent to let us know their supply chains are strong and that workers are being protected,” said Gershon Nimbalker, who wrote Baptist World Aid’s Australian Fashion Report.
It’s impossible for customers to tell if something has been made using ethical practices just by looking at it. Brands, too, can claim they operate ethically when they don’t (as long as they don’t break the law).
Faced with an ethical knowledge vacuum, what can Australian consumers do? They might consult Shop Ethical! – a website that provides news and the ethical status of companies in a range of categories. It sells a pocket guide, which has been updated since 2008, for $9. Otherwise they can seek companies with credible certifications such as the Fairtrade mark, which indicates a brand meets international standards in trading relationships and unstable markets. Another recognised certification is the Global Organic Textile Standard, which is given to international brands with supply chains that reach adequate environmental and social standards.
Locally, Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) is an organisation that works with and promotes those Australian fashion brands, manufacturers and retailers that choose to do the right thing. To gain ECA accreditation, a business must have a fully traceable and transparent Australian supply chain. They must also ensure safe working conditions and award pay rates and entitlements for all workers, including homeworkers. ECA, which provides a third-party voluntary accreditation scheme, currently has 90 accredited brands.
ECA’s national manager Aleasha McCallion says brands work with the organisation to not only ensure workers who are making their products are safe and being paid properly, but also because they see their commitment to ethical production as adding value to their business story.
“Knowing that it’s been made locally and under safe working conditions, I think people want to know that story.”ECA’s Aleasha McCallion
“We promote the positive stories of our brands and their ongoing support for local industry,” she says. “Each business has a particular strategy for their target market. Some brands are very vocal and have large campaigns around the work they do for transparency and workers’ rights. Some designers want the design to stand on its own and ethics is an important yet supporting back story.”
McCallion says Australian consumers are more conscious of brands’ ethical responsibilities these days. “Social media has helped raise awareness of issues, such as working conditions and the need for greater business accountability. We’ve also seen pride in what Australia has to offer – local makers, local design, local innovation – strengthen over recent years. When you communicate to the consumer that something has been made locally and under safe working conditions, they often respond positively and want to know more about a brand’s story.”
So, do ethics sell? “There’s a shift towards people’s interest in ethics translating into ethical consumption – with information being increasingly demanded – but this is not yet the rule,” McCallion says. “Do you choose a garment that you know was accredited and therefore has a very high likelihood that it meets all of your values? Or do you buy something that isn’t well labelled, has no certification and you have no idea under what conditions it’s been made?”
She says a number of brands use ECA accreditation as part of their storytelling. “Denimsmith is a really great Australian brand that is very transparent about its factory – it has a very strong marketing story,” she says. “Humphrey Law is a beautiful sock brand – it’s a classic Australian company and product that promotes its Australian heritage. Then there are more fashion-oriented labels – Bianca Spender, Manning Cartell – they’re a bit more subtle in their messaging.”
Australia’s banner brand for ethics, however, is Cue. Having started in 1968, the Sydney-based fashion company has retail stores across Australia and New Zealand, and features in every Myer department store. Cue’s chief operating officer, Damien Peirce-Grant, says it’s not only important for brands to be seen to be ethical but to demonstrate it as well.
“Independent accreditation is one of the few ways that a company can achieve this, in our opinion,” Peirce-Grant says. “Consumers are becoming more aware of the fact that a garment costing a few dollars is most likely seeing workers hurting at the other end. It’s important for our staff to feel proud of the garments they sell, and those that the customers purchase.”
When Brand Tales requested an example of how Cue displays its proud ethical position in its marketing, the company pointed to a single page (with just three paragraphs) on its website. “We call it the Cue commitment,” it reads. Cue’s commitment to branded storytelling appears to be limited to social media posts, shop-window executions and ECA tags on its clothing. (In fairness, this makes it more committed than most fashion brands.)
Business of ethics
Cosmetics and beauty business The Body Shop has based its entire reputation on its ethical practices. Since the late Anita Roddick established the company in the UK in 1976, it has placed activism, equal rights and sustainability squarely at the centre of its sales and marketing strategy, including its brand communications.
Jessie Macneil-Brown, the senior manager of international campaigns and corporate responsibility, says The Body Shop wants to be the most ethical and sustainable global brand. “We’ve always strived to be ambitious and really challenge the status quo,” she says. “We feel companies approach sustainability by trying to reduce the harm they’re doing – by being ‘less bad’ – but what we’re doing is enriching the planet and the people around us. That’s what our business philosophy is – to be the force for good.”
Rather than spending big money on global advertising campaigns, The Body Shop has chosen to raise awareness for important causes. For more than 30 years it has fought against sex trafficking, animal testing, whale farming, bullying, poverty, indigenous and children’s rights, women’s homelessness and eating disorders. Its most recent campaign, to help build “bio-bridges” and save endangered species in remote forests, was the subject of a branded content feature that appeared on the BBC Earth website, “Saving Vietnam’s sleeping beauty”.
Shannon Chrisp, executive marketing and communications director at The Body Shop, says Australian customers have a greater connection to the brand because of its ethical values. She says the position the company takes on issues is important for its staff, some of whom have been with The Body Shop for 20 years. “Their loyalty and long-term service to the brand is rooted in their passion for making a difference in the world,” Chrisp says. “There’s a lot of passion, history and gratitude amongst our teams and our customers.”
Macneil-Brown says The Body Shop has established 14 ambitious targets to achieve by 2020 and will publicly release an annual report on how each is progressing. “It’s a lot of work and we will keep our customers informed along the way,” she says.
Disclaimer: Top to Tale Media produced the The Body Shop’s branded feature for the BBC.