Ethical Marketing: A Guide for Responsible Businesses
You’ve probably already heard of ethical marketing. It’s a term you can expect to hear more often as businesses feel the pressure to adopt responsible practices.
More than paying lip service to good causes, ethical marketing is about authentic change to benefit the planet and its people.
What is ethical marketing?
Ethical marketing is a business practice guided by the belief that organisations should market themselves responsibly. That means being honest, fair and transparent in the way they behave and communicate.
An ethical marketer avoids selling through nefarious or exploitative means and encourages ethical practices within their business.
The aim of ethical marketing is ultimately the same as other forms of marketing: to sell a company's goods or services. Even the most ethical companies still want to make a profit; they simply want to do that through ethical means.
Crucially, ethical marketing requires authenticity. It's not enough to say the right things. Businesses must take meaningful action to be considered 'ethical'.
What is ethical consumerism?
Ethical consumers aim to minimise harm to people and the planet through their purchasing choices.
They might, for example:
- Avoid buying new clothes from unsustainable manufacturers
- Seek out cosmetics from companies with an anti-animal testing policy
- Purchase fair trade food produce
Ethical consumers tend to be conscious of social and environmental issues and don't want their money to contribute to harmful practices.
While in the past, ethical consumerism was sometimes viewed as a fringe movement, it's now commonplace. Ethical spending has quadrupled over the past 20 years, with the ethical market now worth over £83bn.1 The average household spends around £1,230 on ethical products and services per year.2
Ethical consumers are more likely to be part of a younger demographic. 73% of Millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable goods3, while the majority of Gen Z consumers would spend upwards of 10% more on a sustainable version of a product.4
A further nine out of 10 Gen Z consumers strongly believe that companies should be environmentally and socially responsible.5
Millennials now make up a third of the UK population, and Gen Z's spending power is on the rise6. Soon, ethical marketing won't just be a beneficial business practice, but an essential one.
What is unethical marketing?
Unethical marketing uses "disreputable, dishonest, and corrupt marketing strategies”7 to sell products and services.
Of course, these are subjective terms that could mean different things to different people.
In general, any approach to marketing that misleads consumers can be considered unethical.
False or unverifiable claims
Attractive propositions without substance. For example, a skincare company that promises "healthier-looking skin" without pointing to scientific evidence.
Portraying certain demographics in a negative or stereotypical light, perpetuating harm. In the past few years, using harmful gender stereotypes in advertising has been banned because it was considered unethical.8
Guilting consumers or making them feel they have no choice but to make a purchase. There is a fine line between emotional manipulation and appealing to emotion in marketing; ethical marketers need to identify where that line is.
Overstating a product or service's potential. A meditation app might claim to put a total stop to anxiety, for example, leading the consumer to download it under false pretences.
Claiming to be in solidarity with a particular cause without meaningful action. Recently, companies posting in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement were criticised for only supporting the cause in word and not in action.
Ethical marketing examples
While ethical marketing can be approached in many ways, the main idea is to behave authentically and reduce harm. Here are a few examples of companies getting ethical marketing right.
Girlfriend Collective is a sustainable and ethical activewear company. They have been praised for flouting harmful beauty standards by using a diverse portfolio of models to show their collections.
They regularly devote attention to social causes on their social media channels and offer guidance on sustainable living.
Crucially, the brand practices what it preaches, producing environmentally-friendly clothing made from sustainable materials and regularly donating to important causes.
Brewgooder is a craft beer producer that donates 100% of its profits to clean water charities.
In 2020, the company helped to supply over 90,000 people with clean water for healthcare and sanitation. It also set up an £8000 Brewing and Distilling university grant for BAME students to help address the problem of disproportionate representation within the industry.
While these are obviously positive actions, they are also smart marketing activities. The product is an excellent proposition for beer lovers, who get to enjoy a beer whilst supporting a good cause.
Bulb is a green gas and electricity supplier which set out to improve access to affordable renewable energy. Since it was launched in 2015, the startup has gained over 1.6 million customers.
The company is at the forefront of the consumer trend towards conscious energy consumption. In June and July of last year alone, over 400,000 people in the UK switched to a smaller, greener energy provider.9
The online magazine Startups explains that Bulb's increase in customers is "thanks in no small part to its super-successful referral programme, which offers members credit on their account if they refer a friend or family member”.10
Unethical marketing examples
You can easily spot plenty of unethical marketing practices wherever you look for them. They tend to knowingly mislead consumers to increase their sales. Here are a few recent offenders.
On International Women's Day 2021, Burger King's Twitter account shared a post that read: "Women belong in the kitchen." 11 This was followed up by a tweet announcing its chef training bursary programme for women.
While Burger King claims its intentions were good, using this offensive phrase as a way to announce the programme was criticised by many as a calculated ploy to appear 'controversial' and gain attention for the brand.
By using a phrase that is often weaponised to humiliate women, Burger King gave the impression that it doesn't have women's best interests at heart.
The fast fashion industry is often criticised for its environmentally harmful practices. To combat this perception, H&M launched a clothes recycling programme, encouraging customers to drop off old clothes in return for a 15% discount on new items.
But the campaign drew accusations of greenwashing from environmentalists who raised suspicions over the plausibility of recycling such a high volume of materials.
This was coupled with criticism of the retailer's decision to burn over 12 tonnes in unsold clothing annually, despite simultaneously running the recycling campaign.12
There are many more unethical marketing examples to choose from. What unites them is evident inauthenticity and an attempt to profit from ethical causes without supporting them in action.
How can Moment help?
Ethical businesses have ethical working practices, and that includes the companies they choose to work with.
Moment is an ethical marketing agency which helps businesses achieve profit through sustainable and responsible practices.
We’re pleased to be progressing our ambition to become a Certified B Corporation, “a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit.” B Corps are “legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.”13
If you’d like to adopt an ethical marketing approach, get in touch with Moment. We’ll discuss how we can best support you.