Ethical marketing is all the rage.
According to Marigold, in 2022, 17% of consumers switched away from – or became less loyal to – a favored brand because of that brand’s lack of social purpose or aims. While Hubspot’s research found that 50% of Gen Zs (and 41% of millennials) are more likely to buy from brands that advocate for social causes.
But what is ethical marketing? How can your business apply it to tap into the social consciences of an ever-widening audience – and ensure your brand does more than merely pay lip service to it?
Below, we’ll walk you through the key insights and inspiration you can take from brands like HelloFresh, Allbirds, Patagonia, and The Body Shop – and how to harness them to implement a winning ethical marketing and brand strategy of your own.
Ethical marketing is the practice of advertising or promoting your business’s products and services in a way that aligns with wider moral, societal, and environmental values.
Ethical marketing’s central tenets include:
- Consumer welfare
- Social responsibility
- Legal compliance
Through an ethical lens, then, marketing is just as much a philosophy as it is a strategy.
It’s marketing that doesn’t simply tell prospective customers what they want to hear in the hope of selling to them. It instead aims to be fair, honest, transparent, and responsible towards the complex ecosystem of people, forces, and factors that support your business: be they consumers, employees, wider society – or the environment.
Ethical marketing includes:
- Prioritizing accurate, truthful information about your products or services.
- Rejecting deceptive or misleading marketing tactics.
- Respecting the rights of consumers – and putting their well being and satisfaction first.
- Treating staff and customers fairly – avoiding discriminatory practices, ensuring equal access to information, and safeguarding consumer privacy.
- Taking into account the broader impact marketing has on the world.
- Promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion.
- Supporting social and environmental causes.
- Adhering to all relevant rules and regulations governing marketing activities (including advertising standards, data protection, and IP (intellectual property) rights.
Producing and sourcing goods responsibly (not marketing, per se, sure – but still part and parcel of the whole process). This involves fair labor practices, supply chain transparency, and climate-friendly manufacturing processes.
Next, let’s take a look at the brands setting the standard for ethical excellence right now.
At this stage, Patagonia and ‘ethical marketing’ are pretty much synonymous.
Founded by rock climber Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s vision statement is, simply, “Save our home planet.” Patagonia’s marketing is full of initiatives designed to reduce the damaging influence of fast fashion, and reduce the impact of what we wear on the environment.
One example? Patagonia’s Worn Wear program. Acknowledging that 85% of clothes end up in landfill – or wind up incinerated – the company is buying back used Patagonia clothes, then selling them second-hand. The campaign advocates for “buying less, repairing more and trading in gear when you no longer need it.”
Patagonia is so ethical, in fact, that in 2022 Chouinard – incensed at a Forbes article branding him a billionaire – gave away the entire company’s shares to a trust, with the future profits to be dedicated to combating the climate crisis.
Want to know more about Patagonia?Patagonia claimed top billing in our guide to the 13 best mission statement examples – and it’s one of our favorite vision statement examples, too.
Why simply market ethically – when you can bake an ethical approach into the very product you’re selling?
This must have been Allbirds’ train of thought. The company’s unique Merino wool shoes made headlines when they launched in 2014, not only because of how comfortable they are – but how ethical, too.
By creating shoes with wool from Kiwi sheep (which, in New Zealand, outnumber their human counterparts by about six to one) Allbirds’ shoe-creation process uses 60% less energy than materials used in most synthetic shoes. And it’s this, in part, fuelling Allbirds’ impressive sustainability target: reducing its carbon footprint to near zero by 2024.
Allbirds’ shoes and packaging are also made from a blend of natural ingredients and recycled materials. Bottles become laces, castor bean oil goes into insoles – and the box the shoes arrive in are made from 90% recycled cardboard.
On top of all that, Allbirds partners with organizations such as ZQ Merino to ensure their wool meets the highest standards of land management, farming, and animal welfare. So the shoes don’t just feel good on your feet – but on your conscience, too!
The Body Shop
A certified B-Corp (businesses that meet the highest standards of environmental, social, public, and legal accountability), The Body Shop purveys perfume for people and planet.
Just one example? In 2019, The Body Shop launched its “Refill Scheme” – which is now at over 500 stores – encouraging and empowering its customers to refill their existing bottles of shampoo and shower gel rather than throw them away and re-buy.
Also in 2019, The Body Shop kickstarted its “Community Fair Trade” recycled plastic program. This involves sourcing plastic from marginalized waste pickers in India: offering them a steady income, a fair price, and equitable working conditions unknown in such a volatile industry.
With ambitious targets – including using recycled plastics for at least 50% of all its packaging by 2030, and becoming 100% vegan – The Body Shop clearly takes ethical marketing seriously.
Popular meal kit provider HelloFresh ticks all the right ethical marketing boxes by sourcing ingredients directly from local suppliers, and – by delivering produce to homes without detours – cuts out steps in the traditional supply chain that could be damaging to the environment.
The best part of HelloFresh’s approach, however, is that sustainability is ingrained into the very bedrock of its approach. Because HelloFresh uses pre-portioned ingredients for its meals, there’s zero food waste.
The result? HelloFresh meals, on average, create 15% fewer carbon emissions than the same meals bought from a supermarket.
In addition to all that, HelloFresh is committed to making 100% of its packaging either recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025.
You’ve read these ethical marketing examples. Now, why not explore our brand strategy examples for the brands (which include Amazon, Apple, and Airbnb) doing it best?
How can you implement ethical marketing strategies into your own business’s approach – and ensure they stay top of mind, rather than at the bottom of a dusty filing cabinet?
- Establish a clear ethical marketing policy: first, develop a document outlining the ethical principles and values your business’s marketing plans to adhere to. Once it’s done, share it with all employees and stakeholders to get buy-in at all levels.
- Conduct an ethical audit: before you can decide how you want to be ethically marketing, you need to understand what you’re doing right now. So assess your existing marketing practices and identify any areas that might pose cause for ethical concern – such as your data handling processes, your advertising messages, your supply chain practices, and your business and brand’s overall impact on the world.
- Embed ethical values into your company culture: remember, we said buy-in at every level – and that takes training. So provide ethical education to your employees to ensure everyone embraces and understands them. Empower them to make ethical decisions – and reward behaviors that align with your ethical marketing policy.
- Engage in meaningful dialogue with your customers: fostering open, honest communication with your customers – listening to their feedback, addressing their concerns, and remaining responsive to their needs.
- Measure the success of your ethical marketing efforts: establish and regularly report on KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to understand the success of your ethical marketing endeavors. Your success metrics here could include progress against sustainability targets, customer satisfaction, employee well being, and social impact.
When it comes to ethical marketing, there’s no time like the present. The world’s social and environmental issues – climate crisis and world hunger among them – are only continuing to rage on. While demands by customers that businesses address these challenges (particularly those of Gen Z consumers, 90% of whom believe companies have a responsibility to do this) will only grow more and more voracious.
Against that backdrop, it doesn’t make sense to wait to get the ball of ethical marketing rolling in your business. Follow the insights and inspiration we’ve laid out here, and get started.
After all, what does that old Chinese proverb say? That the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is today?
Well, it’s time to plant some seeds. Figuratively – and literally!
As for avoiding coming across as a virtue signaler, lean on honesty and transparency as much as possible. Don’t overhype your product’s or business’s sustainability credentials. Simply feature all the information your customers need to know about your ethical efforts somewhere on your website, and be ready to answer any questions.
Your sustainability targets don’t need to be in big bold letters on your homepage. And you don’t need to shout about your supply chain practices in every single product description on your ecommerce store.
Remember – ethical marketing is about doing good. Not showing everybody you’re doing good.
In response to this common pain point, we recommend letting the content marketing pyramid guide you.
It’ll help you understand what type of ethical content you need to be producing, and how frequently you need to be publishing it to maximize its value – to the reader, and your business.