You may have heard of ethicial marketing, but what is it? Our guest blog from Giles Metcalf explores it in detail and offers you an insight into what you can do yourself in your business!

I consider myself to be/label myself as an Ethical Digital Marketer (see https://gilesmetcalfedigital.co.uk/ethical-policy). It’s kindof a USP, and sets me apart from other marketers who don’t share my views, morals and ethics, or ways of doing business. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to use the sobriquet ‘Ethical’, as we would be inherently ethical all of the time as a matter of course. However, in the real world that we live in, many people are unethical and some even revel in it and prosper from being so. Some marketers will work with anybody as long as they are getting paid well to do so. They don’t care that the business or organisation has a poor reputation or practices. Some marketers aren’t choosy over which platforms they use – they aren’t bothered as long as they’re getting results. Other marketers in networking sessions have followed my elevator pitch where I’ve mentioned being an ethical digital marketer by explicitly saying that they were an unethical one in their own introduction! As if it somehow made them a better marketer and more likely to get you a bigger return on your marketing investment!

Everyone is entitled to make a living, and do so in the manner of their choosing, but really… 🙄 A question I’ve been asked a lot over the years is “what exactly is Ethical Marketing anyway, and what makes you an Ethical Digital Marketer?” Firstly, for me, it’s respecting people as people and not merely seeing them as faceless consumers, customer types or reducing them to personas (useful though marketing personas can indeed be). Furthermore, it’s having principles and sticking to them. Lastly, it’s doing things the right way, and showing this by walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

As Sally M Fox says in her blog on the topic of ethical marketing: “Marketing has a bit of a reputation. It’s often seen as sleazy and pushy. And consumers these days are pretty wise to underhand sales tactics. They even get turned off by them. “I’ve seen a few posts on LinkedIn mocking the concept of ethical marketing. “Because how can it be ethical to flog people a bunch of stuff they don’t need?” But these posters assume that a) we’re fooling people and b) people don’t need things. I think that view patronises the customer and does marketers and business owners a disservice. “Marketing is essential to finding clients, to surviving. We all have to do it. The question isn’t whether or not you do it, it’s how. “And that begins with your goal. You’re not setting out to bash someone over the head with your product or service until they relent and spend. You’re also not out to con people into buying something that’s wrong for them. You’re just getting your product and service in front of people who need it. You’re showing them why your brand might be right for them. You’re solving their problems. “So, we know marketing is acceptable if done for the right reasons. But as businesses who care about our impact, we need to think about marketing that’s ethical and honours our values.”

Yes, the key words are “impact”, “marketing that’s ethical” and “values”, shaping what we do and how we do it.

The Wisepops blog on ethical marketing defines Ethical Marketing as “a philosophy and a strategy that seeks to promote honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, values, and responsibility in all marketing projects and actions.” It goes on to say that “Ethical marketing includes marketing research, customer segmentation, and the management of all marketing campaigns.”

And that:

“Ethical (e.g. truthful) marketing is critical as 58% of consumers buy and advocate for businesses based on their values.” It goes on to state that ethical marketing is based on five important pillars or principles: “All ethical marketing examples are based on five important principles [which are]: empathy, honesty, sustainability, transparency, and promise-keeping.”

Not only are those five important principles part of ethical marketing, but wider ethical business too.

The Wisepops blog goes on to lay out the basic framework of ethical marketing, including the following tenets:

  • Ethical marketing puts people above profits
  • Marketers are responsible for the outcome of the campaigns and advertisements they use
  • Marketers should embrace the essential ethical principles
  • Adoption of marketing ethics principles by the top management is crucial to creating ethical marketing campaigns
  • Businesses need to have a good understanding and implementation of ethical decision making when it comes to marketing

[Source: Laczniak, G. R., & Murphy, P. E. (2006). Normative Perspectives for Ethical and Socially Responsible Marketing.]

I would add to that first tenet that ethical marketing puts people and planet above profits – the 3Ps or triple bottom line.

But, why is ethical marketing even a thing?

According to Alexandra Asanache and the Digitally Alex blog (https://digitallyalex.com/20-ethical-marketing-statistics-you-need-to-know-this-year/), from the section on Purchasing decisions based on values:

“Based on trends from the previous years, in 2024, consumers will be more and more likely to make buying decisions based on their own values, and how much the brands align with them. Among the most important criteria are environmental concerns, and human rights causes.”

Alexandra cites the following statistics:

In 2021, 40% of adults in the UK chose brands that have environmentally sustainable practices or values, and 37% chose brands that have ethical practices or values; (Deloitte, 2022)

In 2020, 60% of UK consumers were interested in a service that would allow them to see how ethical a product or service is before buying it; (DMA, 2022)

In 2022, 17% of consumers have switched away from, or become less loyal to a previously favoured brand due to a lack of brand purpose or social aims; (Marigold, 2023)

34% of adults in the UK decided to stop buying brands or products due to ethical or sustainability related concerns in 2022; (Deloitte, 2022)

Lastly, 59% of people with an annual income over £75,000 would like to have the possibility to filter product lists based on their values when online shopping (lower income brackets were less likely to have this preference). (DMA, 2022)

In a piece for the Intelligent People online article ‘Marketing trends in 2024: 10 trends to watch’ (https://www.intelligentpeople.co.uk/employer-advice/marketing-trends-in-2024-10-trends-to-watch/), Marketing Director Laura Richards chose Sustainability and eco-conscious marketing as the second of her 10 marketing trends to watch in 2024.

She says:

“As global awareness of environmental issues continues to rise, sustainability has become more than just a buzzword; it’s a driving force in consumer decision-making. In 2024, eco-conscious marketing will gain even more traction, propelled by consumer demand and a sense of corporate responsibility. According to Nielsen, 81% of consumers feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment.”

So, ethical and eco-conscious marketing go hand-in-hand, but there is a demand for “more transparency and integrity when it comes to claims made in business advertising”, something that further statistics from the Digitally Alex piece and recent Deloitte research gives credence to:

  • 38% of adults in the UK say they need clearer information on the sustainability of products and services and 37% want more clarity on the origins or sourcing of products in order to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle;
  • 36% of UK adults say they need an increased availability and ranges of ethical or sustainable products so they can adopt more sustainable habits;
  • 20% of UK adults need advertising that shows sustainability as the norm and the desirable option so they can adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. (Deloitte, 2022)

Alexandra flags up that last statistic as “very interesting, showing that perhaps the segment of consumers that is interested in a more sustainable lifestyle would be even more inclined to adopt ethical and sustainable brands, if they were marketed as the ‘norm’, rather than the ‘alternative’ to mainstream products.”

She concludes that particular section of the article with the closing thoughts that:

“The recent studies cited in this article show a fresh perspective on why 2024 is the right time for your business to start implementing ethical marketing principles.

“Consumers are willing to pay more for brands that do good, not only through their products, but also through their marketing messaging.”

So, not only do consumers and clients actively want products and services that do good, but are willing to pay more for them too.

However, ethical and eco-conscious marketing comes with its own set of challenges and potential pitfalls.

Consumers, citizens and activists have turned sustainability and ethical business into a mainstream concept. One that’s able to ruin a company’s reputation and profits if concerns about business ethics and behaviour aren’t addressed. They will call your business or organisation out over false claims or irresponsible business behaviour. Not only consumers, citizens and activists, but regulatory bodies and investors too. As well as facing scrutiny from regulators, companies that project an unsubstantiated green or ethical image are also being called out by investors and consumers, who punish such behaviour through penalties, divestment, boycotts, or even high-profile protests. 

Avoiding greenwashing and reputation washing – practices where companies and organisations make false or exaggerated claims to be more environmentally friendly or ethical than they really are – or greenhushing or reputation hushing – where poor environmental or business practices are covered up or subject to PR spin – is crucial, and authenticity is key. Insincere efforts or false claims will be exposed as attempts to greenwash/reputation wash or greenhush/repuation hush, with all of the resulting negative publicity and ramifications for a business that goes with it. A business can lose its accreditations, shed employees – when they quit in protest out of principle, or resign or be sacked – as well as the negative impact on the business’ bottom line. Not forgetting reputational damage that could well be severe or irreparable.

This can land your business or organisation in the news for all the wrong reasons.

In July of 2023, the owners of a company that was one of the UK’s biggest manufacturers of asbestos were accused of whitewashing their reputation by spending tens of millions of pounds on sponsoring the All Blacks rugby team while rejecting pleas for a £10m donation towards cancer research.

In 2022, there were several cases of the Advertising Standards Authority calling out brands for misleading consumers about their green credentials – in other words, greenwashing. 

Tred rounded up five of the most notable examples of greenwashing, including HSBC, Innocent, Persil, Oatly, and Coca Cola’s sponsorship of COP27.

Oatly tried to repair the reputational damage and even get marketing kudos by creating a website featuring all of the negative press it has received over the past few years!

As the Contagious article on Oatly (https://www.contagious.com/news-and-views/campaign-of-the-week-oatly-publishes-website-compiling-all-its-controversies) says:

“The Fck Oatly site is a timeline of Oatly’s most high-profile controversies, including ‘Glebe-gate’ (in 2021, Oatly lost a trademark infringement lawsuit with Glebe Farm, a family-run farm which makes a product called PureOaty) and ‘The Residue Ruckus’ (the company was lambasted in 2018 for selling oat residue to pig farms as animal feed)…

“…There is also a comprehensive ‘Oldies but goldies’ list of Oatly’s longest standing controversies, such as investment from Chinese state-owned conglomerate China Resources, and rumours about the sugar content of its oat milk.

“Each controversy has its own webpage, complete with screenshots of interactions on social media where Oatly has replied to negative Instagram comments and tweets. The replies are in Oatly’s trademark irreverent tone of voice and often poke fun at the critics.”

This is called owning the narrative, and Contagious say:

“By highlighting all its controversies in one place, Oatly shines a light on its own mistakes, but more importantly does so on its own turf, accompanied by pithy retorts and reasonable justifications. Who knows if any Oatly haters will be lured in by the anti-Oatly domain name and stay to read the brand’s responses to its critics, but the website at least serves as a resource for Oatly to refer people to in future.”

Giles Metcalf
Ethical Marketer | Website | + posts

BIO

Giles Metcalfe, from Giles Metcalfe Digital, is an Ethical Digital Marketer. He helps good businesses sell more of their products and services in a good way (i.e. ethically and responsibly) without costing the earth.

Giles not only adheres to and is an advocate of good, responsible business practices and ethical marketing but is also a sustainability practitioner and helps businesses and organisations to understand, measure and reduce their carbon footprint too.

Giles is accredited by or a member of several good business charters and membership organisations, including The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the Ethical Move, The Good Business Charter (GBC) and Organisation for Responsible Businesses (ORB), as well as The Association of Sustainability Practitioners (ASP).

He is also a Small99 People Planet Pint Host.