Ethical Marketing – An Oxymoron?

Ethical Marketing

Let’s be honest; marketing has had a bad rep. It is often blamed for creating the consumer-based society we live in today, along with the environmental damage that results from it – and not without good reason. 

Marketing may not be solely responsible for overconsumption or environmental decay, but it has undoubtedly played a key role. Add to this the countless cases where marketing has over-promised on the goods it is promoting, and we may well be left thinking that Ethical Marketing is a contradiction in terms. 

What if though, marketing could be a part of the solution to the very problem it helped create? And, what if it could be done with integrity? Perhaps unsurprisingly, at EthicallyMAD, these are two questions we take very seriously. 

There is little doubt that marketing has the power to influence. If we want to create a positive shift in social behaviour, then the ability to influence is precisely what we need. Indeed, marketing has been used many times to do just this – from stop smoking campaigns or wearing seatbelts, to raising awareness for social causes or encouraging charitable donations.

But what about business?

A business is a service. Depending on how the business is run, the business could be of service to its owner or shareholders and disregard its social responsibilities. Or, it could be, first and foremost, a service to the community while still taking financial care of its owners, workers, and shareholders.  

When marketing is used to promote a business that ignores its impact on the community and the environment, then it is a force that exaggerates the adverse effects caused by that business. When it is used to promote a business that looks after its team, gives back to the community, and works to offset the damage caused by delivering its products or services, marketing becomes leverage for positive change.

However, marketing is not a tangible entity that exists in its own right. It requires someone to implement it. As an agency that offers marketing services, we are subject to the same social responsibility standards that define whether marketing is being used for a worthy project or businesses. 

Suppose you subcontract your web design or marketing needs to a company that underpays its team, gives nothing back to the community, fails to offset its environmental footprint (yes, even marketing has one). In that case, you are financially supporting social irresponsibility. This understanding is the foundation for social procurement – it is not just what we do (or don’t do) as a business, but also who we rely on and support as a result of trading. 

If we take future generations and the planet as a whole seriously, then we must stop seeking out suppliers who offer deep discounts by taking social short cuts. It is easy to cut our pricing if we hire the cheapest labour we can find in developing countries, don’t offset our carbon footprint, choose the cheapest suppliers who are doing the same, etc. Feeling good about ourselves while choosing B2B suppliers and partners that are not doing the same is little more than a false sense of pride.

That is why we looked at what we could do to add the Ethical into EthicallyMAD. We knew one thing, we wanted to do more than just make a difference for our clients; we wanted to make a positive difference for the planet too.

After much brainstorming and discussion, we came up with the following ways to be better.

  1. We would become a certified living wage employer. In truth, we were already paying above living wage anyway. Still, we felt it was important to support the concept, set a good example, and give customers the confidence they were not paying for sweatshop labour.
  2. We would offset 360% of our carbon emissions using only NZ tree planting programs. In addition to our office footprint, we would also offset all our server and email usage too. 
  3. For every client, each month, we would have one tree in Africa planted on their behalf. This tree would not only help reduce even more CO2, but would also help provide food and income to rural communities.
  4. For every client, each month, we would help protect 1,000m2 of rainforest, and the many species that lived within it. 

You may be forgiven for thinking that this would force us to push up our prices. But this was not the case. We took a small hit on our margins, sure – but nowhere near what you would expect. None of these actions cost much at all, but they all make a real difference.

Of course, we could pretend they cost a lot, and try and position ourselves as incredibly philanthropic – but this would not only be very misleading, it would also discourage others from doing the same.

The best thing we can hope for, is for other businesses to copy us, or to do something similar. If every business did this, we would see hardly any loss in profit, but a transformation of the planet. 

Potter Stewart has described ethics as ‘knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do’. 

No business is perfect, and nothing is truly black and white. However, with intention and continual improvement, we can put more and more of the ethical back into marketing.

Be sure to check out my latest book too, Ethical Marketing, now available on Amazon in paperback or on Kindle.

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