The trouble with ethical

Posted on March 3, 2015

Simply putting the word ‘ethical’ in front of your job title can radically change perceptions, and often for the worse.

Last year I had lunch with the chairman of a leading sustainability consultancy. He’s been helping one of the world’s environmental pariahs, a corporation responsible for destroying great swathes of pristine rainforest, understand how to embrace sustainability. It’s part of a huge turnaround against substantial odds that’s been praised by many, including Greenpeace. But you can’t please them all. For some, the carbon footprint of people like him regularly flying half way across the world to work with their clients is an unacceptable price to pay for a new global benchmark and saving millions of trees.

There are many misconceptions about people who work with overtly expressed sustainable or ethical motives. It’s not helped by the stereotype peddled by those who feel most threatened. Cue an episode of Have I Got News For You in which the then Tory MP Louise Mensch ridiculed protestors occupying the City of London for posting updates on their iPads and iPhones. How dare they use, she implied, tools created by the most profitable and capitalist company in the world. Did she expect them to use smoke signals? Mensch used a convenient brush to paint a hugely diverse range of people. For most it isn’t about being anti-capitalist, but being against the excesses of predatory capitalism – which is completely different. Most of us are happy for companies to make plenty of money, just not at any cost.

I don’t know any successful strategists who conform to that stereotype. They are all smart commercial thinkers who understand the critical role of profitability in any business. Take Mike Barrie, Marks and Spencer’s Director of Plan A, when he articulates the long term challenge facing all big businesses as they strive to be sustainable. He emphasises that no matter how well intentioned, even the most committed businesses can’t make wholesale changes quickly. The process takes years. It has to accommodate all facets of the organisation – processes, people, suppliers, customers and, above all,  profitability. It’s hard, painstaking and time consuming work.

However, there is progress – business is waking up to sustainability and ethics. There’s a long way to go but it is becoming a valued feature of annual reports, the so called triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. It’s our job to help them get there, which means working with them rather than against to make it happen.  Scaremongering about imminent environmental catastrophe or criticising unfortunate but necessary compromises won’t achieve anything. Slow progress is better than none.

Last year I was  invited to attend the Sustainability Marketing 2.0 event at Cranfield. I expected it to be full of holier than thou evangelists but there wasn’t a single one. Instead, it was a gathering of seriously smart strategists who have worked with all sorts of brands from the most saintly to the most misguided. Professors, CEOs, strategists, economists, management consultants and designers with one shared goal – to use our combined knowledge to help brands step up to the  challenge of being better. It was about action not theory. No time was wasted trying to define what sustainability or ethics mean. We all know what they mean. Sustainability is about having a business that can operate indefinitely in a world of finite resources. Being ethical is about treating people and the planet fairly. It’s not rocket science.

I often get asked if I chose to limit my potential client pool by being upfront about ethics. Similarly, an ad agency recently assumed I wouldn’t work with them because of a couple of dodgy clients on their roster. There’s a misconception that we won’t work with many brands because of some kind of moral objection but we’re about making things better, not saintly. In the last year, I have worked with an FMCG retailer, a multi-national conglomerate, a hospice and local government. I have even advised brands who are yet to make any ethical commitment at all but there’s always the chance that they will be influenced by what I do and change their minds. The point is that we are realists, not dreamers.

It means we can and do work with most brands. First and foremost, how else can we expect them to change? Secondly, sustainability is no longer just an option – we’re strategists who know how to take customers and employees on a journey that all brands have to embark on. Thirdly, such is the interest in ethics and sustainability that even though there will always be some companies that don’t have an ethical bone in their body they are increasingly rare. It is, as always, about balance. Small improvements are better than none. They open the doors to real and meaningful progress further down the line.

It’s also true that some who are the most evangelical about ethics demonstrate none of the values they demand from others. We all know people like that, and my profession is no exception. Ethics are not morals. If we’re going to keep making progress we must ditch moralistic overtones. It needs to happen over time and be overseen by strategists who understand the relationship between business as normal and long term sustainability; strategists who work with all kinds of brands rather than just the converted. Nor should we allow progress to be undermined by petty criticism of occasional compromises, like owning the wrong type of car or writing this post on an Apple MacBook Pro. Nobody is perfect.

Progress of any kind should be recognised and encouraged. Whether we like it or not, business plays a critical role in driving sustainability and ethical behaviour for all humankind.  If we make it black or white it won’t happen. We must balance the need for change with allowing companies to find the path that is right for them, and keep nudging them along. Pressure groups and activists must keep them on their toes but they should be constructive and engaging rather than just hostile.

So, the next time you meet a brand consultant whose into ethics and sustainability remember that they are completely normal. They work in the real world and are just like you – smart, commercially astute and forward thinking. And just like everybody else, they want the world to be a nicer place, but unlike most they’re happy for everybody to know it too.

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