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August 27, 2021  //       //  Opinion

The Rise of the Ethical Consumer

By Adina James and Kate Lynch

The release earlier this month of the Sixth Assessment Report on the climate by the International Panel on Climate Change was described as a “code red” for humanity by the UN secretary general, António Guterres. It was yet another wake-up call for the world and made many people reflect on how they can make real changes in their lives to reduce global warming and help reverse the stark realities presented in the report.

Enter the ‘ethical consumer’. The idea of ethical consumption is not a new one. For instance, in 2019, Co-op released a study which revealed that total ethical spending had risen almost fourfold in the past 20 years and outgrown all UK household expenditure. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumer habits were further and notably impacted as it prompted many people to reevaluate how they were living their lives, with research by Accenture revealing that consumers “have dramatically evolved", and that 60% were reporting making more environmentally friendly, sustainable, or ethical purchases since the start of the pandemic, with 90% planning to continue long-term.

So what exactly is an ethical consumer?

Put simply, ethical consumption is based on the belief that what we purchase makes a positive difference to the planet and the population. In other words, an ethical consumer shops more consciously and in a way that does not harm the environment and society. It includes limiting the amount of single-use plastic, eliminating fast-fashion, as well as becoming more conscious of the food you eat. For example, Stasher, who produce reusable silicone bags donates 1% of sales to organisations working to leave the planet a better place. To date in the UK, Stasher has sold enough bags to remove around 50 million single-use bags from entering the waste stream.

It is clear that this way of purchasing and living is not a fad. Just as people are increasingly examining their own habits and lifestyle, businesses are also examining and overhauling their own practices as sustainability moves to the top of the business agenda. So what does this mean for brands and their approach to marketing? Today, it is not simply a case of choosing to target an ethical consumer or not; it is now a business imperative to consider all consumers as ethical or sustainable. There are three key elements to remember as we navigate this new reality.

Align on Purpose
Before developing your PR strategy, it’s crucial that you align with the internal business objectives as it relates to sustainability and overall ethical practices. Understanding the brand’s stance on sustainability - both short-term and long-term - is central to developing a robust PR approach.

Talk Human to Me
It’s important to remember that we’re all in this together. Everyone is being prompted to examine how they consume and it won’t be an overnight fix. From a business perspective, there are many additional considerations to overhauling their products or services or practices. Don’t complicate this message to your audience with heavy business jargon and spin. In other words, be human!

Brands don't need to claim perfection but they need to communicate that there's a plan in place and they're working toward something. In fact, if your company is committed to sustainable practices don’t be shy about sharing it. Forbes recently reported that most Generation Z have come to expect their favourite brands to stand for something -  if they’re unaware of all the great work you’re doing, this will ultimately impact your growth, profit and audience among this emerging audience.

The bottom line is that the general public are, quite importantly, turning into empowered and well-informed consumers. In turn they aren’t afraid to hold their favourite brands to account in a bid to raise sustainability standards. To keep pace, businesses need to learn to clearly communicate their stance on sustainability and be honest about work and journey in this space, or risk being left behind. Go one step further by implementing a robust brand advocacy PR programme designed to initiate societal change in a purposeful way. 

Adina James is an Account Manager and Kate Lynch is a Senior Vice President in our UK offices.

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