Ethical marketing: does it exist?

Yvette Dempsey

The discipline of marketing is one which has received criticism over the years for its ethical standards, which are often called into question in discussions regarding hyper-consumption, climate change, mental health and the promotion of ‘sin’ products. The question posed seeks to clarify whether or not an avenue for ethical marketing exists. It is my argument that ethical marketing does exist. It is the supplementary question that leads to debate. Is ethical marketing profitable, effective and feasible without greater socio-economic change?

In this essay I will focus on the example of the fashion industry to illustrate thoroughly how marketing and its ethics are contingent on the product it endeavours to promote, and how the discipline has become a scapegoat for greater industrial problems.

There is a plethora of evidence to support the claim that ethical marketing exists. Forbes have released numerous articles warning companies off unethical practices which encourage misleading advertising, inciting controversy, emotional exploitation and flooding customers’ inboxes with spam advertisements. There is an emphasis not only on the benefits of ethical marketing for the greater good but also the positive impacts companies may yield from taking ethical factors into consideration, such as increasing customer loyalty. Empathy, sustainability, promise keeping, honesty and transparency have been cited as the five major components in ethical marketing philosophy by online marketing resource Wisepops. Forrester has also devised the ethical marketing mix, which cites product responsibility, price transparency, promoting with honesty and deploying fair product placement as the four pillars of ethical marketing.

In conjunction with academic literature supporting the claim that ethical marketing exists, it is also visible in several successful campaigns which have deployed ethical marketing to yield great results. For example, Aoife Ireland is owned and run by fashion designer-turned- entrepreneur, Aoife McNamara. Based in Limerick, the company offers transparent insight into the production process on its website. There, customers will learn that raw materials are locally sourced and limited to wool from local wool mills powered by hydro-electric energy, mostly recycled cotton and recycled polyester. Products are made in Ireland and shipped in 100% recyclable packaging, right down to the recycled paper tape.

Internationally, brands such as Stella McCartney offer the same resources, informing customers that products are made from biodegradable stretched denim or bio-acetate frames used in eyewear products, for example. Companies such as Patagonia, Levi’s and Toms have also joined the ranks in publishing the details of their production processes and Corporate Social Responsibility schemes.

If the discipline of ethical marketing is as developed and sophisticated as is evidenced, then why beg the question of its existence at all? Well, when one considers the abovementioned ethically-marketed campaigns, there is a common thread that binds these companies together.

The products are ethically made. The companies declare an ethical ethos. The raw materials are ethically and locally sourced. It is the simple transparency used by marketers to reveal an ethical company and an ethical product that renders the marketing ethical and successful in and of itself.

Comparatively, where traditionally unethical companies, such as Shein, attempt to market themselves as sustainable or ethical against objectively damming evidence, they are rightfully criticised. This has become so common a practice by companies who recognise the demand for ethical production among Gen Z in particular, that the term ‘Greenwashing’ has emerged, acting as an, albeit transparent, veneer for inherently unethical products. Where Greenwashing occurs, a company presents itself as sustainably ethical, promoting an exaggeration of the companies’ efforts to combat climate change. An example of this can be seen in Shein’s recent appointment of an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Officer to its board. This appointment has been criticised as nothing more than a publicity stunt, as the business model operated by Shein is dependent on labour exploitation and sourcing cheap, synthetic materials in order to produce nearly 1000 new products every day. Shein is not the only company guilty of greenwashing, as H&M’s Looop Campaign encouraging customers to recycle their clothes in store has been criticised for doing little to distract from the 3 billion garments produced by H&M every year.

The question is, is it really possible for companies such as H&M and Shein to maintain their reputations of producing low cost garments at tremendous paces, while also being ethical and sustainable? This model of production is one that has been enjoyed by producers and consumers alike since the early 2000s, leading to the likes of H&M and Zara becoming industry leaders. The demand for ethical production is a relatively novel concept, causing companies to scramble to their marketing teams in the hope they may be able to wrap a shiny recyclable bow around a €10 top made in a sweatshop on the other side of the planet.

Where the literature exists and exemplifies practices such as transparency regarding raw materials, supply chains and ethical employment standards, the truth is that many of these companies would not be able to withstand interrogations into their practices. Conversely, were a startup providing sustainably made garments to match the low prices proposed by fast fashion companies, they would be unlikely to yield any profit whatsoever. Higher quality garments made sustainably and ethically yield higher cost prices, meaning it is relatively impossible for these companies to compete against the likes of Zara or Shein. This is especially true in the instance of targeting Gen-Z and Millennials, whose financial capacities often favor the side of fast fashion.

Marketing techniques availed of by fast fashion industries are inherently unethical in the way that they prey on consumer’s insecurities and the human desire for belongingness. For example, influencer culture may have been intended to transition from the supermodel era to promote a more “relatable” role model, however, it is a rather rotten feeling when you realise that you are still stylistically poles apart from the people you are supposed to relate to. This disparity is enjoyed by fast fashion industry leaders acting as the knight in shining armour, churning out instruments of climate destruction in the form of oversized blazers and mom jeans at affordable prices, only to commission influencers to change their style recommendations the following week; kickstarting the same damaging cycle in order to maintain steady profit.

It is a cultural change that is needed for ethical marketing to truly thrive. A culture of value, whereby consumers are encouraged to invest in pieces which will enjoy longer life spans. A culture that offers scope for new and emerging ethical marketing practices, such as promoting a culture of repairing, reselling, upcycling products and spending more money on clothes in order to discard the long held, harmful attitude that outfit repeating is the biggest sin of all.

This attitude threatens the core of many fast fashion companies, whose high turnovers are contingent on a fast-paced trend cycle and keeping input expenses low. It is beyond the scope of the marketing department to salvage these companies’ reputations and place them in a realm in which they simply do not belong. Unethical production and its marketing are outdated and survive only on the equally outdated attitude that accompanies hyper consumption and a capitalist mentality.

While this should be interpreted as a threat to companies operating unethically, it should pose as an opportunity for industry newcomers to reinvent the wheel. There are endless ways in which marketers can enjoy the successes of ethical marketing, where there is attitudinal reform and scope for a new wave of entrepreneurship and innovation.

I would, therefore, conclude that unethical marketing is simply a symptom of an unethical socio-economic philosophy that has emerged and survived under capitalism. While emerging startups are ingratiating sustainability into the very core and ethos of their companies, as demonstrated by Aoife Ireland, the long-standing industry leaders can only dress a mutton up as lamb to salvage future profits from their historically loyal customers.
A culture whereby consumers invest in sustainably made products and keep them for an extended product life span is truly incompatible with the production techniques currently deployed by industry leaders. The consequent, unethical marketing techniques such as influencer culture and propagating fast changing trends at low prices is incompatible with standards upheld by ethical marketing literature and philosophy. I have used the example of the fashion industry throughout this discussion as I feel it is effectively illustrative and relevant, however, the same discussion can be applied to industries such as technology, aviation, travel and car manufacturing, to name but a few.

Ethical marketing exists. Unethical marketing also exists. But marketing overall, as the face of business, has been used as a scapegoat to draw the line between ethical and unethical production practices. It is the choice of emerging marketers to place themselves on the right side of history and render the very premise of the posed question- does ethical marketing exist? -ludicrous. It may be a challenge. It may be unchartered territory. But it may be just what our planet needs to clear our seas, to clear our skies and to clear marketing’s name.

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