Givedish is a social enterprise working with restaurants and cafes to tackle food insecurity, both nationally and globally. For every GiveDish meal sold, a meal is donated to those in need! Cian McGlynn and Olwyn Patterson discuss the story behind their social start-up.
How does it work?
A GiveDish meal can be purchased at any of GiveDish’s partner restaurants: Bread 41, Mad Yolks, Chimac, and most recently, Sumaki. The social enterprise partners with Mary’s Meals; a school-feeding programme owned and run by community volunteers in countries to provide free meals. With Mary’s Meals, it costs €18.30 to feed a child for a school year. GiveDish breaks down this cost to fund the free meals provided by Mary’s Meals. On GiveDish’s website, viewers can see the number of meals donated by each partner restaurant. In September alone, GiveDish’s three partner restaurants donated 1,096 meals – and this is only the start!
Cian is a second-year Global Business student who became involved with Trinity Entrepreneurial Society. After a few months with the society, he decided to participate in LaunchBox, making his dream to set up a business a reality.
Olwyn is a third-year MSISS student who always had a desire to make something of her creativity. She fondly recounts that as a child that she used to make loom-band bracelets with her friends to sell at charity day in school. Now, she tie-dyes jumpers, socks and t-shirts to sell for charity on Instagram. Upon starting in Trinity, she began to think “about business and entrepreneurship more seriously” and realised that she “could have a larger impact through business than just donating money myself.”
Where they are now
Cian and Olwyn took part in Trinity’s Launchbox, with their start-up, GiveDish, winning 3rd Prize. Launchbox is an accelerator run by Tangent every summer, where ten teams are given office space and €10,000 to work on a start-up. Cian and Olwyn believe that they met some of the coolest and most interesting people through Launchbox. Great speakers such as Dan Hobbs from Protex AI, and Eric Risser from Artomatix (both Launchbox alumni), worked with the start-up groups.
During the interview, Cian and Olwyn revealed that they came up with their enterprise idea “by chance”. Having entered LaunchBox with a “completely different idea”, the team pivoted after some early discovery and research different business models. One of their mentors, Conor Leen (founder of Stampify), introduced them to a Canadian company with an interesting model and, after conducting some customer discovery, the team were set on taking action.
With regards to the name of the business, the team experimented by typing “as many variations of names that could work into GoDaddy to see if the domain was available”, before finding givedish.com to be perfect. They have since changed their domain to givedish.org, however, can still be found at the original givedish.com domain.
Currently, GiveDish is working on building a software application with some help from a developer, as well as slowly refining their processes and making it more transparent. Furthermore, they are looking to help locally; with the rising cost of living, there are problems on Ireland’s doorstep that must be addressed.
GiveDish’s vision is to make donations seamless for people and increase the ease and convenience of donating by making donation part of a daily activity. GiveDish also solves the problem of decreasing profit margins for restaurants by increasing sales of higher profit-margin items. This is achieved primarily through social media; gaining new followers and new partners, and ultimately, donating more meals.
Plans for the future
GiveDish’s goal is to donate 1 million meals to children in need. The social enterprise have many more partners in the works and will continue to tackle food insecurity both globally and in Ireland. To keep up to date with how many meals GiveDish donate, keep an eye on their website.
Just this month, Tesla revealed a prototype of their humanoid robot, Optimus. This latest project will have an AI-chip powered brain, cameras for eyes, microphones for ears, and the capacity to walk and carry 9 kilograms per hand, amongst other things.
This alongside other developments are proof of the mergence of artificial intelligence (AI) as one of the most exciting technological innovations in the world of business. Even now with its technology still in its relative infancy, AI is driving people around, delivering packages, trading securities, and translating languages. Its breath-taking abilities are starting to shape a lion’s share of industries. A hotly contested debate of late is how the relationship between human intelligence and Artificial Intelligence will play out as AI adoption grows. Will it be one of competition and conflict, or will we see eye-to-eye with our AI counterparts?
The word intelligence derives from the Latin word intelligentia meaning “the action or faculty of understanding”. What does it mean to understand? Oscar Wilde wrote that “to define is to limit”, and hence I think we must interpret intelligence in a rather broad and fluid sense. Intelligence cannot be categorised as a single characteristic or competency and so we should recognise that the abilities and understanding possessed by humans and robots are different. When it comes to comparing AI and Humans, we must consider them differently too.
Talos, Turing & Siri
The concept of intelligent robots stems as far back as the presence of automatons like Talos and Pandora in Greek mythology. Talos was constructed by Hephaestus to help King Minos of Crete guard the island from invaders while Pandora was essentially an ‘all-gifted’ robot. Where philosophy would then mull the presence of artificial beings, science fiction would imagine and depict it with more colour and drama. But in 1950, Alan Turing began to bring the art to life when he discussed how to build intelligent machines and test this intelligence in his seminal paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence.’ Five years later, the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence catalysed AI research for the following decade.
However, in the 1970s, AI development entered its first winter in the 1970s where funding completely dried up, before a small boom in research and development occurred in the 1980s, followed by a second AI winter. IBM Deep Blue becoming the first computer to beat a world chess champion in 1997 was a critical point in the evolution of the technology. The same year, speech recognition software developed by Dragon Systems was implemented in Windows. In the mid-2000’s we saw widespread adoption and exploration of AI by Big Tech culminating in products like the Google search engine, Google Translate, Siri, facial recognition, and Alexa.
And now in 2022, we are in the golden era of AI with sophisticated Machine Learning imitating how humans learn, quantum computing attempting to dramatically increase the power and speed of computing, and the embedment of AI in the Augmented Reality enhancing the experience of the metaverse. With these developments on the precipice of reshaping industries, experts are predicting that using AI at a large scale will add as much as $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. In 2021 Venture Capital (VC) funding for AI start-ups reached an eye-watering $89.2 billion as investors and entrepreneurs look to realise the power of robots. We might hope that amidst all the hype surrounding the adoption of AI, that we, like Minos did with Talos, can firmly place our faith in AI. However, sceptics warn of a scenario more akin to opening Pandora’s box and unleashing its evils.
What’s Inside Pandora’s Box?
It is no surprise that VCs globally have invested billions into AI start-ups in recent years. With the mammoth funding it requires, the range of possibilities are almost beyond the scope of our wildest imagination. Tech giants such as Alphabet and Meta have pumped over $50 billion into R&D to build this brave new world of automation. You’ll find it in the chatbox providing you with “excellent customer service”, helping you to turn on the lights in your kitchen and keeping your home clean, amongst an array of other things. AI is transforming processes in healthcare too with robots pumping out vaccine development and drug design, enhancing quality of life, and possibly saving lives that otherwise would not have been saved.
Here in Ireland, we have companies like Manna Drone Delivery incorporating some AI to autonomously deliver coffees and pastries to people’s homes. And then there is the leveraging of AI in ‘Web 3.0’ ‘s move to decentralisation where it is now enabling some blockchain and token-based transactions.
We couldn’t have a conversation about cutting edge technology like AI without mentioning the wide-eyed futurist that is Elon Musk. Alongside, the development of Optimus and Tesla’s self-driving cars, there is the incredibly frightening neurotechnology of Musk’s Neuralink which wants to create an implantable brain chip to record the activity of the brain and improve human intelligence. With all these technologies, AI’s intelligence derives from their potential to learn and make decisions based on the data they are fed.
On the other hand, humans rely on a different kind of intelligence that is certainly more expansive and intuitive. Humans rely on memory but more critically, possess an emotional intelligence (EQ) that enables us to relate, adapt, empathise, and understand. The significance of EQ in the workplace was underlined by a study of 2,662 U.S. hiring managers which found that a whopping 71% of employers value EQ over IQ. If we consider the work of a nurse, the ability to show empathy, sympathy and compassion is fundamental to their ability to do their work competently. The same can be said for the work of solicitors, actors, comedians, and many other fields where humans cannot be outsmarted due to the essential personal and emotional element. There are also question marks surrounding AI’s ability to maintain the ethical standards that the human ability to empathise enables us to maintain. There was shock and great disappointment when Microsoft’s automated Twitter account, Tay, was easily coaxed by a user to publish a flurry of anti-Semitic tweets in 2016.
‘Never send a human to do a machine’s job’, a quote from the iconic film The Matrix. But is the doom-ridden depiction of AI in contemporary science fiction correct?
AI is impeccable at carrying out repetitive tasks. It does not tire in the same way that the human mind or body might. Automating these types of tasks makes a great deal of sense and achieves cost savings for businesses. AI also provides a solution to the distorted effect of cognitive biases that affect the decisions of managers every day, a challenge that management theorists have contested and theorised about for over 50 years. However, the lack of EQ and perhaps an understanding of ethics is an enormous challenge faced by AI and ultimately signifies a limit to their abilities. Returning to the earlier point, do we really expect that the costs saved from automating something like nursing will be worth the loss of personal human touch? There is also the fact that while those in Big Tech and business talk very bullishly of the plethora of opportunities that AI will generate, its presence is not as highly-anticipated by the public who have fears about ethical dilemmas, surveillance, and data privacy. A study by Ipsos found that only 50% of people trust companies that use AI as much as they trust other companies. The public response to Mark Zuckerberg’s 1 hour 17-minute-long video describing his grand plans for the metaverse was one of partial ridicule but also unease. Some of the scepticism might be borne from headlines like the World Economic Forum’s prediction of AI wiping out some 85 million jobs by 2025. Although people should be cognisant of the fact that this loss of jobs will be offset by new jobs servicing AI. Harari, author of Sapiens, predicts that the job market of 2050 “may well be characterised by human-AI cooperation”.
A war of every robot against every man?
As we mentioned before, intelligence is not black-and-white so we cannot easily identify a winner and nor should we want to. It is counterproductive to address AI and human intelligence by pitting the two against each other in a fight to the death unless we want our lives to actually transform into something reminiscent of a dystopian sci-fi film. Yes, the future of work will resemble something very unrecognisable but in this world of new jobs, the relationship between humans and AI will be one of collaboration where AI will support human productivity.
Companies will benefit from optimizing collaboration between humans and Artificial Intelligence. What it will come down to is striking the optimal balance between how the human element and the AI element can interact and synergise processes. I refute the suggestion that AI will be the last invention humanity will ever have to make. The discovery of AI will enable humans to deliver the next great wave of industry-defining and ground-breaking innovations. But be warned, it is pivotal that as we integrate the technology we align its goals to our own. If we do not manage our AI, we may well find ourselves witnesses of Hawking’s stark prediction of the end of humanity at the hands of Artificial Intelligence.
There has been much ado made about the winners and losers of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns. Cluttering the pages of the Financial Times and The Economist, have been tales of rising stars in the technology space such as Tesla Inc., who not only enjoyed a 650% increase in their stock price but also for the first time in its 19 year history turned a profit, who were lauded for their ingenuity and tenacity to weather the economic turbulence. Concurrently, others who were not so fortunate like Chinese property developer Evergrande (which saw its share value fall by 95%) were pitied for their financial imprudence and misfortune. Many would have also believed that the energy sector had garnered a similar sort of attention, especially considering the current role energy prices play in the record rate of inflation that we, globally, are facing. However, I contend that we, in our obsession with the outlandish, have ignored nuanced developments elsewhere along the energy supply chain, in particular, the oil refinery and oil tanker industries.
Ailing Refinery Industry
An oil refinery is an industrial plant that transforms or refines crude oil into usable products such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Like many others before, the year 2019 was a lacklustre year for the industry. The international benchmark Brent Crude Oil prices hovered around $64 a barrel throughout the year, remaining suppressed due to heightened US production for domestic consumption and significant Chinese economic slowdown leaving an excess of oil in the market languishing in refinery storage facilities across Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. So, when international lockdowns struck in early 2020, the refineries were not in the healthiest of positions to handle such a shock.
Over the course of nine months, beginning with one of the sharpest drops in global stock market history, the refinery industry faced a totalising exogenous demand shock in the form of international travel bans, curtailed social events and diminished road traffic.
This shock, oppressed demand with reductions of over 9%, tailing that trend, production experienced a 6.6% contraction, further glutting the oil markets, causing oil prices to fall as low as $9 a barrel but averaging $42 a barrel (a fall of over 34%) for the year. Market contractions are not good, but as the previous graph shows, refineries reduced production to nearly match demand, so why were oil prices so low and how is this different from other business cycle downturns?
Recall that by the end of 2019, storage facilities were already brimming with oil. So, despite production and consumption tracking one another there was an out-sized amount of oil sloshing around global markets intensifying the price plunge. This caused significant revenue reductions, for global and national refineries, and the lowest profit margins, industry-wide, in 20 years.
Another point to note: refining millions of barrels of oil a day can be an expensive enterprise, worsened still by the fact that a large portion of these costs are upfront capital expenditures. Such is the case that unless refineries are operating at minimum, 80% production capacity, it is simply unaffordable to operate them and most owners in that situation either convert the refinery into a storage facility or exit the market entirely, and that is exactly what happened. Of the top ten oil refining countries, who represent 62% of global production, three have closed a portion of their refining capability indefinitely with a further 9 countries, not in the top ten, permanently shutting down greater than 15% of their production capacity.
Invigorated Tanker Market
A product (or clean) oil tanker is a ship designed for the bulk transportation of oil products, from refinery stations to consumers. Similar to the refinery industry, the product oil tankers were not in great form in 2019. With lowered levels of international consumption, demand for transportation of oil products was found lacking in the form of reduced volume transportation. This only sustained the financial under-performance of clean tankers, in comparison to other sections of the energy sector, that has been characteristic of the industry since 2015.
What came as a surprise, however, was the reversal of fate for industry players in 2020. One would have envisioned that with halted demand for oil product transport, reflected in the respective fall of 11.3% and 8.3% in world imports and exports of oil products in 2020, that product tankers would have had to endure deepened financial difficulty, but that was not the case.
As the above graph shows, on the five major clean tanker routes transport prices were essentially unchanged or even increased with the Middle East to the Far East route displaying rises of 14.5%. So, how did this come about?
Contangos, or the situation where current (or spot) oil prices are lower than predicted future oil prices, are the main culprit for the improved favour that clean tankers basked in. With the cascading crude oil -and hence product oil- prices, traders in the industry anticipated that future prices would be higher. Additionally, onshore storage facilities at/near refineries, at the time, were already scarce. Armed with this knowledge, traders furiously began to charter product tankers as floating storage spaces; for as long as the cost of storing the oil was not greater than the expected margin between spot and future prices, these traders were content to just wait for prices to increase.
The use of product tankers as temporary storage facilities is not a new phenomenon and also prominently featured during the recession of the late 2000s. What makes this instance unique is how long it was sustained. For months, as opposed to a few weeks, product tankers, especially those who transported oil along the routes with less traffic, just had their tankers soaking up revenue which had doubled in a week. Consequently, the fall in tanker supply meant that whatever product oil was transported could be serviced by a shrinking pool of tankers, shoring up spot rates for tankers.
The reverberations of this fascinating dynamic that occurred in 2020 will be felt for years to come, in forms I’m sure we have yet to fully comprehend. Nevertheless, I will attempt to detail two such consequences of that strange period on our current day.
The limited refinery production capacity coupled with the increased cost to transporting oil has caused frictions in the current provision of oil products through a self-sustaining price inflation spiral. When demand for oil products returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, as production was slow to catch up, the price of oil shot up, increasing demand for (and price of) gas, a close substitute. As gas is also an input to the production for product oils, this only further delayed oil production sending both the price of oil and gas ever-higher fuelling food price inflation and threatening energy poverty across the globe.
An unanticipated result of this development is Russia has been able to secure considerable financing of its war against Ukraine through the sale of oil and gas to at first Europe, but now, India and China as the price of oil and gas remains elevated.
On a more positive note, the energy insecurity has brought the green energy transition to the forefront of policy discussions. Not because relying more on renewable sources of energy is better for the environment, but because it contributes to energy independence and reduces geopolitical risk. If nations are able, through the production of sustainable domestic energy, to temper their reliance on foreign sources of energy they’re better able to not just prevent dizzying energy price inflation but also confront belligerent governments in a robust manner.
The addition of the COVID-19 pandemic to the growing list of Black Swan events, whilst spurring on the decline of the oil refinery industry and gifting product oil traders the opportunity to buy a barrel of oil (containing 158 litres) for the price of a Boojum burrito, is something to remember, I think a lot of good will ultimately come from it.
Although currently, we are suffering under serious economic and business environment instability, the pandemic and I am not sure we have overcome much of the chaos that has come from its immediate consequences, the opportunity for the long term re-orientation of our economic and commercial practices to be more aligned with our vision of what the world should be like is a reason to be optimistic.
This month, the CEO of US energy company Chevron, Mike Wirth, came out with a robust statement against the current pivot in energy production away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. He exclaimed that “The reality is, [fossil fuel] is what runs the world today. It’s going to run the world tomorrow and five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now”. This view has been publicly shared by Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase. He recently stated in a Congress testimony that his bank would not be uninvesting in fossil fuel companies, as doing so would be a “road to hell for America”. These views are motivated by the desire to increase fossil fuel supply to alleviate price pressures created by the current energy crisis. However, they are in conflict with the longer term climate issues facing energy companies. The traditional energy sector requires intricate investment and reform to change their business models from non-renewable to renewable, which places a major amount of responsibility on lending institutions to invest in a sustainable way. Governments are currently investing in renewable energy at an increased rate, in the hope of reaching climate goals set by international pacts such as the Paris Agreement. Although government investment is secure, the energy crisis provides the first significant test of the banking industry’s commitment to Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) practices. Early investment in renewable energy will likely lead to significant future profits for lenders due to the finite nature of our current energy system, and will help to alleviate some of their reputational downfalls in the last 15 years. Despite this, short-term deviance to fossil fuel investment is lucrative for banks and their shareholders if prices remain elevated. This dynamic will greatly impact the rate at which our societies can rely completely on renewable energy.
The current geopolitical tensions have come at a fragile time for a transitioning energy sector. The evaporation of Russian gas supplies to the European market has severely reduced energy supply. This has put direct upwards pressure on prices, fuelling the cost of living crisis. Over the past year, energy prices in the Euro Area have been the main driver of the increase in the Harmonized Index of Consumer Prices (HICP), which is the main measure of inflation for the Euro Area. The annual HICP specifically related to energy prices was measured at 38.3% in September, with overall inflation measured at just over 10%. Governments have directly responded to the increase in prices, such as Germany introducing a €200 billion energy aid programme which will place a cap on gas and electricity prices. An EU wide energy aid programme is currently being considered by the EU.
It is likely that energy costs will remain elevated into the future, with many warnings of a worse crisis in the winter of 2023. European natural gas storage is likely to be completely depleted by next spring, and the current uptake in Liquefied Natural Gas is not forecasted to be able to fully replace the loss in energy supply from Russian gas. Firms and households will have to prepare to reduce energy consumption by a considerable amount, which will have a severe impact on industrial production and growth in Europe. A rapid development in Europe’s renewable energy sources is key to reducing exposure to spikes in fossil fuel prices according to IMF researchers. This development will require a significant amount of investment, both from public and private sources. It is not understood what the investment balance will look like in an energy sector dominated by renewable sources, but it is intuitively likely that both will be important in financing the transition.
From a public angle, investment commitment is quite clear. National governments will look to make it convenient for energy companies to build renewable infrastructure such as wind turbines and solar panels. These policies will come in the form of both direct investment and polices that make it more financially lucrative for renewable energy infrastructure to be built. The switch away from fossil fuels will also allow governments to reduce their expenditure on energy caps on fossil fuels if geopolitical tensions persist and prices remain elevated. If fossil fuel prices begin to fall, it is necessary that governments continue to use carbon taxes to promote the continued transition to renewables. The REPowerEU initiative by the Commission also provides a much needed commitment of funds from the EU, along with an overarching strategy for the European response to a changing energy market.
The finance sector has begun to understand their ESG responsibility in recent years, with an industry led alliance called The Glasgow Finance Alliance to Net Zero (GFANZ) being created last year. This alliance looks to improve ESG standards and practices within the finance industry. GFANZ have also decided to collaborate with the UN under their Race to Zero agenda, to align GFANZ to the climate goals of the UN. There has been a strong uptake by banks to join GFANZ, and as a member they must set intermediate ESG targets and annually report on their progress to net-zero. These commitments include the clause that all operational and investment portfolios must be net zero by 2050. The energy crisis is the first real test of these commitments, and how seriously banks are taking sustainability. Various ‘greenwashing’ scandals have thwarted the impact of ESG efforts and shown the importance of the clear messaging surrounding sustainability practices.
As part of the alliance, banks have agreed to help clients in carbon intensive sectors transition to a more sustainable business model. Oil and gas companies fall under this umbrella but have been earning windfall profits due to increased energy prices. The upsurge in profits has led to a 15% increase in lending to fossil fuel companies in the first nine months of the year, according to Bloomberg. There has also been some push back by GFANZ members against the implementation of legally binding ESG agreements, initially suggested by the UN. GFANZ stated that all members can follow their own governance structures, essentially ruling out this possibility. GFANZ is co-chaired by former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. According to Carney, the transition to renewable energy is a complex task that requires bold action by governments and financial institutions. He has expressed that “to limit warming to 1.5°C, projected clean energy investment must run at four times the rate of fossil fuel investment by the end of this decade. That will require a tripling of the current pace of clean energy investment”. Understanding the sluggish movement so far in the financial industry shows the glaring reality that banks will always act in a way that sustains profitability and satisfies shareholders. GFANZ is a fledging alliance, and the current crisis is the first major test of its stability and purpose.
In the short term, banks may use the excuse of protecting consumer prices to continue profitable investments in fossil fuel companies. That being said, it seems like an extremely risky long-term strategy for any financial institution to go against the macro trend of renewable energy investment. Transitioning energy companies is a suitable role for banks, but the finance industry has struggled in the past with understanding it’s responsibility to stakeholders other than their shareholders. The underlying uncertainty will yield tentative action by many banks until their peers proceed, but those who wait too long may diminish future earnings. The future of energy production lies in renewables, but the timeline and journey to that point is unclear. How quickly we move as a society will be directly related to the decision making of those with lending capabilities.
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.