November 10th, 2021

We’ve all had that moment. An email lands in our ‘promotions’ tab proclaiming ‘sustainable furniture for your backyard oasis’. Your credit card appears in hand, a strong cuppa tea steams by your side as your bank account itches to be burned through. Then – £6000 for an up-cycled, all-weather patio dining set? You’ve got to be joking!

The idea that ethically-sourced goods cost more is nothing new to the consumer. We understand that the hefty $225 price tag for a side table ensures quality sustainable materials, fair wages and better working conditions. A figuratively small price to pay when you really think about it. Socially-conscious, eco-friendly, green, charitable, zero-waste – over the last decade, these monikers have come to play a huge part in the consumer journey. Recently, though, the cost of a brand having a purpose is starting to look a little different, with a new price weighing heavy on the balance between a brands’ public image and its genuine policy. This should present a really exciting opportunity for brands to recalibrate and redefine their ethical standards from the ground up.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, brands and their ethical and social policies have been thrust into the spotlight, leading consumers to question how many are sincere and how many are jumping on the PR bandwagon? The line is certainly blurred. Take, for example, the M&S LGBT (lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato) sandwich which received polarising reviews when it hit shelves in 2019 in support of UK Pride. One Twitter user praised the brand for ‘fighting bi-erasure’, while others felt the comparison of their sexuality to a sandwich was reductive and exploitative.

Nike were one of the first brands to take a stance earlier this year when they changed their iconic ‘Just Do It’ slogan to ‘For Once, Don’t Do It’ in an online anti-racism video. Twinings’ too had an elegant response when far-right vlogger Laura Towler praised their lack of BLM support; the brand retorted ‘Please don’t buy our tea again. We’re taking some time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post.’ From a customer-facing perspective, both brands embodied a great deal of compassion and ethical and social responsibility. But beyond the 280 characters, things get a little more problematic – especially when you consider that 64% of consumers will prioritise brands that engage in social and political issues.

In 2018, Nike was lauded for its ad campaign featuring American football star Colin Kaepernick, who was dropped after taking a knee in protest against police brutality during the national anthem. In 2019, however, Nike’s own public records revealed of its 300+ vice presidents, less than 10% were black. Where issues of colonialism are inescapable, tea production is a complicated beast. And where Twinings do work to source ingredients ethically, that can only be said for 38% of their top herbs, and in 2018 they received an ethical certification of 4.5 (out of 20) from Ethical Consumer. Stats which feel particularly jarring in comparison to both brands’ recent support for BAME communities.

Much of the commercial noise around the BLM protests felt like a marketing ploy to exploit public outrage and popular hashtags without any significant action being taken to effect proper systematic change. Aside from the obvious moral issues, it’s an incredibly short-sighted business move: deceiving customers is unsustainable for brand reputation. And the real cost becomes turning serious social issues into commodities, undermining and trivialising their cause.

‘Cancel culture’ offers one solution to this exploitation. But this does not allow brands to reflect, learn and grow. How can we expect to see more BAME and LGBTQ+ board members in leading companies if they cease to exist? Transparency offers a more nuanced, longer-term solution. In June 2020, Sharon Chuter founder of UOMA beauty called for change with her #PullUpOrShutUp campaign which lobbied brands to back up their BLM hashtags by publicly disclosing the number of black employees and top-level executives. Where more information is available to the public, brands are incentivised to affect real and lasting change.

Credit: Nike

Where Nike and Twinings are concerned it’s important to highlight their transparency around the issues addressed above. It was in Nike’s own public reports that they exposed the racial imbalance in their senior positions. And you’ve only to go a page deep into Twining’s website to locate their social impact report and ‘Sourced with Care’ programme designed to improve 500,000 lives by 2020. In June, Nike announced a $40million investment to support black communities in the US, and Twinings continues to better their work with local communities to improve living standards and opportunities.

Credit: Twinings

One of the key takeaways from 2020 and the BLM movements has been for individuals to listen more and educate themselves on issues – even where they feel incendiary or difficult. Brands, too, should take stock of this. With many subjective unknowns, the only fear should be stubbornness and the inability to change and pivot when the world calls for better. Yesterday’s issues can be today’s change. And transparency and time, as opposed to a vacuous tweet, will tell if companies have truly progressed and are committed to making serious change.

As consumers, we can support this change by demanding transparency. Do a little digging. Look at a company’s track record. Think, where do they invest? What do they stand for? Who do they support? Where does the product come from? The answers will ensure that the real cost of a product doesn’t come at the exploitation of a minority group or PR fanfare. For brands to be sustainable and truly operate with purpose, they need to invest in a culture of trust, transparency and fair treatment from the ground up. That is worth any price.

Written by Louise Bastock, writer

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