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Ethical Consumerism & Ecommerce: The Perfect Pair

Sarahkate Stephens

By Sarahkate Stephens , Senior Digital Strategist

December 22, 2016

Ecommerce Consumers

It’s safe to say that 2016 has been a pretty unique year — especially in the digital world. Just this year, I saw more than one wedding on Facebook Live, took in especially viral Kermit the Frog memes, and watched our FLOTUS rock out to Stevie Wonder in a Range Rover. And while these definitely give context to 2016, they are not my favorite part of digital growth this year. The trend I’m most excited about is the growth of ethical consumerism in ecommerce.

Ethical Consumerism is not new or specific to this year — there have been people thoughtfully purchasing for many years. What is new is that ecommerce sites are finally making it easy.

I will admit I’m biased on this issue because I am one of these ethical shoppers, or at least I try to be. I think about the things I purchase and how they contribute to or detract from the world at large, as do many millennials. A common reaction I’ve heard when discussing this is “We can’t shop our way to a better world.” I’d like to take the next few minutes to explain why I wholeheartedly disagree with that statement in the current digital landscape.

There is a persistent idea that while many companies may desire to do well by doing good, they will have to sacrifice profits in order to do so. Julie Irwin of McCombs School of Business says:

“The hopelessness of ethical consumerism is echoed everywhere, in the business press, in [students’] resistance to studying moral issues in a business framework, and in conversations.

In other words, it’s difficult to believe that ethical consumerism can be profitable. Therefore, people have shied away from the idea rather than investing time and marketing dollars to give ethical consumerism the refresh it needs to succeed.

Here is my least favorite buzzword that explains why that’s about to change: Millennials. I know, I’m sorry for saying it again, but it’s really important. Millennials as a group care about company and brand values more than any other demographic … ever. Barkley, an independent advertising agency, found that more than Twitter icon A pertinent example is that millennials are twice as likely to eat organic food (Forbes). When you consider the current financial struggle facing the millennial generation, this premium price for organic seems to fly in the face of the idea that “we can’t shop our way to a better world.”

So here we are in 2016 with a significant chunk of the population interested in values-based shopping. Why isn’t it more successful?

Think about the places you shop regularly. Do you know where they source their materials? What about the causes they support? Their political, environmental, or social views? Unless it’s Target, Chick-Fil-A, or New Balance, chances are high that you don’t. This information is just not visible to the average consumer, especially when shopping in-store.

It’s easy to continue purchasing products that do not support your values when you remain ignorant of a company’s ethics. A study conducted by Daniel Zane and Julie Irwin found that Twitter icon This is hugely important for companies who have sustainable and ethical practices and want to succeed.

How do we overcome the knowledge gap for consumers who want to purchase ethically?

Sharing

People’s purchases are much more transparent now than at any point in history. Social sharing allows consumers to directly interact with brands they love and, more importantly for a business, allows other connections to see that interaction. Encouraging your consumers to share their purchases and the causes they support will put the information about ethical practices in their newsfeed, and therefore at the forefront of new consumers’ minds. And research shows us that they will use it.

Prominently Display Information

This one seems pretty obvious, but it’s surprising how few companies actively use the tactic of providing consumers with all the information. Everlane, a digital-only shop that produces quality apparel and accessories, has a great example of this on the Product Description Page (PDP) on their website. Here’s just some of information you can gather on a specific product page:

  1. Exactly where every piece of the garment is from, all the way down to information about the factory and workers.
  2. Very specific fit information
  3. The full pricing model for each piece of production, including transportation, materials & labor.
  4. Contact information in case you have any specific questions about a product before or after purchase.
Everlane product info

Everlane product info

Everlane transparent pricing policy

Everlane transparent pricing policy

I fully admit that Everlane is my brand crush (Seriously, if you’re wondering what I want to see under the Christmas tree … ), but you have to admit this is a good PDP. I know they are treating me fairly and that the products were created sustainably, and it makes me want to buy this product more than I want to purchase from another brand even if it may be more expensive. When I look at another website in search of shoes or apparel and see that information about how it was created isn’t present, I think of this PDP and how I would feel better if I knew it was an ethical purchase.

Market. Yes, it’s that easy.

Marketing your corporate social responsibility is just as important as marketing low prices or new patterns and styles. Companies have an obligation to put as much information out to consumers as possible, and if that includes ethical practice — why not just let them know? It’s a small investment that can lead to brand loyal customers. If all you do is market low prices or a great fit, consumers will go elsewhere if they find another brand that offers a lower price or slightly better fit (HBR). If you strongly connect with a new customer based on aligned values, they are more likely to make continual purchases because they identify with your brand on a deeper level.

A good example of this is Patagonia’s Black Friday “Sale.” A week before Thanksgiving, Patagonia announced (read: began marketing) that they would donate all of their sales on Black Friday to environmental causes. They estimated that this would add up to about $2 million. But their marketing was so successful and people felt so strongly about the cause that they ended up reaching $10 million in sales that day. In addition, they used an opportunity to enforce the message that they always donate 1 percent of sales to environmental causes, helping to create loyal customers for the future.

One Caveat: Message Positively

While it is a good business move to prominently feature ethical information, it’s not a good idea to make any consumer feel guilty for other purchases. Julie Irwin says:

“You can talk about your values, but don’t present them as morally superior ones.”

This will only serve to create a divisive attitude about your brand and products, which won’t do you any good in the end.

The opportunity for brands to harness the power of ecommerce to inform consumers about ethical purchasing is finally here.

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