What the hell is ethical?!

A recent report from GfK/NOP quoted in the FT states that "ethical consumption is perhaps the biggest movement in branding today". Pretty bold stuff. And there are some signs that back this up, such as the growth of organic food (though I’m not sure now if this is good or not), brands like Innocent and the purchase of the Body Shop by L’Oreal. John at Brand Tarrot has been blogging on this a lot, and is even thinking about writing his next book on Green Marketing.

Well, the survey’s list of most ethical brands in the UK made some sense, topped by the Co-Op who have taken a strong ethical stance. But, take a look at the brands topping the US table and there are some surprises for me. Top of the list is Coca-Cola, followed by purveyor of processed cheese, Kraft, and sugary cereal seller Kellogg’s. What the hell does "ethical" mean then?

Most ethical brands in UK: 1. Co-Op, 2. Body Shop, 3. M&S, 4. Traidcraft, 5. Cafedirect
Most ethical brands in US: 1. Coca-Cola, 2. Kraft, 3. P&G, 4= J&J, 4= Kellogg’s

In the FT article, a bloke from Nielsen summed things up well: "Consumers are incredibly confused". Perhaps some of our US readers can shed some light on the results there…am I being too harsh? And there is some clues from the GfK research about what matter more to consumers (environmental impact and treatment of staff and suppliers) and less (community programmes and charitable giving). This is in line with the concept of being a "values-led business" like Ben & Jerry’s where you integrate ethics into your way of doing business, rather than trying to "green-wash" people by just giving money to good causes.

My hope and belief is that this is another area of branding where substance will win over spin. As consumers become better informed and more ethically-savvy, they will be able to separate the expensive ad campaign (Coke’s "Every Little Drop" campaign) from real changes to the supply chain (e.g. M&S trying to use more local produce to cut down on air freight).