Running an ethical business is something that more and more people are considering in an age where ethics are a more public matter than ever before. There are plenty of reasons to take a more ethical outlook – for one thing, it’s simply the right thing to do given how one person’s choices can affect others. For another, increasing statistical data seems to support the impression that decent ethics can support greater profits – far from being an expensive outlay you cannot afford, ethical decisions can be a boost to your takings.
With that said, the second fact is one that is not lost on some of the more cynical businesses out there. We are living in a generation where people are not just increasingly idealistic and wedded to causes, but are increasingly literate in the areas of marketing and current affairs. If there is a sense that you’re not very much into the cause that you’re promoting, but are very much about the extra cash it can bring you, people will know.
Therefore, it is all the more important that as a business, you approach the area of ethical commerce not as just another way of attracting customers, but with actual sincerity. And even if you feel that it is already a sincere approach, you should bear in mind that it’s one thing to believe in something, and another to convincingly project that belief to possible customers. Below, we’ll look at how you can walk the walk as an ethical business owner.
Actually mean it when you say your customers are valued
Ask any business owner what their customers mean to them, and you’ll be rewarded with a speech about how customers are the lifeblood of any business. It’s true, of course – customers spend money, which allows businesses to invest in more lines, which allows them to attract more customers, who will spend more money, and so on. Customers are literally indispensable to any business. However, being indispensable and being valued are two different things.
If people feel as though a business message of “you are valuable” is essentially a mantra to get them through the checkout, they may well take their money elsewhere. You can’t keep telling people something when they want you to show them. The only way to make this clear is to actually deliver on the promise of after-sales service. Rather than looking for ways to blame any fault in a service or product on the customer, apologise and investigate any complaint – and do what it takes to make good on the fault.
It is also a good idea to welcome feedback from customers, and look at actioning the things that are possible. Send out a monthly or fortnightly email newsletter, enumerating messages you’ve been getting from customers and saying what you’re going to do in response. Then highlight what you have done to make it happen in a follow-up newsletter, showing you’re serious about keeping promises.
Avoid token gestures – live your ethics
One rather annoying complication of the rise of ethical business is that it has been mirrored by a rise in businesses adopting token ethical gestures as a short-cut to virtue. For instance, during Pride month, few businesses will miss the opportunity to render their corporate logo in rainbow colours – but their engagement with LGBT issues may turn out to be shallower than they are letting on. In other cases, a fast-food restaurant may switch from plastic straws to paper ones as an environmental gesture – but the paper they use may turn out not to be recyclable.
If you are serious about ethics, then have the confidence to let them inform your decisions. If you’re a coffee shop, then the materials used to make your cup are somewhat important – but it’s more important that the coffee itself is ethically sourced. If you go business-to-business offering environmental audits, have the confidence to go fully green by fuelling your car sustainably and carrying recycled business cards. The ethics need to go beyond the surface of your business.
Gimmicks last a day, solidarity lasts a lifetime
Knowing that a business has your back can be surprisingly empowering when you are a marginalised person. It shows that a company hasn’t just thought about how they can get money from your wallet into their accounts, but that they have considered how they can change the way they operate in order to make you feel more comfortable using their services. Even if the decision is a business one, to attract more customers in marginalised groups, serious engagement with the nature of one’s marginalisation does merit some credit given the tokenistic way some companies approach things.
For customers who are autistic, it’s reasonable to be suspicious of posters that say a business is “Autism Aware”. It’s great that the business is aware of autism, but what does this mean in a practical sense? Ideally, a store will host autism-friendly shopping times where the stores are purposely kept quieter and are less inclined towards sensory overload. This is a practical initiative which actually means something, and is worth more than a billion posters and ribbons.
Any awareness of social and ethical issues is good, and should be encouraged. However, to prevent it becoming a simple matter of just “talking the talk”, engaging beyond the surface is an important step. People recognise when you’re making good-faith efforts to engage with the matter you’re showing awareness of, and they also recognise when their status is being used as a gimmick to make a business look virtuous – and cynical efforts to cash in will often be called out.
Involve your employees in decision-making and customer outreach
One person’s perspective on what is ethical will differ from that of another, simply because we are all a product of our experiences. If you’ve lived with a mental health condition and thrived with it, then you can better understand the experience of someone else with that condition, including those who may be at an earlier stage of their journey than you. You can bring that experience to the table – but it stands to reason that while you can offer that, you’ll be able to offer even more if you have more people around that table.
Businesses aren’t exactly like people, but they are made up of people. As such, they have their strengths and their weaknesses, their blind spots and areas of expertise. The more people you involve, the more stories are part of the institutional knowledge that your business can call upon. You can draw on your own knowledge of a situation, that of your co-workers, and even that of the friends and family of your entire workforce. If your business needs to address the concerns of a group of people, there’s a good chance that you’ll have little or no knowledge of their issues – but the more people you can speak to, the greater a chance there is that you’ll be able to tap into someone’s lived experience of those issues.
Ethics in business used to be seen as an obstacle to profit. In the present day, they are often seen as the precise opposite – a necessity to become profitable. In actual fact, businesses need to stop seeing ethics and profit as being interrelated, and recognise that ethics are simply essential regardless. The more we look at things from an ethical perspective, the better we can all understand one another. That benefits everyone in the long run, in ways far more important than a balance sheet can reflect.