In a previous post about green businesses, I mentioned a survey that found that the majority of top executives in Fortune 500 companies consider sustainability to be vital and sometimes crucial to their businesses. Moreover, they now consider it to be an investment rather than a liability. This means they view social responsibly as something that, within a certain period of time, will generate profits that will exceed the initial investment. However, the money that is being spent by businesses on trying to be greener and socially conscious is usually an expense that is not expected to return itself. That means the return on the investment has to come from another source. You guessed it right: the consumer.
More and more businesses today, small and large, are trying to cater to the ethical consumer. I will dedicate this post to better understand what ethical consumers care about, so you, as a small-business owner, can make the adjustments needed to jump on board the ethical consumerism bandwagon.
Ethical consumerism is a trend that started in the 1990s after bad practices in global supply chains of many firms were discovered and widely spread through the media and the Internet. Ethical consumerism is much more widespread by far in Western economies than in emerging markets. Though it has taken a little hit during the recession, it is clear that ethical consumerism is not something that is going to fade away. If anything, the past recession has sparked in many the desire to go “back to basics” and “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
Social issues that are of interest to the ethical consumer vary and are mostly individually chosen by individual consumers based on their beliefs and values. These are also influenced by the “zeitgeist”; in some years fair trade was the “hottest” issue in ethical consumerism, in others it was the environment, and so on.
However, there are some issues that are generally more popular than others. First, the environment. Ethical consumers prefer products that have less negative impact on the environment. They will prefer greener companies that make efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. Some of those efforts are: saving energy during production, using recycled packages, implementing renewable energy sources, and manufacturing energy-efficient products.
Second, social issues. Ethical consumers are concerned about poor working conditions in developing countries, where a lot of Western companies manufacture their products. Consumers demand that the products they purchase be manufactured and bought fairly from the suppliers in developing countries. This includes paying the suppliers fair prices and demanding that they give their employees basic rights and benefits. A prime example for this in recent years is the uproar among consumers after five employees of Apple’s chip manufacturer in China jumped to their death from the plant’s roof. That led to Apple being the first technology company that joined the Fair Trade Association.
Another way to be socially active is donating and volunteering to notable charities and causes.
Small businesses don’t always have the big budgets needed to invest in sustainability, and they are often forced to choose the cheaper option. However, taking small baby steps into the world of social responsibility is something every business should do. We should look at it as a marketing tool that is becoming significantly more relevant.