Ethics: The New Driver of Purchasing Tastes

Veganism—eating a diet that includes no animal products—was once a fringe practice. Today, it’s gaining traction: The global market for vegan food will grow 9% a year through to 2026, according to a 2019 research estimate.

This shift may be driven in part by health concerns, but most people who go vegan say they’re doing so because they’re concerned about the environment and the treatment of animals. Indeed, some vegans opt to give up products that might exploit animals, like honey and wool.

Customer experience is about more than the products and services a company offers and how it serves its buyers. It’s also about a company’s ethics—the ideas it stands for and how it communicates those ideas. Conveying to customers that your organization’s ethics line up with theirs—and being transparent about how those ethics are being put into action—influences purchasing tastes and increases revenues and profits.

Ethical purchasing becomes the norm

Ethics as an integral part of the customer experience isn’t a new trend. British abolitionists protested the transatlantic slave trade by boycotting slave-grown sugar, first in 1791 and again in the 1820s. But now ethical purchasing decisions are rapidly becoming the norm rather than the exception around the world and across industries. A 2019 survey found that most consumers are seeking transparency on brands’ social and environmental impact: 70% said they want to know what the brands they buy from are doing to address these issues, with 46% saying they pay close attention to a brand’s stances when making purchases.

Technology is driving the shift to transparency, which provides consumers with ever more information about the problems the world faces and the impacts of their individual choices. The more consumers know about companies and their supply chains, sourcing, and manufacturing processes, the more easily they can apply their ethical standards. And in doing so, they’re not only expressing their own ethics, they’re also encouraging others to adopt them.

How to put moral design to work

Ethical concern around purchases is giving birth to “moral design,” a new approach to business in which companies consider and adjust the outcomes of their work both to do good and to minimize harm. Moral design embeds ethical considerations into business decisions that were once based only on price or aesthetics. Plastic bags, for example, are convenient and inexpensive, but as the second-worst kind of plastic in the sea, they’re also death to the sea turtles who mistake them for food.

Even fashion, which is inherently driven by trends and aesthetics, is seeing an opportunity with moral design. Adidas, for example, has partnered with Parley, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to protecting the oceans, to create a line of shoes and sportswear made from recycled plastic waste recovered from beaches. From its humble beginnings in 2015, when the partnership produced just 7,000 pairs of recycled shoes, it sold 11 million in 2019. Indeed, the partnership has become a testing ground for the company’s plans to eliminate all virgin plastic from its supply chain.

Increasingly, customers want companies to weave ethics into not just what a product is but how it’s made, distributed, and used throughout its life cycle. While this may seem like a challenge, it’s also an opportunity for companies planning a customer experience that fulfills the deep human desire for meaning. A company that can honestly claim that its moral compass guides its products, services, and processes is a company that’s proving it understands the importance of ethics—not as a marketing tactic but as an effective strategy.

To do this means aligning a business with moral purchase choices. For example, a firm can understand its target customers’ moral values and then integrate them into product designs, like reducing packaging materials. It can take this a step further by publicizing its commitment to sustainability with data on actions taken or on the sourcing of materials. Then the firm can develop programs that encourage partnerships with passionate customers and employees around a shared mission.

Committing to understanding how customers view these issues and then taking action—with customers engaged in the effort—builds stronger ties and a more ethical world.