The power of ethical branding : 10 key principles to help you recognize a true ethical brand

The way we shop can change the world. When we buy a product, we are voting for the kind of world we want to live in – a better one or not.

65-70% of consumers around 35 years old worldwide choose brands or retailers based on their ethical practices[1]. It represents 77 million ethical and environmental-friendly consumers in Europe [2]. Ethics in business shapes our shopping habits.

Conscious shopping can be difficult. Today, brands easily claim their products as “sustainable”, “conscious”, “bio”, “ethical”, “natural”… many key words which are not always aligned with the core strategy and inner workings of the brand. In fast-fashion, H&M launched various sustainable collections these past few years – H&M Conscious, Close the Loop, Climate Positive 2040… Even if H&M makes many improvements with the development of great sustainable initiatives, claiming their sustainability is a little bit over-the-top. As example, their “bio” cotton is neither labelled GOTS nor OCS and their T-shirt “there is no planet b” is made from non-natural materials. Again, claims without any facts behind.

How to know whether a product is ethical or if it is just a matter of marketing? In this article, we will give you some keys to spot what is true from what is not in order to differentiate “goodvertising” (also called ethical branding) and “greenwashing”.

To approach the matter, let’s first define what is ethical branding.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ethical is:

  1. relating to moral principles of the branch of knowledge dealing with these
  2. morally good or correct
  3. avoiding activities or organizations that do harm to people of the environment

 In other words, Fan (2005) states that “An ethical brand should not harm public good; instead it should contribute to or help promote public good[1]. Essentially, ethical brands should have the word “ethics” in their DNA as the driving force to lead their entire strategy, including marketing.

When it comes to marketing, we all know that the final goal is to sell a product/service to the consumers that they don’t really need, but wish to possess or experience. Based on that statement, is it possible to talk about ethics in branding, a branch of marketing? Yes, it is and brands should adopt it if they want to survive. To better understand, let’s go back in time.

Mainly after the World War II and with the rise of pop art, brands used to play a powerful role in the society. They were prevalent in every aspect of the human life. Brands were not only about selling a product/service but became a way to promote lifestyles and creating a culture.

Nowadays, with the rise of environmental and societal issues (movements like Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, Greta Thunberg …), the upcoming generation Z asks brands to be accountable to what happens in the world and to take position. Brands are expected to contribute to public good as well as being environmentally friendly and socially inclusive. A brand is seen now as a moral person with strengths and weaknesses. They should be actors of change to improve the society of today and tomorrow. As a result of the changing expectations and consumption habits, brands have to adopt ethics in their strategy and consequently, ethical branding.

Unfortunately, with this new branding trend comes the rise of greenwashing. Too many brands communicate on their environmental and social aspects to adopt a positive image while their actions and engagements behind are not really following. As an example, some fashion brands claim the “made in Europe” whilst at the end it is only a small part of the production who is made there. In fact, for a product to be labeled “made in France”, 45% of its added value must have been fabricated in France[1] – implying that raw materials and first stages of the production can come from other countries.

In this subtle context, identifying ethical brands can be tricky. Generally speaking, brands with real ethics don’t lie to the consumer, that’s the key!

Here are 10 key principles to help you recognize an ethical (fashion) brand;

  1. Image;

An ethical brand gives an image of ecology, consciousness, diversity, inclusion, well-being, respect, honesty, authenticity & self-esteem. The adoption of these values is fundamental for a brand claiming itself ethics. However, these are often claims without any concrete engagements behind.

  1. Slogan;

The message of an ethical brand should not be focus on overconsumption and low price, opposite principles to ethics. The brand should express what the brand stands for and the values it promotes.

  1. Price;

Low price usually involves the reduction of production costs and as a consequence, poor working conditions as well as low cost materials damaging the environment. However, a high price does not guarantee either that a product is ethical but transparency of the costs does!

  1. Manufacturing location;

On most of the fast-fashion labels, you can read “made in Bangladesh”, “Cambodia”, “China”, “Vietnam”… On a general truth, we suspect poor working conditions in these countries. However, this is an assumption and clothes with “made in China” labelled can also be produced in real good conditions. The easiest way to avoid poor working conditions is to favor local production.

  1. Material;

A garment can be labelled as composed with “eco-responsible materials”. This label does not really inform on which material it is made of. Before buying, it is important to check if the materials are naturals (linen, biologic cotton, hemp…), are coming from animals or are recycled. In addition to the product itself, the packaging should also be made from natural and/or recycled materials.

  1. Label;

There are plenty of labels when it comes to ethics, officials or not. Here are some reliable ones:

Be aware that these labels are costly and therefore, small ethical brands do not have the financial resources to pay for these.

  1. Number of collections;

In fast-fashion, new articles are produced each week[1], promoting overconsumption. Handmade and limited editions are usually symbols of ethics. Currently, even some high-fashion brands refuse to continue to follow the fashion calendar. These brands adopt their own seasonality with more timeless and sustainable collections.

  1. Authenticity & transparency;

Authentic and transparent communication are keys to ethical branding. All of the above elements must be easy to find on the communication assets of a brand – in a website or a report. The way they are communicated must also be understandable by everyone thanks to the use of simple language.

  1. Facts;

The brand’s promise needs to be aligned with what the company is delivering. Consumers need facts. According to a study, 55% of French think that proofs are the best way to convince. Claims without any actions have no sense.

  1. Engagements;

The brand’s business should have a positive impact on the society and the environment by for example, giving back to communities, supporting NGOs, investing in local culture, ensuring the second life of the product….

To help you further evaluate if a brand is ethical or not, there are some great apps that can be useful: Good on you – to check if a brand is eco-responsible (Britain) and Clear fashion – a Yuka to fashion (France).

To conclude, a brand is neither good or bad. It is impossible for a brand to be 100% ethical but there are solutions and alternatives that are less harmful to the society and the environment. For example, a brand can promote good working conditions whilst not being vegan. That is why we need to reflect globally when we choose an item. We should think on which criteria is motivating our choices. As each product we consume will anyway have an impact, let’s try to minimize it.

In the end, the power is not in the hands of brands but of consumers!