March 1, 2021 - Story

Ethics is not at odds with business

During the interviews for the 15th edition of our yearly trend report, the question arose multiple times whether something like using machine learning to personalise to the extreme is ethically justifiable or not. That’s how we realized we actually don’t agree with the way ‘ethics’ is often looked at. When you call something ‘ethical’, it’s immediately perceived as opposed to business. In our opinion, both can go hand in hand. It’s time to set this straight!
Blog - Ethics - KV

A long-term strategy

At first glance, ethics seems noxious for business. And that's not entirely a lie. At least, in the short term. Let’s give you the outstanding example of bol.com. Last year, they announced that they would ban all articles going under the name of ‘Zwarte Piet’ (literally: Black Pete, one of Saint Nicholas' attendants). Specifically, it meant removing all product images with the figure  painted entirely in black and changing the term ‘Zwarte Piet’ to ‘Piet’ (literally: Pete) in all product descriptions. When you look at the social media storm it caused, you may conclude they definitely lost some customers over this stand ...

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Nevertheless, bol.com remained true to their tagline ‘De winkel van ons allemaal’ (literally: The store of all of us) and stuck to their guns: “‘Zwarte Piet’ emphasizes skin color and/or ethnicity. It’s a sensitive topic and therefore we don’t want to offer articles that could potentially hurt people through stereotyping.” Hats off to bol.com! 

But bol.com isn’t the only one taking a stand. We also see smaller companies that remain true to themselves. Take Everlane as an example: they believe their customers have the right to know how much it costs to make their clothes. Let’s say, you’re interested in this Everlane Cashmere Crew. Well, scroll down and they reveal the true costs behind the product - from materials over labor to transportation - as well as the traditional retail markup (which they obviously don’t charge). They are radically transparent, and people love them for it.

“Why go through such trouble?”, you could wonder. Well, it pays off in the long term. As we already stated in our trend report, successful brands, such as bol.com, aren’t out to please everybody. They dare to take a stand that is authentic to their brand, whether you like it or not. Remember that when you don’t have haters, you can’t have lovers either. So, companies that stay true to themselves are rewarded in brand value and even stock market value over time. 

Persevere and you’ll attract the right customers to your brand. And, in that regard, it’s just business to incorporate ethical values. Talking about an eye opener, right?

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The pitfall

Ethics is not an exact science. What is good? What is evil? We don’t want to philosophize about ethics, but we want to emphasize that ethics is a subjective matter. Sure, there is a ground of universality, but it also depends to a large extent on your culture and context. Let’s put it to the test: is Trump evil? We can see you nod from behind your screen. Yes! But 46.8% of the Americans don’t agree. This is an easy example to make our case, but there are definitely other topics where the line is more blurry.

Let’s say, there is a new fast food-restaurant that says flat out: “We are the most unhealthy fast food-restaurant in the world. You won't find any salad at our place.” What’s your opinion on that? When you think about it, it’s perfectly possible to develop a big brand based on such an evil stand. As long as they remain authentic, it could actually work! In that case, it’s up to you, as a customer, to decide whether it’s ethical or not, whether you go along with it or not.

So, how to tackle ethics? Take a stand that is authentic to your brand and your market share will basically increase over time. Need help building your brand? We are here for you:


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Justine Trio

Justine Trio

Marketing Copywriter

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