This time of year, as I’m brainstorming gift lists and hanging decorations, I always start to think about my buying habits and how they affect the world around me. I am not a perfect consumer. I order things on Amazon, and although I try to recycle, the occasional can ends up in the trash.
Even so, I do my best to abide by a few simple rules that are helping me shrink my footprint. I try to reuse as much as possible. I buy used items when they’re available. I do my best to avoid single use objects, especially plastics. Like many millennials, I would consider myself a conscious consumer, and I care deeply about the impact my purchases leave on the world.
More than any other habit, I believe the most critical contribution a conscious consumer makes is simply to consume less. American materialism saturates almost every aspect of our life and tells us we need more! More! More!
There is an innate tension between being a conscious consumer and someone who works in the marketing industry. Because that’s the first rule of marketing, right? Make people aware they have a problem, or better yet, create a problem for them, and then sell them a product to solve it. We invent problems and then we solve them with products, and then we invent products to solve the problems those products cause. Whew! We spend billions and billions of dollars every year escalating this materialistic, Sisyphian cycle. And marketers play a critical role in it, every step of the way.
The complexity of being a person who believes in consuming less but who works in an industry known for convincing people to buy more weighs on me a little extra this time of year. We are crafting Black Friday sales for our clients, doubling down on ad spend, and selling customers on why our clients have the best products and services to meet their gift-giving needs.
As our agency has matured, we’ve been afforded the privilege to be more picky about the clients we take on, and we’ve created a filtration system to make sure we are promoting services and products we believe in ourselves. Many of our clients are social enterprises, nonprofits, and B Corporations. And while none of them are perfect- who is?- they are striving to reach new standards of ethical business practice.
Here are a few of the ethical questions we ask ourselves when considering onboarding a new client:
Does the company do what they say they do?
This one is simple. Does the product or service the company sells claim to be something it’s not? Whether it’s a matter of quality- a bad product is nearly impossible to sell long-term- or half-hearted follow through on wildly ambitious claims, we look for any evidence the company is not actually providing what it advertises, a major red flag.
Does this company solve a real problem, or a manufactured one?
A great product or service contributes something of real value to the world. Our agency gravitates towards working on projects that address serious social challenges, whether it’s the national divorce rate, clean water and the environment, or even supporting foster care organizations. These are the kinds of clients that fuel the heart of what we do, and they are marketing without the materialism. We work on real, significant challenges, not manufactured ones. We don’t market products or services that play to a customers’ guilt, shame, or insecurity in an effort to convince them they need something they really don’t.
Does this company create net good in their community and in the world?
There are no perfect companies. One company might be great at ethically sourcing their goods, but fail to take into account the environmental impact of their shipping methods. Another might be addressing a serious injustice in their community, but ignore other local concerns in their process. When we’re evaluating a potential customer, we try to consider whether their company has a net positive impact in the world, and whether they’re actively improving in that way, embracing changes to their operations when confronted with failure.
Are there clear indicators this company has strong social values, and that they uphold those values, even when it costs them?
Most companies say they have ethical standards. But maintaining them always comes with a cost, whether it’s their bottom line, growth rate, or choosing the adage of ends justifying the means. When it comes down to it, will they put their money where their mouth is? We look for companies that are up front with their values and leaders who are willing to make sacrifices to maintain them.
Does this company genuinely value its customers, and improve their life in a measurable way?
We see our clients as human beings first. We believe they deserve respect, integrity, and honest communication. And we seek out clients who see their customers the same way. When a company values its customers as human beings, it impacts the way they do business. They focus on improving the lives of their customers, not creating mindless zombies who just buy, buy, buy. Would a customer’s life be measurably improved by using the product or service our client provides? If so, that’s a great starting point.
As marketers, I hope we’ll continue to think deeply about the role we play in people’s worst tendencies- greed, envy, and wastefulness. But I also believe we can redeem our industry and do work that restores and reconnects.
I believe in marketing as a tool to connect good companies with great customers, and that everyone can benefit in the process. I believe marketing doesn’t inherently have to feed our growing materialism, or use people and discard them in pursuit of a bottom line. And as I hold these two ideals, conscious consumerism and a job in the marketing industry, in tension, I hope you’ll join me and seriously consider the ethical implications of the work you do, in marketing or any other sector. I believe we can do good right where we’re planted.