In an age when Americans' confidence in institutions and big business is waning, the word "ethical" has become a way to do business and an effective marketing tool. According to the consumer research firm Mintel, 6 out of 10 Americans say ethical issues are important in their purchases, and nearly that number say that buying ethically produced products make them feel good.
Millennials, in particular, want their food to be produced ethically, a new report from the Culinary Visions Panel says.
As the number of ethical products on the market has grown, however, so has skepticism about the label. Nearly half of Americans believe that companies use the word ethical to manipulate consumers, according to Mintel. The same percentage say companies can behave ethically in one area and not in another.
Using ethical as a label can also get companies in trouble, as Salt Lake City-based manufacturer KÜHL recently learned. The company once described its down-filled clothing as "ethically sourced" but stopped using that language after it was criticized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which says "the only true humane label is vegan." (KÜHL said the change wasn't because of the complaint, but just a seasonal marketing change.)
As it stands, "ethical" can mean humane, fair-trade, organic, local or whatever a business wants it to mean. The ethical marketplace suffers from the lack of a universal standard or emblem, as well as marketing that borders on ridiculous: ethical Easter eggs on one hand, and ethical whiskey-and-cigar parties on another. Moreover, there is no official definition of what constitutes an ethical product, which creates an opportunity for any business, such as the pornography industry, to adopt the label for its purposes.
"It's like (saying) ethical sweatshops," said Gail Dines, professor emerita of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston and the founder of an anti-pornography group called Culture Reframed.
The German doctor and philosopher Albert Schweitzer, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, defined ethics as reverence for life. "A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, and that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help," Schweitzer wrote.
This was decades before ethical pillows became a thing, but Schweitzer's philosophy reflects the core of ethical products.
Generally, products and services are considered ethical if they are demonstrably not harmful to the planet, to animals or to humans. These could include produce farmed organically, products made from recycled goods and by workers paid a fair wage, and meat from animals raised and slaughteredhumanely. (Although some people consider "humane slaughter" a oxymoron.)
The ethical marketplace took off because of two cultural shifts that occurred early in this century: the growing concern about climate change and the Great Recession. Between 2005 and 2008, the news of corporate excesses and crimes led to consumer anger at companies that believed "as long as they made money, the end justified the means," said Abe Bakhsheshy, professor of ethics and organizational behavior at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.
"From 2008 on, everyone started labeling their companies as socially responsible and morally ethical," Bakhsheshy said. "Frankly, it's not that they were all so altruistic … but because if they're seen in a negative light, people aren't going to buy from them."
But companies that established ethical standards and stuck to them benefited in profit and consumer loyalty.
"If the price is the same, (consumers) have a tendency to buy from those companies that are socially responsible and ethically oriented," said Bakhsheshy, who is also director of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes ethical conduct in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Tara Milburn, a mom of three and founder of a business called Ethical Swag, said the globalization of the marketplace has made it more difficult for consumers to know the origin of what they purchase even at a time when the origin matters more than it ever has.
"Our mission is to work with partners who put people and planet first, paying fair wages and taking care of the footprint left behind," Milburn said.
Ethical Swag, which is based in Canada but recently expanded into the United States, provides merchandise for businesses that embrace ethical standards for themselves and want their clothing, tote bags and other branded items to reflect their philosophy. But those standards are not uniform.
For some people, a product has to be local to be ethical, to reduce its carbon footprint, the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere through fuel consumption.
Ethical Swag products might be manufactured in Honduras, China, Africa or the United States, however.
And "it may or may not have recycled content or be recyclable. There are levels of sustainability based on the budget and objectives of our client," Milburn said. "We have clients that require recycled products, or (those) union-made in the U.S., while others just want assurances that the supply chain is secure," she said.
"But every supplier has been reviewed for product safety, supply chain security, social compliance, environmental impact and product quality."
Giana Eckhardt, a marketing professor at the University of London School of Management and director of the Centre for Research into Sustainability, says there is a disconnect between what consumers want and what they actually do. Price and design still influence consumer choices more than ethical concerns, Eckhardt, co-author of 2010 book "The Myth of the Ethical Consumer," said in an email.
"This is why you see patterns such as wide public outrage after incidents such as the fire that took place in the clothing factories in Bangladesh where many workers were killed, but yet H&M, the Gap, etc. — companies that were manufacturing there — did not see a decrease in demand during and after that incident."
"In my view, the impetus for consumers to behave a particular way in the marketplace needs to come from elsewhere. What I mean is, now plastic straws are starting to be banned in many restaurants. Most consumers are happy about this. It takes the choice away from the individual," she said.
A 2017 study on corporate social responsibility seems to back up Eckhardt's assertions.
In the report issued by Boston-based Cone Communications, 90 percent of respondents said it was important to them that businesses operate "in a way that protects or benefits society and the environment." But only 55 percent said they had bought products with social/economic benefits in the past 12 months, and only half said they had refused to buy a product because a company had behaved irresponsibly.
Samuel Binkley, a sociology professor at Emerson College in Boston, once wroteof the "heroic consumer" whose choices influence society for the good.
The idea goes back as far as 1972 when Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand famously wrote, "The consumer has more power for good or ill than the voter. All of us ecologically concerned citizens have frets of creeping hypocrisy when we enter the supermarket all unknowing or half-knowing about the effect of our purchases and refusals to purchase."
It took a couple more decades, however, for ethical branding to enter the world of pornography.
The concept of ethical porn dates to at least 2013 when a website called the Ethical Porn Coalition emerged; that website has been largely abandoned, but another website, ethical.porn, has emerged as a standard-bearer of sorts. It defines ethical porn as "adult content that is consensual and transparent, is created in an environment that emphasizes safety and respect, and does not contribute to wider social inequalities via troublesome post-production marketing."
Proponents say the ethical-porn movement is helping people who work in the industry by improving wages and working conditions and giving performers more control over how their work is presented. Another component of the movement is urging consumers to pay for pornography, arguing that the proliferation of free porn online lowers working standards and income for performers.
Dines, however, of Culture Reframed, bristles at the idea of anything related to pornography being presented as ethical.
"Anything that exploits and commodifies and monetizes women's bodies is not ethical," she said.
Are religious people more inclined to buy ethical goods and services than secular consumers? Some research says so. But they are often thwarted by duplicitous or confusing branding in a marketplace that lacks a one-size-fits-all definition of an ethical product.
The halal symbol of Islam, which one survey found to be the most recognizable ethical symbol, indicates that the animal was killed swiftly and blessed just before slaughter. But the halal emblem does not signify that the animal was raised humanely; that designation is tayyib.
And animal-welfare proponents consider halal inhumane because the animal must be alive when it is killed, so the creature can't be stunned in advance.
For some people, the simplest way to eat ethically is to buy meat and produce from a local farm or co-op that is open about its practices.
The Fair Trade Certified seal is said to guarantee that employees work in safe conditions and are sufficiently paid, and that the company takes steps to protect the environment. Fair Trade Certified businesses also pay a portion of proceeds into a community development fund.
And a nonprofit called B Lab is gaining traction with its "B certification" that requires businesses comply with its "declaration of interdependence." The statement says, in part, that "all business ought to be conducted as if people and place matter" and that businesses "should aspire to do no harm and benefit all."
The movement embodies the concept of the "triple bottom line" — first articulated by British businessman John Elkington in 1994. He argued that ethical companies should not just pursue the conventional bottom line — profit — but also evaluate its success in how socially and environmentally responsible it is.
P3 Utah calls B certification "the most comprehensive assessment of triple bottom line business that we have found to date. This is the globally elite level of third-party verifiable social and environmental sustainability for corporations."
Bakhsheshy, of the Eccles School of Business, said that labels and marketing don't absolve consumers of the obligation of doing their own research if they want to ensure that they are supporting ethical businesses — and of supporting those businesses even if it means they pay a little bit more.
Bakhsheshy, for example, makes it a point to shop at Costco over its competitors because of its history of treating its employees well and its comparably low markup on products. Likewise, Bakhsheshy said, when buying a car, he shops at a Utah dealer that has been named one of Utah's most ethical businesses on a list that the Eccles Business School puts out each year.
First, people should research what's been written about companies and what consumers say about them, he said. Then, after checking to see how they take care of their consumers, check to see how they take care of their employees.
"Despite what people say, research shows that by and large, most companies are ethical and by and large, they want to do the right thing. That's the good news," Bakhsheshy said. "The bad news is, unfortunately, like every culture, every nation, there are some bad apples that make the rest of corporate America look bad."
But when shareholders and consumers hold company leaders accountable, companies are more prone "to doing what is fair, just and right, and being open and transparent."
He said that the movement toward ethics isn't a fad, but a fundamental change in how Americans do business.
"We are smarter consumers than we were before," Bakhsheshy said. "People are just too smart to be fooled any longer."