What it takes to run an ethical business

Nature abhors inertia. The world is changing. And in the technologically driven 21st century, it’s changing at an unprecedented and exponential rate. That’s as true in the world of business as it is in any other sphere. The way in which brands interact with their consumers is changing. The way in which customers make purchases is changing. The way in which consumers determine the worth of a brand is changing. And in an era where digitally informed consumers know that they can afford to be as fickle as they want and competitors are always snapping at their heels, it’s incumbent upon brands to approach consumers on their own terms.

And if you think that all your customers want is a good product at a fair price, think again! Today’s consumers are motivated by far more than a bargain price. They’re still motivated by other factors like reliability, prestige and (increasingly infrequently) brand loyalty. Nonetheless, there’s one more criterion that keeps pushing its way to the front of the priority list, especially for younger consumers … ethics.

In an age where the operational practices are under more scrutiny than ever, businesses know that they need to clean up their acts or risk losing previously loyal customers. And consumers are happy to vote for ethics with their wallet. 73% of millennials, for example, will happily pay more for products from more ethical businesses with more sustainable operational practices.  

So, how do you run an ethical business and ensure that you can hold your head up in the age of digital transparency? Let’s start with … 

Strong and accountable leadership

Today’s consumers demand a better standard of capitalism. They’re sick and tired of seeing greedy profiteers hoist by their own petards on the news. In the social media age, online chatter is far more effective in controlling consumer discourse than even the slickest PR machine.  

More ethical working and business practices need to start at the top and trickle down throughout the workforce. This means that you need to embody the change you want to see in your business. 

This means operating with transparency on social media. It means holding yourself not just to your shareholders but to your employees and your customers (more on those later). It means owning your mistakes and explaining to your consumer base and your workforce how you will rectify them. It means sharing the credit for your successes with the people who helped to facilitate them rather than claiming credit for other people’s labours.

When you run your own business, whether you like it or not, you are your brand. And you need to live the ideals upon which your brand was built. In an age where consumers can easily hold brands to account on social media, they won’t be afraid to publicly call you out at the slightest whiff of hypocrisy!

Respect for employees and customers

While your leadership, experience, insight and expertise may be what plots the course for the ship that is your business, its progress is fueled by the patronage of your customers and the efforts of your workforce. This means that every business decision needs to be rooted in respect for your customers and your employees.

This means not treating market research like a one and done and making it an integral part of every business decision you make from your marketing campaigns to product launches. It means constantly striving to bring customers more value from every purchase and ensure that they have a mode of recourse (i.e. a complaints system) when you fall short of the standards that they expect of you. It means celebrating their interest in your brand on social media and taking the time to respond when they engage with you. Not to mention owning those occasions when you get it wrong and striving towards a mutually acceptable resolution which restores the customer’s faith in you.

Running an ethical business also means doing right by your employees no matter what they do for you, how much they make for you (directly or indirectly) or how many hours they work. It means paying them a living wage that’s commensurate with the effort, time and skill they invest in making your business what it is. It’s about making sure they’re properly motivated and incentivised, trained, nurtured and developed. It means seeing value in them beyond their current role and helping them achieve their career goals within your business. It means giving them the flexibility to work around their family commitments. 

Unless you’re prepared to invest time, effort and capital in making your workforce the best that it can be, you can’t really call yourself an ethical employer.

Concern for social purpose and environment 

Finally, cause advocacy is a huge part of keeping your business and your practices ethical. This means doing all that you can to make your business part of the solution. The great news is that there are lots and lots of ways in which you can do this. If you want to tackle social ills, for example, your business could become an active sponsor of a local charity or local events like LGBTQ Pride celebrations. You could demonstrate your commitment to tackling poverty by paying your workforce a living wage rather than minimum wage and allowing each and every employee an opportunity to climb the career ladder. 

And when it comes to championing environmental causes, there is no shortage of ways in which you can make your business greener – from using more sustainable raw materials for your products to exclusively using recyclable packaging. Allowing opportunities for remote working and incentivizing carpooling and cycling to work are also great ways in which you can reduce your business’ carbon footprint. Going paperless in the office, taking steps to reduce landfill waste as an organization and ensuring that your e-waste is disposed of in a responsible and sustainable manner are all quick and easy fixes which can make a huge difference to the planet we all share!