A question of conduct
As in life, market players are measured by their conduct and achievements. But what actually matters when individuals turn into consumers – the product or the path? What relevant aspects do ethics consist of, and how do market players react upon the subject? What do the tendencies point at, and how does this affect the ethics of tomorrow? These are some of the questions that arise when focusing on ethical interaction between retailer and customer and in the following these will be complied with possible answers.
As retailers we will experience how society is keeping an eye on various ethical issues. And in accordance with this, a number of retailers today consider strong morality as a natural part of business conduct, as they do in life. Common honesty and the belief that a sincere conduct is the way to a long and prosperous relation between customer and distributor, motivate market players to act accordingly. Not only can the right behaviour oblige the expectations of the customer but in some cases even add additional value to the store profile, and for those retailers working upon strict ethical principles, ethics serves as a tool rather than an obstacle.
The dimensions of ethics
Everything from a product’s environmental impact to the working conditions abroad seems to be playing a big part in people’s consciousness. We have witnessed how child labour has damaged the “Nike” brand, and how “Jysk”, after a critical documentary revealing bad environmental conditions at a supplying factory, were forced to replace collaborators. These incidents have resulted in consumer boycotts, dropping sales and furthermore caused many other retailers to improve their code of conduct to avoid the unwanted attention. A balance between competitive costs and a decent working environment has been the objective and in some cases interfered with both strategic and financial objectives.
But ethics within retailing is much more than just issues connected to the product. Avoiding misleading marketing, sincere guidance, and a general transparency in the business conduct are important factors as well. Especially when dealing with consumers in vulnerable positions, the importance of ethics becomes even greater.
An example is the young and inexperienced Tweens . These consumers can have difficulties assessing whether a purchase is consistent with their needs and values. Now “released” to consumption, they find themselves in high spirits but alone on unknown ground. Until now consuming with the parents has let them to believe, that the only thing standing in the way of positive purchase redemption is their parents’ solemn interference. And as consuming apparently only is a matter of joyful options, critical awareness and scepticism towards the market and its signals aren’t present. This now leaves them as susceptible targets for deception and manipulation, and the dimension of the sale often depends on the sales person and not the buyer. Good conduct now becomes a question of pure moral, but as a proper, unobtrusive behaviour is inconsistent with most sales procedures, and as even a small change in this conduct could result in great financial dissimilarities, total attention on this matter is hard to find. And the opinion of the ethical consumer is ignored.
Ethical behaviour in consumption
But not always the mass opinion and individual behaviour go hand in hand, and when critical spectators transform into consumers something appears to happen. Only a relatively small part of the critical mass actually translates their words into actions. Instead their true priorities are manifested in a somehow shallow consumption, where superficial acceptance and appearance have a higher value than candour and ethics. Lowest price, best quality, and highest brand value seem to be the main objectives in frequent consumer behaviour. As long as the store ethics remain somewhat within common moral principles and doesn’t consciously act against customer interests, everything beyond the perceptible reach is often forgotten.
Executing a “qualitative behaviour” often is a costly affair, and some retailers also hold back in changing their conduct. In accordance with the principles of supply and demand they ague that ethics never will be fundamental in the principles of marketing before it is consistent with the conduct of the consumer. In stead they look at the issue on a short-term basis, orientating their conduct against profit. They see a market dominated by competition and within certain boundaries they find no holds barred. For these market players, responsibility lies with the consumer alone, and mistake purchases are purely part of going about the market. This side is well aware of how their involvement has an effect on customers, employees and environment, and even though some only exercise this to a minimum, many market players will continue to capitalize on insecurity and unawareness.
But despite individual disagreements between thought, word, and deed, history has indicated a clear tendency over the past three decades. 1971 was the year, when Greenpeace, as a grass-roots movement, came into existence . Today they are supported by 3 million people world wide. In 1995 “The Political Consumer” saw the light of day when consumers boycotted French wine growers and American Shell petrol stations . Only three years later the green consumer was “born” with John Elkington’s bestseller ”The Green Consumer Guide” , and today we are witnessing how media is attracting everyone’s attention, when accusing known businesses of foul conduct. A bad press that really questions the saying “any publicity is good publicity”.
And understandably the market has responded. Just in the United States the amount of companies conducting business upon social principles has increased 58 times since 1984 . And not just market players react. A recent study of the top 50 graduate business schools in the world (conducted by the Ethics Resource Center in Washington) shows a fivefold increase in the number of ethics courses over the past two decades. An issue of such importance, that over half of the survey participators have made ethics study a graduation requirement.
The influence to come
But not only will the obvious tendencies substantiate the need for ethical awareness. We are witnessing how the industrial focus of the past is changing into tomorrows Dream Society . Materialism is transforming into, what the futurologist Rolf Jensen refers to as, “Postmaterialism” , and along with this change of outlook follows a consumer conduct much more effected by emotions and drawn by authenticity. These new consumers will purchase and evaluate by heart, and an overall ethical conduct will not only be preferable but a necessity.
The ethical aspects of retailing are numerous and consist of everything from production to promotion. Many retailers look upon the subject with open-mindedness, and some even use ethics as a part of their strategy. But not everyone is leading an ethical conduct. Some market players excuse their ways with the principles of supply and demand and leave it up to the consumer to set the standard. An invitation only few accept. Many individuals silently and maybe unintentionally ignore ethics when consuming. In their ingenuousness they only asses what they see, turning a blind eye to any other conditions and simply letting aesthetic values figure as the determining factor on the scale.
But in spite of this, the overall tendency seems to be clear. Ethics as a market factor is here to stay, and most likely to a greater extent than today. As consumer behaviour increasingly will be a question of emotional decisions, ethical conduct will hardly just be a matter of choice as it will be a matter of existence in time to come. So even though leading a moral path maybe prevent easy earnings, it seems as if ethics will create the foundation of a continuous and profitable success in the long run.