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hands holding apps with ethical phrases

(T)apping Into Consumers’ Ethics

Sarah Steimer

hands holding apps with ethical phrases

Ethical consumer apps help shoppers make informed decisions about which brands to support

Marketers have known that consumers use their mobile phones for research when shopping, to compare prices or check availability. Marketers also know that consumers give preference to socially conscious and eco-friendly companies. App-makers have tuned into the the intersection of mobile product research and ethical consumption. These platforms, which are typically crowd-sourced, enable consumers to make in-the-moment decisions on which brands to support and which to spurn.

What are ethical consumption apps and how do they work?

Ethical consumption apps allow consumers to quickly and easily see what brands align with their personal causes. One of the most popular consumption apps is Buycott, which prompts users to join campaigns to support different causes, such as animal rights, green energy or ending child labor. Consumers can scan product barcodes and learn more about how the company aligns with their chosen causes. There are options to view alternative products that better relate to a user’s chosen causes, share information about a product or company across social channels, see what other users are boycotting and communicate your decision to the company.

A 2018 study published in Consumption Markets and Culture explored how these apps motivate their users. Christian Fuentes of Lund University and Niklas Sörum of the University of Gothenburg studied three ethical consumption apps, finding they work in two core ways to enable and reinforce ethical consumption. First, the apps put pressure on consumers by making consumption ethically problematic. Ordinary consumption is considered inherently moral because it’s shaped by values such as caring for others, but the process of ethicalization rearticulates a person’s moral code every day. Put even more simply, the apps place a filter over the daily consumer landscape and show how almost every action can be an ethical dilemma. The apps also problematize everyday life by linking consumption with the consumer’s identity and status.

Second, ethical consumption apps don’t just point out problems, they empower consumers to act ethically. The app provides the research, often through crowdsourcing, which gives consumers the information they need to make ethical decisions. It’s also a platform to share decisions, find alternative solutions and reach out to companies.

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“The apps we studied provide consumers with databases containing sustainability information aimed at assisting them in making their everyday consumption more sustainable,” Fuentes says. “The apps were designed to assist consumers, providing them with the information they need, when they needed it.”

What these apps mean for marketers

Fuentes says that the problems being addressed by ethical consumption apps relate to both the complexity and transparency issues inherent to marketing. The apps address consumer concerns of being misled by company claims.

“[L]ots of companies are still hiding behind obscure, sugar-coated claims, or not saying anything at all,” says Sandra Capponi, head of business development and co-founder of the ethical fashion shopping app Good On You. “Green-washed marketing just won’t cut it in the eyes of the consumer anymore. Besides, it can really hurt a brand when consumers find out that these messages contradict the truth.”

Greenwashing is one of the more notable examples of how marketing can mislead consumers. It refers to the when a company spends more on advertising its eco-friendly business activities than on actually helping the environment. Unfounded claims are also a prevalent practice in food marketing; some food brands use labels such as “natural” that are generally considered meaningless because their usage lacks any governance.
The apps act as sort of a check on marketing claims. Of course, as Fuentes explains, “no information is neutral. In selecting information and framing it in a specific way, these apps are also defining sustainability or ethicality in a specific way and pushing this definition and framing onto consumers.” Marketers can use the apps to determine which causes motivate consumers, but they can’t just claim it, they have to prove it.

“Every time someone buys from a better-rated brand, they’re sending a clear message to the industry to be more transparent and accountable for their impact,” Capponi says. “That has consequences across the entire value chain from sourcing and manufacturing to distribution and—of course—marketing. Unless marketers respond, their brands and their products will be left behind in the eyes of customers.”

Good On You works with more than 60 ethical brands to help them share their stories and promote their products. “Essentially, we offer these brands content marketing services,” she says. The app company recently worked with retailer C&A to launch their sustainable jeans, as well as with Patagonia on a campaign to secure World Heritage protection for Australia’s Tarkine rainforest.

“We also work with multi-brand retailers to help them understand the ethical performance of their portfolio, choose which brands to stock and communicate their ethics,” Capponi says. “Many retailers are starting to use the ‘Rated Good On You’ stamp to promote their most sustainable brands to customers.” It’s an ethical marketing tool that could give companies a lift among ethically conscious shoppers.

Promoting your brand’s ethical choices speaks to another growing trend: buycotting. Rather than boycotting, buycotting involves spending money to support companies that consumers agree with. A report from Weber Shandwick surveyed 2,000 U.S. and British consumers who had taken at least one of nine actions (ranging from sharing a social post about a company or brand to participating in demonstrations) in response to what a company or brand did. The survey found that 83% said that it was more important than ever to support companies they believe “do the right thing” and buy from them, compared with 59% who said that it was more important to participate in a consumer boycott.

Getting on the good side of ethical consumers may require a deeper dive into supply chains, but brands that are conscious of social, economic, environmental and other issues can drive sales by making those stances and practices transparent. The more consumers are aware of those positive efforts, the better the reviews on these crowdsourced apps. Marketers can think of ethical consumer apps as the Cliffs Notes version of their company’s sustainability report, available at customers’ fingertips. Research points to consumers being motivated to support do-gooder brands; ethical actions are opportunities to draw customers willing to vote with their dollars.

Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.