Gone are the days when businesses just did business. Now, it’s almost expected that business values and ethics will play a significant and enduring role in a company’s identity.
From the products they sell to the way they treat their employees, businesses are finding that they no longer can separate what they do from what they believe — and customers want to know what the businesses they deal with stand for. Corporate social responsibility, or CSR — the merging of ethics with business — is not simply a buzzword. It’s increasingly becoming a best practice.
“Aligning a business with its social and ethical values has demonstrated positive impact,” said Lauren J. Litton, founder of I.S.P. Consulting.
“For example, it can improve employee retention, boost the company’s reputation, attract both investors and consumers, and further critical environmental and social justice efforts,” she told the E-Commerce Times.
A number of e-commerce businesses founded in recent years seek to merge their beliefs in everything from sustainability to social justice with the work of making, marketing, selling and distributing products.
“We want to help people make better choices about their clothing and home textiles, delivering better quality, organic, sustainable products — fairly made and fairly priced,” said Lisa Ingram, cofounder of one such business, LittleLeaf Organic.
“By doing this, we can build a better supply chain that is more ethical, more environmentally conscious, and more rewarding for everybody who participates in that supply chain,” she told the E-Commerce Times.
As a result of having a clear mission aligned with their ethical values, businesses can develop strong relationships with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.
“It gives you a clearer view of your direction and purpose,” said Ingram. “We have much more in-depth and interesting discussions with customers, which helps to make the business of selling far more rewarding. This also enables us to build deeper and longer-lasting relationships with our customers as there’s so much added value in a brand such as ours.”
The extended ethical network also can benefit from a clear sense of purpose and mission.
“One of the greatest pleasures for us is how this improves the quality of our relationships with our suppliers too,” said Ingram. “For example, we recently visited the factory in India where we make the majority of our products, and our shared interests meant the whole experience was like visiting old friends. All of this leads to a much greater sense of community, which is itself a more rewarding experience personally.”
Having a commitment to social justice issues ideally can raise awareness of those issues among any people who interact with a company. Packed with Purpose, for instance, seeks to raise awareness of social issues by combining its mission with the products it sells.
“We’re transforming the art of gifting by incorporating impact and personal stories into the gift-giving process,” noted Packed with Purpose CEO Leeatt Rothschild.
“We curate high-quality business and personal gifts that create an impact by sourcing products from purpose-driven organizations,” she told the E-Commerce Times. “The result is a unique gift experience that leaves a memorable impression while doing good.”
The company’s social mission finds expression in the products it sells — and the people who make those products.
“Our chocolate-covered pretzels are made by adults with disabilities who are part of a vocational and residential program,” said Rothschild. “Our hand-blown wine stoppers are crafted by teens impacted by gun violence through an art-based trauma recovery program. Our artisanal granola is produced by female survivors of abuse in Washington, D.C., who are on a path to financial and personal independence. Every gift changes lives in communities around us.”
The Power of Authenticity
It’s important for businesses seeking to align their ethics with their commerce to do so with sincerity and not just as a marketing strategy.
“Any effort a corporation takes must be authentic,” said Litton. “While e-commerce companies have seen a competitive advantage from being socially responsible, it is not simple. People are savvy and will see through an approach that is designed to attract consumers, or build or restore a reputation. This can backfire with a business receiving negative attention through social media and ratings.”
Adopting ethical stances simply for business gain can damage the entire community of ethics-oriented businesses and the customers who support them.
“Companies who seek to exploit public interest in ethical and sustainable issues for short-term gain do damage to this public discussion,” said LittleLeaf Organic’s Ingram. “They are directly devaluing those characteristics that we are trying to promote and making it harder to build trust.”
It’s also vital for ethics-oriented businesses to make sure that everyone in their ecosystem supports — or at least does not contradict — their mission.
“It is crucial for companies to ensure that their suppliers’ values align with their own mission,” said Rothschild.
“An important component of our work is making sure we do our thorough research when selecting and vetting our Purposeful Purveyors. We focus on five impact areas: women’s empowerment, the environment, youth development, workforce development, and health and wellness,” she explained. “Beyond ensuring that our purveyors fall into one of these categories, we also require that they meet high standards for product quality, packaging and delivery.”
Businesses also need to recognize that being ethical will require a commitment of resources to sustain their goals over time.
“For a business to become more socially and ethically responsible is definitely an investment,” said Litton. “This is not an easy nor static task. While businesses can take small steps to move toward more social responsibility, there is ongoing monitoring of adherence and impact.”
Dedication to the cause ultimately is a key component of successful ethical commerce.
“Be committed. It must be incredibly tiresome trying to use ethical practice as a short-term marketing ploy — and in the long-term, it won’t work anyway,” said Ingram.
“Also, carry your principles through every part of your business,” she advised. “So for example, we have gone to great lengths and additional costs to ensure that our packaging is as recyclable or compostable as we can make it. Being authentic not only leads to those stronger, long-term relationships with your customers and suppliers, it’s also so much more rewarding in the end.”