Do no harm: 5 ways brands can harness ethical consumerism through design

By Fanny Monier, User experience manager



The Drum Network article

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October 30, 2020 | 9 min read

Ethical consumerism is a wave that all FMCG and retail brands need to be on in 2020, and riding it makes a lot of business sense. In 2018, Unilever found that their brands with greater sustainability credentials grew 69% faster than those without. This made up 75% of the company's overall growth.


This can be explained by a change in consumer behaviours. A recent IBM study this year found that purpose-driven consumers – those that seek out brands that align with their own set of values – now represent almost half of shoppers. And with 57% of consumers willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative environmental impact, those numbers will continue to grow. Especially as we know from a report by Nielsen that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands.

Clearly, there’s a big incentive for FMCG brands to move away from traditional retail models and rethink e-commerce within a wider framework of social and environmental values: and digital designers have an important role to play in this realignment journey.

As designers, we can challenge brands to get closer to their customers with a shared sense of purpose and authenticity, helping them to engineer their value sets beyond marketing to create enjoyable long term sustainable consumer experiences. Here’s how.

Recognise the push-pull dynamic between consumers and brands

If consumers are the driving force behind the global fast-growing ethical conscience; it’s not a one-way street. Ethical consumerism is a balancing act between consumer and brand that goes beyond digital marketing.

By taking advantage of direct to consumer retail models, smaller brands are leading the charge and changing shopping expectations.

Cult beauty brand Tata Harper is now giving consumers the ability to trace their product origin and delivery journey by scanning a physical barcode online on their “follow your bottle” tracker.

Similarly, ethical clothing brand Organic Basics is revolutionising ecommerce with a low impact website that adapts the type of content and access that users receive based on how much data has been consumed on their site.

At its most innovative, digital design gives momentum for the push-pull relationship between consumer and brand. The FMCG market should consider using tailored technology to reduce waste and build ethical awareness.

Facilitate online transparency

With an overwhelming amount of brands available online and offline, digital design plays a key role in creating brands’ values transparency and signposting customers to empower them to make informed choices in split seconds.

Ferrero, once vilified for their use of palm oil, now a model in brand sustainability, changed consumer perception by taking accountability and building transparency online over their supply chain with the Ferrero Palm Oil Charter, going beyond regulatory requirements with initiatives like publishing a list of where their mills are located globally.

Over in the fashion sector, online retailer Everlane is making waves with its “radical transparency” model. At its centre is a price diagram for each product that breaks down the true cost between materials, hardware, labour, duties, transport, how much Everlane are selling it for, and how this compares to other retailers.

Similarly, Tony’s Chocolonely tells you how many cacao beans are inside each chocolate bar and the impact this has on farmers and local populations.

In fact, brands’ transparency and mission statements are now so vital that some will just make them their identity: think of healthy snacking company This Saves Lives or sustainable toilet paper subscription service Who Gives A Crap. These brands’ ethics are literally written into their brand names and logos, and will appear at every juncture of a customer’s shopping journey.

Target all elements of the shopping experience

FMCG brands and their digital designers need to take into account every element leading to consumption that may be influenced by ethical factors; from tracing packaging methods to sourcing inclusive imagery or using gender-fluid terminology.

For example, ’evil-free’ beauty brand Axiology is the brains behind a range of pioneering zero-waste lipsticks. Not only do they feature a rundown on packaging for each item they sell but they are also changing perception of what a lipstick is by giving consumers a choice between lipsticks with or without tube (the ’balmies’) using clear wayfinding to educate users on how a product and packaging can be one and the same. (60% of consumers say they are less likely to buy a product in harmful packaging).

Beyond the product itself, shopping experiences should promote inclusivity and diversity. Personal care brand Dove, for example, has placed itself at the forefront of the body positivity movement: a stance that is reinforced in all areas of its online presence, from diverse ad imagery featuring a full range of “real” body types to a microsite that’s dedicated to the topic of self-esteem.

Designers may also want to consider how to highlight a brand’s minimal ingredients, its distribution strategies or even its internal policies on employee welfare.

Reach beyond symbolism to generate authentic action

Socially conscious millennials, the biggest drivers of the ethical movement, are alert to the dangers of empty tokenism. Nearly 90% trust recommendations from friends and family more than brand claims, and this healthy note of cynicism is informed by a dual need for authenticity and that all-important personal touch.

Digital design can be surprisingly important here, making the difference to both how a brand positions itself, and also whether that positioning seems genuine or not. Rather than paying lip service to vague “ambitions”, brands need to root their ethical values in action; and that action, in turn, should be clearly mapped or enabled on digital channels.

Ideally this will include a user-generated element. Swimwear line Aerie’s #AerieReal campaign inviting users to share their untouched swim photos was a simple and powerful way of reaffirming their brand commitment to body inclusivity, with Aerie donating money to an eating disorder charity for each photo submitted.

Charge up the power of your social voice

Social signage emerges as a key competitive advantage here, too. Just as consumers want to be affiliated with brands who share their values, so they will be compelled to share visual indicators of these values to their peers on Instagram or Facebook. This is part of the reason why a brand like Who Gives A Crap is growing, despite giving away 50% of it profits. This company has transformed a product that is normally hidden away in cupboards to a symbol of social capital.

When it comes to social media, brand activism also plays well. Outdoor clothing lines North Face and Patagonia recently led a charge to boycott Facebook – one of the industry’s most powerful advertising platforms – over its inability “to stop racist, violent or hateful content” amid the Black Lives Matter movement. Ben & Jerry’s, who joined the boycott, is prepared to go further, using its social channels to provoke political debate about issues it cares about, including LGBTQ+ equality and support for refugees.

The upshot? Consumers are motivated by brands who are unafraid to use their social justice voice. Digital design for FMCGs should engender this voice, and use it to connect with socially aware audiences. If design can show how brand values are genuinely enacted at all levels of the digital journey, then product and mission become one.

Fanny Monier is user experience manager at Appnovation.


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Appnovation is a global full-service digital consultancy. We seamlessly integrate strategy, user experience, development, deployment, training and support, allowing...

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