The ethical paradox: how brands, policymakers and campaigners can help consumers do the ‘right thing’

‘Responsibility’ has shot up the agenda and concern about the environment is now at a 30-year high, according to recent polling.

Making the 'right' choice is a minefield, argue Cordelia Hay (pictured) and Katy Allen
Making the 'right' choice is a minefield, argue Cordelia Hay (pictured) and Katy Allen

But as concern grows about ethics, it’s increasingly complicated to do the ‘right thing’.

We’re told to worry more than ever: about the planet, our health, finances, how we travel, what we buy...

It can be challenging to behave ethically across these different fronts at once, and it’s not necessarily clear-cut what the most responsible choice is.

Action in one area can have unintended consequences elsewhere: does the fightback against single-use plastic, for example, push consumers toward alternatives that are easier to recycle but more harmful to produce?

This is the ethical paradox: acting responsibly in one area can clash with doing so in another, and sometimes the two are diametrically opposed.

Should you eat less meat or support the independent butchers on your local high street?

There is, rightly, pressure to cut down flying, but what impact will this have on countries whose economies depend on tourism?

We’re urged to make healthier food choices, but also to save for the future, so what if the healthiest options are also the most expensive?

Too often, brands, policymakers and campaigners are speaking to consumers about single issues, without sight of this tricky bigger picture.

Initial qualitative research suggests that we risk the public giving up on making responsible choices altogether because they feel overwhelmed and confused. However, it also points to some hypotheses for how to help:

Ask for smaller-scale, incremental changes, rather than the earth

From environmental charity Hubbub asking Britons to cut down on stag and hen dos abroad rather than cutting out air travel altogether, to the rise of ‘flexitarianism’ over more binary choices such as vegetarianism and veganism, to the Co-operative Bank’s pragmatic slogan ‘It’s hard to be good, but it’s good when we try’.

Make ethical behaviour something to aspire to, rather than chastising unethical actions

Positive enforcement has long been recognised as a more effective means of changing behaviour than punishment, and some of the most positive recent shifts in behaviour, such as diminishing meat consumption and the rise of vintage fashion, may have as much to do with the appeal of subscribing to a certain lifestyle as the ethical issues they address.

Offer solutions rather than simply highlighting problems

Ethical issues lend themselves to a sensationalist narrative – not least the environment, as we face a climate crisis. But recent, action-focused articles with headlines from ‘Almonds are out. Dairy is a disaster. So what milk should we drink?’ to ‘Slip, slop, what? Why putting on sunscreen suddenly seems complicated’ show that some are wising up to the appetite for a more holistic, balanced approach and for practical help navigating moral quandaries.

We would implore brands, policymakers and campaigners to consider now how they ask consumers do the right thing in an increasingly complex world.

Cordelia Hay and Katy Allen are associate partner and senior research executive, respectively, at BritainThinks

Thumbnail crecdit: Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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