Why new brands need to be less ethical

You may have heard Voltaire’s phrase “the perfect is enemy of the good” – often used in a business context to essentially mean “just get it done”.

Admirable though this interpretation is, for the purposes of this piece I’m interested in employing the phrase in a different context. Rather than “good” meaning high quality, here let’s interpret it as “virtuous”, or “moral”.

In this case then, it is perfect morality that stands in the way of good morality.

This is particularly relevant in today’s market, as an increasing number of businesses – indeed arguably the majority, at least of new ones – are equally preoccupied with being noble as well as being effective. Normally this nobility is measured either in terms of the health credentials of the product, or its environmental friendliness – the new arms races, particularly for food, drink, and fashion.

How is it then that high ideals in these spaces actually damage these causes, rather than moving them forwards? Why does being too environmentally friendly as a business actually damage the environment? Why does being too healthy make people unhealthier?

Well, it’s like the excuse that such ethical businesses give when they’re inevitably bought by a big corporate: to make real change you have to change the mainstream.

Now, sure, this is a pretty convenient argument to make if you’re a founder with $100million in your pocket and an army of angry consumers berating you for “selling out”, but it’s not without merit. As the Seth Goldman, the founder of Honest T explained upon selling his business to Coca-Cola, it’s easier to change Coke from the inside than by standing outside their HQ yelling and brandishing placards. Making a small change to a million consumers is more impactful than making a big change to 100.

When it comes to promoting ethical change with your product, the same principle applies. What will sell in large volumes is almost invariably less “pure” a product than what you could conceivably make. Just pay a visit to Planet Organic. Their shelves are stuffed with healthier products, using less plastic, than anything you’ll find in Tesco. But you know what? Nobody buys them. Relatively speaking anyway.

If you make your product too perfect, too “good”, you will make something that, for whatever reason (usually price), is going to be unable to make an impact on the market as a whole. Sure, you’ll be able to sleep at night. But you won’t have made any difference. The people making the difference are not those making products miles better than the mainstream, but a little bit better. Just better enough so as that consumers can make the switch without pain or sacrifice – ideally without even realising they’ve done it at all.

Those are the products that drive change.

The secret for brands who want to make an ethical change to their markets is to employ a “once click” policy. How can we always stay just “one click” more ethical than the mainstream? If you can stay multiple clicks ahead without sacrificing accessibility, functionality, or usability, then great, but that’s not often going to be possible. Instead the priority should be moving the centre-ground of your market just a little bit, so that in the future it can be moved some more.

One brand that has been extremely successful in this regard is Ecover. The “ethical” cleaning products brand has come under constant attack from campaigners due to the fact that, in reality, its products are far from harmless. This is a fact openly admitted by its CEO Mick Bremans, who told The Independent: “Our products harm the environment. They are not environmentally friendly. We never say they are environmentally friendly.”

The truth is his products are something better than being truly environmentally friendly: they’re relatively environmentally friendly, they’re affordable, and they work. That means they sell, they grow, and they get the Persils and Fairys of this world to panic about some of their most acute ethical issues.

Many are the brands whose high ideals have held themselves back from this kind of impact, with the net result of doing nothing but propping up the status quo, and defining ethical as a “luxury” attribute.

So if you really want to make change happen, take a moment to ask if there’s a way you can make what you do strategically less ethical. The planet – by and by – may thank you for it.

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