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The New Quakers

Why ‘new morality’ branding is not as simple as it seems

They seem to have come from nowhere, the ‘new morality’ brands that reach into our pockets by way of our hearts. These brands don’t so much muscle in on markets as sort of ask politely, suggesting it’s for the good of all. For the big established brands threatened with a sudden attack on share from an unexpected quarter, it’s a numbing and confusing shock. Like being mugged by a bishop.

In absolute terms the market claimed by new morality brands is not huge. The latest estimate, from the Co-operative Bank’s 2004 ethical consumerism report, puts it at £8.75 billion, or about 4% of the UK consumer cake. What catches the eye is their indecent rate of growth. Innocent, founded in 1999 by three friends intent on ‘doing a bit of good’, is already an £18m brand with 50% of the UK smoothies and yoghurt drinks market. Green & Black’s, for years a worthy niche player in the luxury chocolate sector, saw sales leap to £13.5 million in 2003-04: up 63%, compared with 2.1% for the confectionary market as a whole. And Google’s pre-IPO mantra, that business should ‘do no evil’, did it no harm in its first year as a quoted stock, during which its share price tripled.

Some longer-established players have seen a resurgence, too. Look at the shoe brand, Camper. Its belief in slowness, its respect for the good earth beneath our feet, and its use of traditional materials like natural rubber, canvas and rope, has strengthened its appeal among the urban chic crowd. Annual sales have risen to $130 million through 80 stores worldwide. And The Co-operative Bank itself saw consumer deposits surge from £1 billion to £6 billion in the decade following its commitment to ethical banking.

It’s all so very 21st century. Create an attractive product, take care to source fairly, treat the environment with respect, and leaven your eco-humanist values with wit, and you can look forward to spectacular growth as a new morality brand. Or so it might seem.

In fact, ethical marketing is neither that recent nor that simple. Its antecedents reach back at least two centuries to the unique commercial morality of the Quakers, the essence of which was that business prosperity was both achieved and justified by being good at something that is good for people. In an era when it was common for retailers to add water to butter, and chalk to flour, as well as to cheat at scales, the resolute honesty of the Quakers attracted a large and loyal following. Some of the brands they founded still prosper today, including Cadbury, Clark’s Shoes, Price Waterhouse, Barclay’s and Lloyds (but not the once-famous brand of oats, which was a phoney).

To reflect on Quaker business ethics is to shed light on why it’s not a simple matter to create new morality brands today, and why mainstream players might find it hard to emulate their success. It comes down to a single word: integrity. For the Quakers, business was not a separate activity, but was an integral part of a way of life, one to be espoused no matter what the cost. Quaker ethics and probity were codified in their testaments, and these in turn were rooted in the tenets of their 17th-century founder, George Fox: ‘equality, simplicity, honesty, integrity and peace’. The moral vision of the Quakers was broad and far-reaching. John Woolman, an 18 century American Quaker, counseled against taking a buck today that might imply harm tomorrow, observing that “to impoverish the earth to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age.”

For today’s new morality brands, this kind of integrity still holds – and it needs to, since consumers have finely–tuned antennae for humbug. The moral penetration of The Co-operative Bank, for example, runs so deeply throughout the organisation that ethical considerations even affect the choice of toilet paper in the staff washrooms. And it is the staff themselves that do the choosing, based on the eco-credentials of the available options. And principles still imply sacrifice, just as they always have. Innocent, for example, accepts less margin in order to stay true to its belief in purity; and its commitment to support the NGOs in the fruit growing regions of the developing world with which it trades led to the donation of half its profits in 2003.

Even the names of the new morality brands trade seem to symbolise the integrity with which they go about their business: Innocent by name and by nature; Green & Black’s because the former reflects the brand’s ecological stance, while the latter evokes the deeply-dark chocolate created from the indigenous cocoa plants that the company nurtures. As for Camper, the word means ‘peasant’ in Catalan, the native language of the brand’s Majorcan home, and you can’t get much earthier symbolism than that.

If business is changing in the 21st century, if there is a growing sense that capitalism cannot continue in its more rapacious and cunning ways, then the new morality brands point the way forward for marketers. Perhaps eco-friendly values, fairness and decency will become no more than hygiene factors for all brands in the future. The lesson, though, for the bigger, mainstream brands, is that this is not simply a marketing exercise. Ethical branding implies a new and holistic approach to corporate life.

In short, it’s good business to do good; but it’s far from a quick and easy way to win a whole new society of friends.