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Can brands be ethical?

Philosophers define ethics as “the art of living well”, individually and collectively. It is about understanding what is good and what is not, and why; what is right for us and what is not; what it means to live fully in order to be happier, and, above all, what are the consequences of my activity for the community where I live and for the world. Ethics guides our behaviour every day in order to transcend words and transform society. 

In our society, words are worn out and distorted by their use at the same speed at which anything happens. The poet Luis García Montero in his essay “Las palabras rotas” (Broken words) warns us of this danger. We have no choice but to fight to recover the true value of the important words for human beings such as Truth, Progress, Identity, Goodness, Conscience…

Ethics in the business world is one of them. We are suspicious when a big brand uses it, especially if, in addition, it states in the same paragraph that it is “sustainable”.  We associate ethics with small and local businesses, with social enterprises, with small-scale, almost artisanal production, and also with premium prices. If employees are better paid, if “activating a purpose” is not a nice greenwashing intention but its North Star, if everything is done to meet the most rigorous social and environmental standards, it seems logical that the price should be higher. 

Is it ethical not to make sustainable brands accessible? On the other hand, is it ethical that cheapness is what damages our world?. So what needs to be changed?  The wheel of the system is driven by a consumer society that has made us used to buying and buying and not wondering too much. But now we know. Neither companies nor consumers are paying fair wages or the cost of polluting the planet throughout the life cycle of the product. A social and sustainable economy is bound to be more expensive. 

Production at scale, globalisation, and an economic and political system that continues to reward infinite growth seems to be at war with ethics. On a planet with surpassed limits, increasing problems in the supply chain, depletion of raw materials, and ever more appalling social inequality, there are finally brands that are giving up on growth. This is the case of Bearmade which for ethical reasons is not selling outside the UK. They only have the capacity to manufacture 25 bags a week and have no interest in exponential growth because they know that the only way to make a sustainable business is to reduce their production and sell locally.

If achieving greater profit is not the goal, a new universe opens up to create meanings for the common good and to recover the value of time, which will never again be something as trivial as “money”. This is Jennifer Hinton’s approach in her book “How on Earth: Flourishing a Not-For-Profit World”, which sets out a new economic model that tells a different story about what makes us human and motivates us to act.

Some time ago I read in a column by Andrea Rizzi that a defining trait of the times we live in is the shift in Spatio-temporal axes.

On the one hand, time is accelerating relentlessly in a whirlwind that sweeps us along and demands our constant attention. Except in the months of strict pandemic confinement when time stopped dead in its tracks, life does not give us enough of a break to assimilate and seek the meaning of what is going on. It is the exact opposite of the frozen tempo of the madeleine soaked in tea in the famous passage from Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”. 

There is an exponential imbalance taking place between the speed of the world and the speed of our brains. 

“The real problem of humanity is this: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”- Dr. E.O. Wilson, Sociobiologist

Our reality is becoming increasingly complex and we are losing our ability to think and understand it. Or to savour it. Everything is rushed and overtaken by the next novelty or tragedy. Acceleration itself also prevents us from the urgent global effort needed to fix this battered world by complying with the SDGs and decarbonisation goals.

On the other hand, space has now definitively unfolded. Life is real and virtual. We are constantly here and in hyperspace without a break. While we share our “physicality” with other people, we are constantly checking the messages we receive on our mobile phones and the social network to which we are most attached. Even the conventions of etiquette have changed. It no longer seems rude to anyone to pick up a mobile phone even in a business meeting.

Books like Andy Farnell’s “Digital Vegan: healthier technology for a happy planet” or Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” are wake-up calls for us to live a slower, more careful, deliberate, and reflective life. They encourage us to ask ourselves why we can’t take our eyes off our mobiles, why we contribute to Big Tech surveillance of all our movements, why we feed the horror of child slavery, or why we throw away our mobile phones every two years, causing gigantic mountains of electronic waste that contaminate the earth with toxic components that cause infertility in a multitude of species…

A centralised and extractive technology that exploits human vulnerabilities and whose mission is to make more and more profit is unethical. We have mistaken the excess of information provided by computers for knowledge and wisdom. Andy Farnell in his original “Digital Self-Defence” classes gives us a whole series of recommendations to educate ourselves and understand the value of our data and the myriad ways we can be swindled and enslaved.

We cannot deny that smartphones, the ubiquity of wireless technology, or digital platforms that connect billions of people are great innovations. But they have completely colonised our lives without asking our permission. They dictate how we feel and behave and have stolen our time. As Tristan Harris warns us, our mobiles are like slot machines. We look at them more and more to get our dopamine rush and that’s how they make money. If they minimised distractions and respected our attention they would lose revenue. The attention economy is a race to the bottom of our brains. Tristan Harris together with Randima Fernando are the founders of the Centre for Humane Technology to radically reimagine digital infrastructure. 

In their free Foundations of Humane Technology course we discover brands like Mobius, a home for people who create Liberating Technology products, systems, and narratives, or The Light Phone, a mobile phone designed to be used as little as possible.

In short, brands can be ethical if the people who promote them have the firm conviction to be guided by their values in all circumstances. If the system that rewards them and the technology that enables them is also ethical. If they allow us to be better people. If they do not turn everything into a commodity. If they help us to live fully and consciously. 

The good news is there is plenty of work to be done and “green blossoms” are everywhere.