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Ethics and Retailing


Posted At: 21 February 2008 14:42 PM
Related Categories: Environmental, General


The words “ethics” and “morality” are derived respectively from the Greek and Latin words for “customs”. In a society of increasing diversity, without universally respected traditions and heritage, whose ethics are relevant?

In a purely market driven economy, the ethical stance of the target customer, constrained by the law of the land, would prevail. So, in response to a customer survey that showed ethical trading (i.e. treating suppliers equitably) is their top priority, all Co-op tea and coffee is to be Fair Trade. However, the same survey also showed that climate change interests only a very small number, but nevertheless, “the Co-op remains fully committed to supporting the global drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

For private retailers, the ethics may be those of the owner. Hence a fascia that proclaims, “Your local, ethical deli”, has a policy that out of season, it stocks no red peppers, because that would involve air miles, but a loaf of bread costs over £3.00. Are these ethics only for the well-heeled?

For public companies, the ethics of stakeholders, (investors, suppliers, staff) and others (regulators, legislators and media), may be relevant. How else to explain Plan A, the high profile, and expensive, M&S response to the challenge of climate change?

As Michael Skapinker recently pointed out in an FT article about Corporate Social Responsibility, “Profit in good times and bad, is where any discussion of companies’ responsibilities should start. Without profit, there is no future for shareholders, employees or customers. But engaging with the community in the pursuit of profit has its place: indeed, it is essential.” A company can function only with the approval of its community. Or, in the light of the travails of Huntingdon Life Sciences, companies cannot function normally with the vociferous disapproval of even a small section of the community.

A student recently asked whether retailers will increasingly employ ethical brand strategies – as though the alternative is to have unethical strategies. The judgement is to decide whose ethics are to be taken into account. It would be logical for retailers to adopt an ethical stance to reflect their particular market position and circumstances. Perhaps ethics is another area where “one size fits all” is no longer appropriate.

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The opinions expressed herein are the personal opinion of the author and are not intended as statements of fact and do not represent the view of SnapShop or Pragma in any way.


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