Brands and celebrities alike are expected to take a moral stance on all kinds of issues today, from the environment to politics to feminism to human rights. This reflects a wider mindset shift, as more and more of us seek to make a difference, not just through political activism or issue-based campaigning, but also by re-evaluating how we live and the everyday decisions we make.

The world is getting more confusing; democracy seems to not always reflect the views of the majority, powerful nations are squaring up to each other, the fight for equality appears to be going backwards rather than forwards. In the face of this, driven by a growing unease that all is not well in the world, we are developing a sense that it is up to all of us to flex our individual moral muscles and seek to make a positive impact. We want all our decisions, from the coffee we buy to the taxi service we use, to benefit others as well as ourselves; as everything on the global stage appears to be playing out badly, we want to make our own roles significant. And if brands can help us to achieve that, so much the better. In a nutshell: if Uber offers convenience and the lowest possible price, but Juno offers convenience and an assurance that drivers are being fairly treated, we’ll take that ride from Juno.

Navigating the moral maze

The desire for a clear moral code is not new. Many still look to the world’s great religions for guidance; however, churchgoing is falling off in the western Christian world – weekly attendance at Church of England weekly services fell below one million for the first time in 2016, and the Wall Street Journal reports that empty churches are being sold off across Europe. The religious extremism manifested by organisations such as Daesh is used to justify terrorist activities. The current search for alternatives perhaps has its roots in the rebellious spirit of the 1960s, a decade characterised by the rise of anti-war movements, a new thirst for civil liberties and equality, and widespread questioning of the Establishment.

We are acutely aware that the world today is no more equal than it was 50 years ago; in fact, if anything, it is less so, as the gap between rich and poor widens rapidly. Communication across the world has never been more efficient, and no one can claim to be unaware of poverty and misery, close to home as well as in the farthest-flung corners of the planet. Yet, at the same time, the current ‘post-truth’ culture makes us uncertain of who to trust. Even highly reputable publications are feeling the need to set out their credentials; the New York Times ran a powerful advertisement during the 2017 Academy Awards, acknowledging that ‘the truth is hard to know’ and concluding that ‘the truth is more important than ever.’

And, even as the media reveals other people’s experience famine, exploitation and distress, it also makes us personally dissatisfied. Multiple studies have shown that social media can lead to anxiety and depression, as we compare our own lives with the carefully curated images posted on line, and find ourselves wanting. There is also evidence that social media is addictive; Psychology Today and UCLA, among others, have found that social media use stimulates the production of ‘reward chemical’ dopamine in the brain, in the same way that drugs give pleasure.


A new moral compass

We are becoming more and more aware that fulfilment does not depend either on possessions or on the number of ‘likes’ on our Instagram feed; that there is only so much ‘stuff’ we can own, and only so much that a new filter can do to lay a glossy veneer over our lives. There is a growing desire to make a positive contribution to our local community and to the world beyond.

The 2016 Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) World Giving Index measures the numbers of people donating money, donating time, and helping strangers. ‘The world is becoming ever more generous – with more people giving time, money or helping others than previously recorded in the seven years of the CAF World Giving Index. For the first time, more than half of those surveyed say they helped a stranger – a testament to the innate human desire to help others whenever they are in need,’ says Dr John Low, CAF’s chief executive. Despite falling global GDP, the report finds that financial donations to good causes have remained stable; and the proportion of those volunteering their time is now 21.6% globally.

A divided and polarised political environment in the western world is also leading citizens to nail their colours to the mast. The Women’s Marches that took place in January 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President, are believed to have been the largest demonstration in US history, with an estimated 2.9 million taking part in the US alone; some tallies put the numbers considerably higher. The marches, which aimed to promote human rights across the board, were not confined to women, and ‘sister marches’ also took place in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Iraq and across Europe.

This willingness for individuals to stand up and be counted reflects their new readiness to take matters into their own hands, actively express their views, and advocate for change. As discussed in Viewpoint #38, our Think Small edition, we are turning to grass-roots activism as a way to effect change, disillusioned by corporate and political agendas. We want the freedom to make educated choices, rather than being told what to do by the very individuals and institutions that we feel have led us into chaos. And, as in so many other fields, technology is acting as an enabler, bringing together real and virtual communities, facilitating the mass take-up of small-scale initiatives – and also making it easier and more effective to donate financially. Nonprofit Tech for Good, an online community for the non-profit sector, observed a 30% increase in Google searches related to charitable giving between August and September 2016, and concludes: ‘Overall, the stats indicate a continued upward trend in philanthropy worldwide, a steady increase in online fundraising, and mounting evidence that as the use of social media grows, so does online giving.’ (It also notes that Generation X donates to good causes most frequently.)


Brand principles

This desire for positive impact is filtering through to what we expect of brands, products, services and design. Of course, certain brands have always made an ethical and moral stance their USP, and such values have become less niche in recent years. But now we are expecting far more, even from mainstream names who have previously built their reputations around traditional brand selling points such as high quality, competitive pricing, convenience and so on. We expect brands, particularly those with a global footprint, to be progressive in terms of political engagement, supporting social justice, avoiding exploitation. And we are less and less likely to be taken in by ‘greenwashing’ – token attempts to bolt on environmentally sound policies – or ‘virtue signalling’ – making a public show of moral values with little or no substance behind it. Increased scepticism means that brands that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk are likely to be challenged.

Brands that take a wrong step in their alignment can find themselves financially punished – and very rapidly, given the ubiquity and reach of social media. The Uber car service app, which raised its prices around John F Kennedy airport during protests about the controversial ban on travellers to the US from seven Islamic nations, and did not support a taxi strike, found itself on the end of a #DeleteUber social media campaign which gained so much traction the company had to install an automated deletion process. Shortly after, rival Lyft, which pledged to donate $1m to the American Civil Liberties Union, overtook Uber in the App Store for the first time.

Uber has since denied that it supports Trump immigration policy, describing it as ‘unjust, wrong and against everything we stand for as a company’, and CEO Travis Kalanick swiftly stepped down from the White House Advisory Board. This looks like mere damage limitation, however, when set against other brands’ rapid condemnation. Nike chief executive Mike Parker called on staff to stand up for the brand’s long-standing value of celebrating diversity, making specific reference to the travel ban; Airbnb provided emergency accommodation to those directly affected; over 100 Silicon Valley companies, including Etsy, Facebook, Netflix, Strava, Tesla and Wikimedia, supported a legal brief opposing the policy.

This is not, however, simply about responding quickly to issues as they arise. Brands gain respect for putting principles front and centre, day in, day out. This goes far beyond basic corporate social responsibility policies, as consumers actively seek out brands that are socially and politically engaged on a genuinely effective level.


The business of ethics

A 2016 global study by brand consultancy BBMG and GlobeScan finds that 40% of the adult global public can be classed as ‘aspirational consumers’, who love shopping but who also want to consume responsibly, and want to support companies and brands that make a positive difference to society. This substantial consumer segment is actively seeking to drive positive change and to support business models that are not only financially successful but that also make a wider contribution. ‘Aspirational consumers are looking for brands to stand for something bigger than product benefits. They want brands to embody an inspiring ethos, to bring a strong point of view, and take action to make a positive impact in the world,’ says Raphael Bemporad, cofounder of BBMG.

Companies across the world are rising to the challenge. Diesel’s Make Love Not Walls campaign, which includes a short film shot by David LaChapelle, uses the metaphor of the proposed wall that will divide the US from its neighbour Mexico. It shows young people armed with no more than flowers and music breaching a wall through a heart-shaped gap, in a powerful message centred around love and unity. The campaign not only offers a clear response to current political disquiet, but also brings in wider issues such as gender equality by featuring transsexual and queer icons such as model Laith Ashley De La Cruz and artist Karis Wilde.

Keds and Stella Artois similarly align themselves with causes in recent campaigns. Be Bold For Change, a collaboration between the shoe brand and Refinery29, celebrated International Women’s Day with various events including a pop-up market whose proceeds went to support She Should Run – an organisation that supports women who want to run for public office. Stella Artois, appropriately for a beverage brand, has chosen an even more universal cause by supporting in the Buy A Lady A Drink campaign, which focuses on women in the developing world who spend hours every day simply collecting water for their families. The brand has already donated $1.2m to to help tackle the global water crisis.

The Body Shop celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016 by launching the Enrich Not Exploit programme, which builds on long-standing principles by setting out the company’s plan to become the world’s most ethical business in the near future. The Body Shop was founded by the late Anita Roddick, a pioneer of good business practice, and an ethical approach has long been embedded in the company’s culture. Now more and more brands are becoming overt about the political, social and environmental causes they espouse, sending a clear signal that they acknowledge and share the concerns that affect all of us.


Conscious celebrity

Just as we expect our favourite brands to take a moral stance, we expect celebrities to do the same. Using fame as a platform for moral statements is not new: Jane Fonda campaigned against the Vietnam War and became known as Hanoi Jane in the 1970s, while the Dixie Chicks were boycotted in the US for speaking out against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and criticising then President George Bush. However, where such outspokenenness was once unusual, it has now become the norm.

Celebrities who have spoken out against the Trump presidency include Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Jimmy Kimmel, host of the 2017 Oscars, Robert De Niro, Lena Dunham, and many more, of all ages and persuasions. But while the current US political situation is high on the agenda at the moment, it is not the only topic where well-known names have added their protests – and nor is Hollywood the only bastion of the conscious celebrity. Artists Anish Kapoor and Ai Weiwei, and footballer Gary Lineker have called attention to the plight of refugees. Film director Ken Loach used his Bafta acceptance speech to not only mention child refugees but also criticise the indifference of corporations and politicians.

Singers, actors, artists, writers, comedians are all using their influence to get their message across, and some run their own campaigns and foundations. Alicia Keys, cofounder of the Keep A Child Live anti-AIDS charity, also supports the We Are Here coalition, which brings together various groups campaigning for justice and equality; the Lopez Family Foundation, set up by Jennifer Lopez, aims to increase healthcare availability for women; Leonardo DiCaprio, founder of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which works on conservation issues, has urged world leaders to take action on climate change; the Eva Longoria Foundation supports Latina women … the list goes on.


The politics of fashion

Like the arts, fashion can be a high-profile platform for political messages; designer Katharine Hamnett made headlines in 1984 when she met Margaret Thatcher wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the message ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’, referring to the missiles supported by the then UK prime minister. ‘Slogan t-shirts are great,’ observes the designer. ‘They attract attention to issues that need attending to, they are actually quite annoying, designed to be seminal, and you can’t not read them. The idea is they make you think, question, and hopefully act.’

Slogan-wear is back in vogue, as labels from small independents to large luxury fashion houses seek to appeal to a market that is primed for resistance. As with the arts, the causes supported by designers reflect widespread concerns. Dior’s most recent collection featured T-shirts bearing the slogan We Should All Be Feminists; Prabal Gurung’s autumn/winter 2017 says that The Future is Female. Hoodies and tees by Opening Ceremony call on wearers to Act, Change, Defy, Protest, Fight, with profits going to the American Civil Liberties Union. Hamnett has donated her classic 80s design mentioned above to Teemill, with the slogan Choose Love, in support of refugees. Longtime activist Vivienne Westwood is using her collection to support renewable energy and urge people to switch to greener power providers.

And, from Supreme’s ‘Fuck the president’ badge and Obama-emblazoned two-piece, to Raul Solis’s ‘No ban, no wall!!!’ pants, anti-Trump sentiment is running high in the fashion world.

Tech for good

Online campaigning has been criticised for encouraging ‘slacktivism’ – clicking on an online petition or liking a campaign group, but taking no further action. However, platforms such as and Avaaz, which bring people together around a wide variety of issues, can claim considerable success. Many hashtag-led campaigns have also been very effective in raising awareness and marshalling solidarity. #BlackLivesMatter, for example, is one of the most-used hashtags to date, according to analysis published by Twitter. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo responded to reports of citizens spontaneously cleaning up racist graffiti in a subway train with the hashtag #TurnHateIntoLove, now used to pull together similar grassroots acts of anti-racist solidarity. The Business of Fashion’s #TiedTogether hashtag encourages the fashion community to show its support of inclusivity and unity by wearing a white bandana. ‘In fashion, visuals often speak louder than words,’ said BoF founder Imran Amed.

Tech also makes it quick and easy to donate. Spotfund, a micro-donation platform, lets people donate just a dollar or two, and encourage others to do likewise – ‘making an impact isn’t about the size of your wallet, it’s about the power of your social network.’ Charity Charge works in partnership with MasterCard to automatically give 1% to the user’s chosen non-profits in cash every time the card is used, as a tax-deductible donation. On an individual level, designer and programmer Nathan Pryor, frustrated by Trumpism, hacked his Amazon Dash instant-order button; it now donates $5 to the American Civil Liberties Union each time he presses it, and he has made his customised code available to others.

As well as streamlining the donation process, tech can also help change behaviour. We’re familiar with the quantified self in terms of physical and mental health tracking; now welcome the quantified moral self, in the form of the Refuture app. Refuture analyses daily action, awards points if you, for example, walk to work rather than drive, and ranks users against their friends. ‘We’ve gamified the experience,’ says founder Rob Han. TheGoodData, the world’s first ‘data co-op’, lets members take control of their data, choose what they want to share, and sends the proceeds to the nonprofit Kiva peer-to-peer lending scheme.


Everyday activism: doing good in your lunch break

We are also seeing the rise of organisations that take everyday activities such as buying a coffee or exercising, and wrap in an element of social good that allows people to feel they can make a difference while going about their daily business.

Second Shot Coffee in London, for example, allows customers to ‘pay it forward’ by pre-paying food and drink for those in need, and also trains people affected by homelessness and supports them into employment. GoodGym combines running with doing good across the UK; its members stop off on their runs to do physical tasks for community organisations, or visit and support isolated older people. The Bike Project in London teaches refugees and asylum seekers to fix up donated second-hand bikes, and both resells them through the Bike Shop and gets its participants moving. Cracked It teaches at-risk young people to repair broken mobile phone screens; companies can host day-long ‘surgeries’ where employees can get their cracked phones fixed.

In South Africa, The Employable Nation (TEN) supports disadvantaged members of the local community. Workspace, TEN’s maker space in Hout Bay near Cape Town, charges a fee to the maker members who use its wide range of workshop equipment for their own DIY projects. The money is ploughed back into schemes to help the unemployed into work, and part of the deal is that the paying members also share their skills to that end.

Could initiatives both large-scale and individual which embed supporting social good into everyday life, be the future? Myanmar has topped the CAF World Giving Index for the past three years; as the report notes, this is likely to be linked to the population’s strong Buddhist faith, which means frequent acts of giving are the norm, although the country is not particularly affluent. Everyday morality, frequent small donations, frequent small positive acts, benefit all. In today’s uncertain climate, brands need to step up to take a moral lead – and empower consumers to do good, through their actions as well as their purchases.

Words → Hester Lacey