It's worth anchoring any discussion of ethical consumerism trends with reference to Maslow's ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which gives us the theoretical underpinning for the whole development of the third wave in branding.
Once consumers have satisfied their physiological, safety, belonging and self-esteem needs, they become concerned with self-actualisation.
Typically this happens in relatively affluent societies, and thus grows the consumer need for ethical and spiritual values in brands.
But of course, economies can go into recession, so the trend over the past few years has been for people to refocus on more basic needs.
One manifestation of this has been the reduction in the amount of money given to charity, which peaked pre-crash in 2007/08.
In this context we’ve also seen cause-related marketing programmes being tailored to this consumer mindset and the current Boots joint promotional activity with Macmillan Cancer Support is a good example.
Boots has a long-term relationship with a number of strands; it is running a money-off promotional offer on toiletries costing only £1, with Boots making a 5p donation to the charity on each purchase.
This is in tune with the current tough economic climate for both the consumer and the charity. By advertising the promotion, Boots benefits via sales generation.
In reputational terms it increases awareness of Macmillan Cancer Support and its support of the charity.
At the other end of the spectrum there is a continuing trend for the very wealthiest individuals in society to realise that they have fulfilled their material dreams (and more) and their thoughts turn to ‘higher order’ matters - philanthropy in particular.
Some of the greatest cultural and academic institutions have been funded by the super-rich: Rockefeller, Guggenheim and Tate are more closely associated with their museums than the industries which generated their fortunes.
The latest iteration in this long-term trend, and one that's increasing as the numbers of extremely wealthy people grow globally, is Warren Buffett's establishment in 2010 of the 'Giving Pledge' with his target to get 40 billionaires to give away the majority of their wealth.
While this is an individual activity, we can also see that corporations often act in a similar way once they have achieved significant scale and success.
The CEO and other members of the C-Suite become increasingly concerned with their reputation for things beyond the mere business that they run.
Often their thoughts turn to corporate social responsibility and their triple bottom line, which explains the increasing number of companies with active CSR and CRM programmes which, in many cases, have become part and parcel of their ‘permission to trade’.
It has always been best practice for a company to enlist its own employees in these programmes, and of course their customers too.
So the most dynamic trend in ethical consumerism is enabling participation via social media. This brings both huge up and downsides.
The transparency that the internet has created makes it very hard indeed for corporations to conceal illegal or unethical behaviours, as the exploiters of sweatshop labour have found to their cost.
By the same token, a creative and engaging corporate social responsibility program can literally spread like wildfire through word-of-mouse and enlist millions of people, which would have been beyond the reach of even the most powerful brand just five years ago.
Today’s brand needs to make a three-way promise comprising its functional, emotional, and ethical dimensions.
It needs to modulate the centre of gravity of its promise depending on the target audience and market context, and then deliver it through a multi-layer programme which engages all its stakeholders including government, shareholders, employees, unions, intermediaries and customers.