In 2019, major clothing retailer H&M launched its Conscious Collection, a line of clothing designed to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. According to H&M, to qualify as part of the Conscious Collection, a piece of clothing had to contain “at least 50% sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.”
For a time, consumers bought products marked with the conscious collection label, convinced that these clothes were better for the environment than other pieces in the H&M lineup.
There was just one problem. The conscious collection wasn't as sustainable as H&M claimed.
In June 2021, the nonprofit Changing Markets Foundation released Synthetics Anonymous, a research report investigating the environmental claims of top fashion brands around the world. The report found that most of these brands were guilty of misleading consumers by misrepresenting their products and making exaggerated claims of sustainability. H&M and its conscious collection were among the worst offenders. According to the report, 96% of H&M’s sustainability claims fell outside of environmental messaging guidelines set by the UK Competition and Markets Authority. In other words, nearly every claim H&M made about its allegedly sustainable clothing line was misleading, unsubstantiated, or downright false.
Using made-up claims to position a product as environmentally friendly, a practice known as “greenwashing”, is not new. But as more and more consumers become concerned about environmental and climate issues, the temptation to greenwash products and services to make them seem more environmentally friendly than they really are can become very, very strong.
I'm Myles McDonough, and you're listening to the Free Ranger.
Welcome to the Free Ranger, a podcast about telling the stories that matter. On this podcast, we'll be learning about storytelling from the people who turn important issues into stories: the writers, film makers, marketers, academics, and other professionals who weave together the facts to create compelling narratives that make a difference.
This season, we'll be speaking with experts on marketing ethics: the moral principles that guide us as we tell stories about products, services, and organizations, and how to make sure we're putting those principles into practice.
We're excited to welcome Jake Dubbins, co-founder and managing Director of Media Bounty, an independent, ethical, creative and media agency based out of the UK. Jake is also the co-founder and co-director of the Conscious Advertising Network, an international coalition focused on breaking the economic link between advertising and harmful content. During our talk, Jake explained the key role marketing plays in the modern information ecosystem, the importance of using that power responsibly, and how marketers can create great content that satisfies the demands of good ethics...
Myles: All right, we are on with Jake Dubbins. Jake, thank you so much for taking the time to join us on the Free Ranger podcast.
Jake: Pleasure. Good to be here.
Myles: All right, to kick things off, first question for you. How do you define ethics?
Jake: That's a...that's a big question there. In my personal life, I think it's really simple. I want to look my kids in the eye and answer their questions in the future. So they are at 10 and seven. And when they're sort of. 18 and 15 I want to answer their difficult questions and look them in the eye. And so that's, you know, probably a personal answer. Otherwise, I think it's looking at how do you live your life, how do you run your business? I mean, we're all hypocrites, right? You know, it's the starting point. So, so somebody talking about ethics is no, nobody has everything, right? But I think it's being guided by things like. Human rights are things like justice, things like anti racism, things like equality and how do we both in work and personal life? How do we treat people well? How do we live within our means, within the climate emergency that we currently find ourselves in? And so I don't know. That's a rambling answer, I know, but I think it's a very big, big question. Ethics can mean lots of different things to lots of different people, but I think there's a huge absence of it in our current predatory capitalist setup.
Myles: Say more about that.
Jake: The predatory capitalism?
Jake: I think we live in a time where the extraction of capital trumps everything. It trumps human rights. It trumps obviously trumps the planet we live in because we are on a pathway to destroying our home at the moment. And we're not doing enough to sort that out. And, you know, parts of capitalism obviously have, you know, eradicated disease and so on. But I think the pursuit of profit above all else has damaged us.
Myles: Why is ethics important for marketers in particular?
Jake: Couple of reasons I guess when one is the...Marketers market stuff to us and you know. I often talk about, well, what are we doing here? What are we selling here, what are we selling stuff to people that they don't need, uhm, what is the use and the purpose of a of a product or service? But also marketers, yeah, we talk a lot at the Conscious Advertising Network about what marketers and thereby […] the advertising funds. And clearly you know, the advertising part of marketing funds, the entire Internet, the whole information ecosystem that we all consume. And so it's absolutely vital that that you don't just see your advertising as a means to just sell a product for you know sales meeting for a quarterly, you know return on your investment and to report to the stock market, but also we're making investments in the information ecosystem, and that's gone you know, pretty awry over the last few years.
Again, back to the point about predatory capitalism, I think marketers need to not see themselves as within a vacuum of in service to shareholders. We're, we're not in a vacuum. We're part of society. We have, you know, families, we have nature, we have each other, we have our colleagues. You know, we have responsibilities to all parts of society and the world in which we live, not just to the markets of Wall Street, London, Hong Kong, Shanghai and others.
Myles: There's more interconnection there than we might give credit to.
Jake: Yeah, there's a really interesting...I don't know if you're aware of a lady called Kate Raworth, who's an economist, who talks about model called Donut Economics and she talks about the sort of, you know, the sort f economics, of Adam Smith or Milton Friedman and so on. And says that if those guys were here, today, they'd be like: what are you doing? These were ideas from a very very long time ago!
And she she talks about, I highly recommend reading the book or, you know, listening to podcasts with with her on because she talks about, you know, the a donut where the inside ring is effectively what we need to live and what we need to...you know, roof, overhead, food, water, you know. That kind of stuff. But the outside ring is the, you know the limits of what we can extract from the planet, which has never been, I guess, catered for in supply and demand because currently the planet can no longer supply what we demand.
Myles: You mentioned the conscious advertising network. A little while ago. What's that all about? What is that?
Jake: So that is a voluntary coalition now of over 150 brands, agencies and civil society members, originally set up to help the ethics catch up with the technology of modern advertising and effectively it exists to break the economic link between advertising and the harmful content that is funded by advertising that seeks to divide and polarize and harm society. So we have six about to be 7 manifestos. On everything from hate speech to misinformation to children’s well-being, advertising fraud, diversity, inclusion...we're just about to launch a climate and sustainability manifesto and then the final one is informed consent. And it's been, you know, a snowballing project from when we first started doing it four years ago to where it is now where we work with tech platforms, you know, big brands, the United Nations, effectively looking, trying to pull together a big tent to face into some of society's big problems.
Myles: What's one of the really big goals that you have for the Conscious Advertising Network? What do you see happening over the next few years if everything goes as planned?
Jake: It's a really good question. I mean we used to say, naively and probably idiotically that we wanted it to become obsolete, because we thought and hoped that if at the top of the supply chain, if advertisers took their responsibilities of investing in media seriously, then, you know that would solve the problem. As we've got more into it, you know, there are, you know, problems all over the world that range from, you know, state media influence and how that's, you know, funded by advertising the Russian invasion and looking at how advertising funds Russian state media, for example.
Uh, a big goal really is to break that link is, to get the entire advertising industry globally to work with civil society to understand lived experience and understand the problems that society faces, and to choose to not fund that. People can still say what they like, and they can still, you know, within the law, be hostile. They can still be abusive. But they don't have any right to earn money. So cutting off that link would be, I guess, the big goal.
Myles: That being the case, what do you see as an ideal alternative situation for marketers and advertisers in particular? If you're not getting your money in unethical ways, what does a more ethical approach look like?
Jake: I think, yeah, one of the things that we advocate for is leaning into great quality content from diverse voices and marginalized communities. Basically inclusive advertising. You know there's, there's a huge issue with, you know, brand safety technology. Where, you know, the words even gay, Muslim, black are demonetized or put on blocklists. So therefore LGBT-owned media becomes demonetized because brands put gay on a block list because they think it's too difficult and just, you know, I don't want to deal with this and it means that great content, great publications are not receiving advertising money.
I think the point in the name of the Conscious Advertising Network. You gotta make the effort. You gotta consciously invest and choose where your money is spent. You know, one of the things we get challenged on quite a lot is, is the Nexus between freedom of speech and you know, what we're trying to do. And obviously, you know, we're big advocates of freedom of speech. But, you know, there's 30 articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and freedom of expression is one of them. And shouldn't necessarily trump freedom from harm or freedom from, you know, incitement of violence or, you know, or anything like that.
Myles: So the conscious advertising network isn't your only project. You also work with an agency called Media Bounty, and the tagline of Media Bounty describes it as a “ethical, creative and media agency.” What makes media bounty and ethical, creative and media agency?
Jake: I think it's back to this sort of people and planet as well as profit, you know, model and doing it genuinely. Rather than lip service. So, on the people side, we were, recently independently found to be the 4th best company to work for by Campaign magazine, in the in the marketing industry in the UK, a lot of that is on doing third party interviews with your team. So you know there's making sure that you, you treat your people well. Clearly there's how you do business. So there's you know the policies that you have and we're, you know, very far down the process of becoming a B Corp at the moment which obviously holds you to account in your processes, your policies and even your articles of association of how they work, how you run the business.
It's partly here that the clients that you do work with, but it's also the clients that you turn down and you don't work with. And yeah. Well, I think so we...in our credentials deck, for example, is a list of people who we've turned down and haven't worked with. So we've turned down oil and gas, we've turned down gambling we've turned down, you know, Playboy, we've turned down incendiary and far right Media, recently pesticides. And effectively we can't say that we are ethical and then in the back of the office have big oil or, you know, industrial, you know, pesticides or gambling companies that put, machines that are destroying communities, you know, in local betting shops.
Obviously this industry is very good at what it does, but, you know, we sell products and services that are not good for people, communities and planet because we're good at what we do. So I don't think you can say that you're ethical and then not try and walk the walk. That said, like I said, we're all bloody hypocrites and clearly we have a line, you know. We don't just work with, you know companies that are entirely regenerative and you know....I think otherwise we’d be having to get rid of half the team.
But I think it's we've got we moved the line all the time on our criteria of who we do take on and who we don't take on. And what you know, what it's actually now meaning is that people are coming to us for our expertise in climate and sustainability and social justice work and, you know, DNI and so on so.
Myles: Got a tough question for you here.
Myles: What is your favorite media Bounty campaign that you've done so far?
Jake: Can I answer that by saying there's two?
Myles: Absolutely, yeah.
Jake: Ha! So one’s very long term. One is a sanitary brand, female sanitary brand called Body Form, and they're called Libresse in other parts of the world. So we start working with them in 2014, and have been, you know, very much part of an agency team that includes AB, AMV, BBDO, Zenith, and others.
It really changed how that whole category works, so from, you know, blue liquid in ads and roller skating women in white trousers to, you know, really showing blood for the first time in advertising. Being an unashamedly feminist tone of voice on social. You get, you know, creators and artists and cartoonists to produce content for us on Instagram and they want to do it without being paid because it's been such a, you know, a great campaign over the years. All sorts of taboo busting stuff that actually has changed the category and they've just really gone from the point where it's clearly a bunch of men in suits going off--We can't talk about this, we can must only advertise with blue liquid and not tell the truth about this.
So that's one and I'm really proud of that work of the agencies done over the last now eight years and its...the other one is much more recent and much more you know specific.
That was about just over a year before COP26, I was walking with a colleague through Westminster station in the UK and had a look at who's advertising the Westminster station and it tended to be oil companies. Defense companies, arms companies, pharma companies. And I was like, right, you know, why is that? That's a weird...Anyway, obviously it's because of the politicians. That's where the politicians come, you know? Went in Westminster.
So we effectively thought about COP 26 and it just didn't involve any grand thinking or strategy, but thought right. COP26, Glasgow. That's going to be a massive event. First climate conference since Paris where countries have to really update their targets on emissions. So we went to a climate foundation and a group of climate NGOs, and went: Can we buy the...can we buy the space? And we got the money together and we effectively bought all of the out of home in Glasgow, Edinburgh Airport, Houston Station, literally everywhere, more than a year before COP26, specifically in order to block fossil fuel companies from greenwashing where delegates were coming in.
So we literally mapped where delegates would be coming into airports in London, into airports in Glasgow. All the train journey. So we--you know Network Rail. And followed delegates around with creative that told the truth about climate rather than, “we're spending £50 million on a tiny bit of renewable tech and we're actually spending billions on continuing to dig up for oil fields.”
So that was something I was super proud of and we've literally been nominated today for that for a uh, a Purpose Award here in the UK, so. But yeah, I mean it was a great thing to work on and a great thing to then go to. You know, we saw it everywhere. When we went to COP26.
Myles: Congratulations on the Purpose Award. Yeah, it's a dynamite. That's a dynamite strategy there. And this is making me wonder what got you interested in all of this in the first place? It's easy..iIt's not easy, but you can get a marketing job at a bunch of different agencies. What made you want to stick your neck out and try to do it in a more ethical way?
Jake: I love nature. I'm a surfer, I love being in nature. I've surfed in lots of different places. I'm a diver. I used to dive a lot and so I've always loved being in nature. Uhm. And so I guess a couple of things that the I've always felt that dealing with climate, it was always a long way away, you know. There was always like in 100 years, in 200 years, you know, at some point things are gonna go wrong. And then I remember the IPCC report that came out in 2018, I think it was, but said you know, this is this is now and we've got until 2030 to actually make meaningful change. And that, quite frankly, scared the shit out of me, because I always thought it was...
Yeah, I'm a human and yeah, live in a...you know, convenience is everything, isn't it? For us humans? And if it was out of sight, out of mind. You know, you think, wow, that's for another day. But yeah, that scared me because that was like, well that's gonna be, that's now my kids, that's gonna be us. So that got me really sort of fired up about it.
And then at about the same time the reason why I started up CAN was that I lived in a part of east London. Really loved it. Massive melting pot, multicultural and lived there for years. And then one day my neighbor who my...He had a similar age kids to us...he got really badly beaten up in a local pub. And he was--you know, the landlord was beaten up as well but--and he's...basically because he was Turkish, by a white racist gang.
So I started volunteering to look at, you know, how does hate, where does hate come from? Where is that sort of, you know, racist violence come from. And that sort of put me on a journey to kind of, you know, working on the CAN project in meeting various communities and all sorts of things. So yeah, there's a few things that have worked.
Like I said, I've always tried to...well, I've obviously been a prick in various parts of my life. I'm not, you know, I'm not saying that I've never been a dickhead. But certainly there's a few moments where I'm like, Right. You know. I've got to try and make a contribution, I guess.
Myles: We've talked a little bit about how your focus on ethics impacts the selection of stories that you choose to tell, which clients you choose to take on and turn away. How does your focus on ethics impact the way that you tell stories, the way that you put a story together and put it out into the world.
Jake: I think it's changed over time. I think when we first set out with you know, the agency, we were, I guess less, not just less selective, but the process of telling stories was sort of just, you know, let's brainstorm ideas. What do we find funny? What's, you know, and therefore...You know, it's a, it's a kind of, ideas are coming from a smaller set of brains, I guess.
But increasingly, in terms of the process of how we tell stories, when you know it's, it's become, and rightly so, much more inclusive. We have partners working in in DNI because you know we're at 27 person agency. We have significant diversity within our agency, but you cannot...as a 27 person agency you know really seek to understand Communities in one part of the UK, let alone the whole UK, let alone Europe, let alone the world.
So so I think it's having, you know a real idea of what inclusivity means in in order to make sure that you're talking to the audience and then increasing it. It's really something we're doing with now is what do sustainable lifestyles look like. Regardless of the product, not necessarily it being a sustainable product, but how does how do, how do you show up in the stories that you tell for all brands and products that we choose to take on and how do you tell those stories but also reflect, you know, a conscious sustainable...without being a condescending bunch of London-based arseholes, you know?
That's the that's the kind of, you know, the massive challenge. Because you know as we reach this transition of more electric cars, decarbonization, you know, are we going to eat less meat? You know, there's a big danger that you know people in the bubble will go: well, you can't do that. You can't do this. You can't do that. You can't...It says it's a real...it's really trying to do the work to really understand, you know, audiences, what people’s lives are like and showing up in a way that is without being, you know, didactic.
Myles: You're not just talking to people like you in your Londons or Parises, your New Yorks, your Los Angeleses.
Jake: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I think that's a mistake that a lot of advertising...Yeah, 'cause, where is advertising and tech based, you know? London, New York, you know, San Francisco and Chicago, you know, it's the job is to get out and really understand rural communities, you know, towns, you know, states, counties that are not that globalized, you know, city bubbles, that most of us [live in].
Myles: What is the biggest ethical issue that marketers will face in the next few years?
Jake: Climate. I mean climate’s the only game in town. I mean, if you, if you think, obviously, that the climate is so massive. But there is so much intersection within climate in terms of inequality, in terms of, you know, the global north the global south in terms of race, in terms of gender.
You know, clearly every...you know, there's so much intersection within climate, but currently we are on track for between 2.7 and 3.1 degrees of heating, and we are currently at 1.2. Climate, and how do we extricate ourselves from fossil fuels without descending into fascism? Is probably the biggest ethical question that marketers have to face. But as a society, we have to face.
Myles: What would you tell young marketers, people just getting started in their marketing careers about how to handle ethical issues?
Jake: It's easy--it's easy for an old fart like me to say John 44, but I would say...With ethical issues, go with your gut. Speak your mind, seek out allies. Within both business and [...]. And the industry, the industry is changing. It has a hell of a lot of problems with everything from misogyny to sexual harassment to gender pay to ethnic pay gaps, uh, you know, to rapacious consumption. So we really need young marketers to challenge us. Challenge the status quo. Speak out, you know--be part of changing this damn dinosaur industry as quickly as possible.
Myles: Alright, well Jake, thank you so much for your time today. This has been a wonderful interview I loved having you on.
Jake: Thanks Myles, appreciate it. Appreciate the chat.
As Jake points out, our ethical decisions as marketers have practical outcomes for our world, our societies, and ourselves.
Transparent marketing gives us the information we need to make good decisions about the future of our planet. It allows us to think through the impact of products and services and choose options that will benefit us and our communities. And just as importantly, making ethical marketing decisions today will allow us to stand by those decisions tomorrow.
This has been the Free Ranger. Thanks for listening.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please be sure to subscribe and share it with someone else who'd like it too.
The Free Ranger is a production of Free Range studios, a storytelling and innovation agency helping mission driven organizations promote social good. If you'd like to learn more, please visit us at FreeRange.com.