Can cancel culture help curb unethical business?

Gen Z’ers believe businesses have a responsibility to create a better world

Andy Last

Chief Executive Officer MullenLowe Salt


We polled 1,000 Gen Z respondents* (16-20) and as well as 50% of them being in favour of cancelling businesses that behave unethically, 73% said that businesses have a responsibility to create a better world.

There’s no shortage of words being spilt on purpose by brand marketers, consultants, and commentators. And plenty of disagreement on what purpose means, how important it is, whether it should change marketing, or whether it’s caused marketers to forget what marketing is really about.

One thing that is becoming unarguable, however, is that those who manage brands today have to pay attention to climate change (are they having a positive or negative impact on it?) and social equity (are they increasing inequality, for example, in their supply chains or by perpetuating stereotypes?). They have to pay attention to these not just because a proportion of younger consumers say that they matter to them and that they’ll hold brands to account for perceived transgressions, but because regulators, retailers and investors are forcing them to pay attention too.  

Lawmakers from China to California are picking up where Greenpeace was once a lone voice against companies and their environmental impacts. China has set out its goal to hit carbon neutrality by 2060; the EU by 2050. Sales of non-electric vehicles will be banned in California by 2035, as part of the Golden State’s journey to carbon neutrality by 2045. Here, the Competition and Markets Authority launched its Green Claims Code last year and in January launched an investigation into the marketing of ‘eco-friendly’ products and services, pointedly saying that it will be targeting ‘those companies who want to make the right noises without doing the right things.’   

Brands can no longer afford to ignore sustainability - environmental and social. They have to understand what their role is in relation to each – especially climate change and social equity – and they have to manage these alongside commercial pressures

Andy Last, CEO of MullenLowe salt (part of MullenLowe Group)

UK retailers have cancelled over £7 billion in contracts over the last 12 months with suppliers who don’t measure up to their ethical and sustainability standards, according to a new report by Barclays, with the most common reasons being the use of unsustainable materials and unfair working hours. Which points to brands needing to be on top of their social and environmental impacts if they want to keep their listings in-store.

The shareholders that invest in the companies that own these brands want to see action on social and environmental issues too. Again, there’s debate here about what purpose means. But investors are sending a clear message to businesses that, yes of course they want predictable returns on their investments, but that now involves having a clear line of sight and plan of action on their social and environmental impacts. In my book, Business on a Mission, published in January, I interviewed Frank Cooper III (CMO of BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager) who said: “What’s interesting to me is that COVID-19 has forced companies to stand up and show how they can contribute to society. In the past, businesses could proceed under this idea of benevolence on the side, but not making it part of the corporation. But what we’ve seen in the past several years - and accelerated in the last two years - is a greater pressure against businesses directly and a greater awareness among the general public about the role of corporations in society. There’s been a kind of awakening around the belief that corporations need to play a positive role and that there’s no guarantee that any corporation has a licence to operate. On the social side, it’s coming from the sense of growing inequality across the globe.”

These issues aren’t new. In 1968, ‘Earthrise’, the iconic photograph of a green and blue planet Earth from space, kick-started the modern environmental movement. The same year, the Civil Rights Act was passed in the USA just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, further outlawing discrimination based on race, religion, gender and national origin. The pressure has grown on brands gradually over the five decades since then, but gradually is coming to an end.  Brands can no longer afford to ignore sustainability - environmental and social.  They have to understand what their role is in relation to each – especially climate change and social equity – and they have to manage these alongside commercial pressures.

That’s not easy, and life is becoming ever more complex for brand marketers today. We find these five steps helpful for most brands:

1.     A Landscape Analysis of relevant social and environmental issues, and the responsibilities and opportunities these present.

2.     A ‘Swords and Shields’ evaluation of where brands can go on the attack in their marketing and where they should have a defensive position.

3.     An Intersection examination of where brand, consumer and society needs align.

4.     A Brand Do/Brand Say matrix to enable brands to communicate as powerfully as possible while avoiding greenwash and purpose-wash.

5.     Full integration with the core brand idea, tone of voice and communications platforms.

As a Purpose and Sustainability consultancy, we decided to become part of a marketing services organisation (MullenLowe Group, within IPG) because of these trends and the inevitable need for brands to respond to them through the way they innovate and communicate. As the outgoing ex-IPG Chairman, Michael Roth, also says in my book, “Our role in the marketing and communication business is to add something to the brand that counters the commodity aspect of the product.  And if it’s a brand relationship where the brand stands for something, consumers are more likely to want to do business with that company. Because the world is so complex, clients need help navigating ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance issues) and what we want to do as a company is help them with solutions. If we don’t understand the risks associated with the solutions, we have no place doing that.”


Please click here to find out more about Andy Last’s book, Business on a Misson: How to build a sustainable brand.

*research conducted with Reputation Leaders. Reputation Leaders is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules

Guest Author

Andy Last

Chief Executive Officer MullenLowe Salt


Andy co-founded salt in 2000 and has led the development of MullenLowe salt’s Social Purpose model to create sustainable, progressive campaigns for brands and businesses. He advises organisations on how they can use social issues to drive growth, and how communications can effect change to bring about better business results and social progress. Andy has worked since 2006 on Lifebuoy soap’s award-winning social mission, described as the ‘best social program ever’ by David Aaker, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, and has advised organisations including Unilever, Diageo, Mondelez, PepsiCo and Kimberly-Clark over the last 20 years. He is a regular speaker on the role of business in society, at conferences in Europe, America, Asia and Africa and as a visiting lecturer, including for Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership and the Rotterdam Business School, and is a member of the Medinge Group, the Brands with a Conscience Think Tank. A second edition of his book, ‘Business on a Mission: How to Build a Sustainable Brand’, was published earlier this year by Routledge, and can be purchased here.

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