Brands popular both for their social currency and image of social responsibility go under journalist Hawthorne's (The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism, 2010, etc.) microscope in this exploration of how closely the ethical words match up to corporate actions.
In today’s consumer world, advertising, publicity and marketing are mostly geared toward drawing customers to the brand, rather than pushing the product. Akin to social media, where people connect via shared interests, today's best-known brands seek to create communities based on shared product appreciation. One of the common elements companies seek to build these communities around is an ethical approach to business. Caretaking of the environment, fair treatment of workers and a focus on "doing the right thing" are as important as the profit margins. Hawthorne turns an optimistic-but-skeptical eye on a half-dozen companies to dig past the marketing hyperbole and explore actual practices. The companies—Apple, Starbucks, Trader Joe's, American Apparel, Timberland and Tom's of Maine—all purport to carry that best-case combination of ethical practices and "cool products.” In reality, however, they all make significant concessions in pursuit of growing profits. Hawthorne wisely avoids taking a staunch green-or-not approach, instead taking into account the various complexities and realities of doing business in a world that doesn't always provide the infrastructure necessary to make a purely ethical business decision. The author ably explains the standards by which the industries police themselves and the different layers of whitewash and how they're applied to some egregiously unethical policies. She also acknowledges that a company's ethical practices, while increasingly important to younger consumers, are still far from being make-or-break factors for these entrenched status brands. American Apparel still runs ads designed to titillate; Tom's of Maine is now owned by Colgate.
Hawthorne's research provides clear, rational insights into our ethical choices, empowering us to be savvy shoppers.