Ethics Are The New Aesthetics

David Jonker and Michael Rander

Veganism—eating a diet that includes no animal products—was once a fringe practice. Today, it’s quickly becoming mainstream. From 2014 to 2017, the number of vegans in the US rose by 600% to comprise 6% of the population. In the UK, veganism is up 350% in the same timeframe. And research predicts that China’s vegan market will grow more than 17% between 2015 and 2020.

This shift may be driven in part by health concerns, but most people who go vegan say they’re doing so because they’re concerned about the environment and/or cruelty to animals. Indeed, some vegans opt to give up products from honey to wool, that might exploit animals.

Ethics as an integral part of the customer experience isn’t a new trend. British abolitionists protested the transatlantic slave trade by boycotting slave-grown sugar, first in 1791 and again in 1820. But ethical purchasing decisions are rapidly becoming the norm rather than the exception around the world and across industries. One in three consumers now chooses brands based on their social and environmental impact.

This shift is incontrovertibly driven by digital transparency, which provides consumers with ever more information about the problems the world faces and the impacts of their individual choices. The more consumers know about companies, supply chains, sourcing, manufacturing processes, and so forth, the more easily they can apply their ethical standards. And in so doing, they’re not only expressing their own ethics—they’re also encouraging others to adopt them and insisting that companies respond to that demand.

This is giving birth to “moral design,” a new approach to business in which companies consider and adjust the outcomes of their work both to do good and to minimize harm. Essentially, moral design embeds ethical considerations into business decisions that were once based only on price or aesthetics. Plastic bags, for example, are convenient and inexpensive, but as the second-worst kind of plastic in the sea, they’re also death to the sea turtles who mistake them for food.

Even fashion, which is inherently driven by trends and aesthetics, is seeing an opportunity to combine profits with ethics through moral design. Adidas, for example, has partnered with Parley, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to protecting the oceans, to create a line of shoes and sportswear made from recycled plastic waste recovered from beaches. Adidas Parley is one of the company’s fastest-growing brands as well as a testing ground for the company’s plans to eliminate all virgin plastic from its supply chain.

Increasingly, customers want companies to weave ethics into not just what a product is, but how it’s made, distributed, and used throughout its life cycle. While this may seem like a challenge, it’s also an opportunity for companies planning a customer experience that fulfills the deep human desire for meaning. A company that can honestly claim that its moral compass guides its products, services, and processes is a company that’s proving it understands the importance of ethics—not as a marketing tactic, but as an effective business model for a complex future.

SAP worked with more than a dozen industry experts to uncover five trends that will determine the customer experience over the next decade. “The Future Customer Experience: 5 Essential Trends” report examines each of these trends and offers recommendations for how brands should respond now to prepare.


David Jonker

About David Jonker

David Jonker leads the global thought leadership team at SAP, exploring how technology innovation addresses business, economic, and social issues today and tomorrow.

About Michael Rander

Michael Rander is the Global Research Director for Future of Work at SAP. He is an experienced project manager, strategic and competitive market researcher, and operations manager, as well as an avid photographer, athlete, traveler, and entrepreneur.