Ethics, Retailing and the Internet

Paul Whysall


In this paper, the impact of the Internet on ethical aspects of retail activity will be addressed. Two main elements are presented, reflecting two contrasting perspectives on the broad theme. Firstly there is the use of the Internet by those who seek to expose, criticise and influence retailers’ practices. Secondly there is the use of the Internet by retailers in ways that may be seen as having ethical implications.

The first main section of the paper will examine the concept of ‘Internet vigilantes’ (cf. Badaracco and Useem, 1997) in relation to pressures placed on retailers for more ethical performance. It is argued that a major change has occurred in the ways in which the ethical standards and performance of retailers can be scrutinised and publicised as a result of the Internet. Freedom of access to global audiences through the World Wide Web means that widespread exposure for criticisms of corporate performance can be achieved using relatively modest computing resources. In the area of retailing, this has increased significance, given that it also coincides with an era in which it is widely argued that there has been a shift of power to consumers. The combination of ethically aware consumers with increased power to influence retailers, and the Internet’s capability and traditions for global campaigning represents a major threat to any retailer who should be perceived to be acting unethically. It is suggested that a spectrum of attempts to influence retailers through Internet campaigns can be demonstrated, from ‘lone voices’, to co-ordinated campaigns, to new initiatives by well-established groups: Initially, examples of individuals using the Internet to expose perceived shortcomings of retailers will be examined, notably through Jon Entine’s widely reported criticisms of The Body Shop, Ben & Jerry’s and the like. The use of the Internet as a co-ordinative forum will be explored, with examples such as the ‘McLibel’ case and anti-Wal Mart campaigns in the United States. Internet-focused campaigns, such as the Netherlands-based ‘Clean Clothes Campaign’ and animal rights campaigns will be discussed. The extension to the Internet of the activities of established campaigning groups such as major charities (e.g. Oxfam’s Clothes Code site) and religious organisations (e.g. Christian Aid’s campaign against UK supermarkets’ sourcing policies in the Third World) represents a welding of new technology to well established practices.

Through a review of these and other examples, it is concluded that the Internet offers greatly increased potential for ethical scrutiny of retailers, and for that scrutiny to be increasingly conveyed to articulate and informed consumer segments. However, it also has a potential for irresponsible use and, should that be seen to be occurring, then calls for tighter regulation and legal intervention are likely to increase.

Conversely, for retailers the Internet also presents new opportunities. The second main part of the paper addresses ethical considerations of retailers’ use of the Internet. Several examples of major retailers publicising their ‘good works’ and ‘good intentions’ through Web sites will be cited. A feature of these is that in several cases there is a focus on children, educational themes, and the young. While this is a reasonable reflection of Internet users, perhaps, for some it may encourage the view that responsible activity is to be demanded, and if that is not perceived then there are likely to be calls for regulation and intervention. The activities of less scrupulous traders, often dealing in goods which, to many, may appear anti-social (e.g. weapons, pornography) is seen as posing a potential threat to legitimate traders. In conclusion, it is argued that the critical, liberal and open traditions of the Internet are one of its strengths, but only through responsible use will those traditions escape calls for greater regulation or more intervention.


Badaracco, J.L., Jr. and J.V. Useem, 1997, ‘The Internet, Intel and the Vigilante Stakeholder’, Business Ethics. A European Review, 6(1), 18-29.