5 Things About My Audience: Abbie Morris - Compare Ethics

What we know and don’t know about our audience’s attention

Hello everyone!

Onwards with our journey to learn about different organisations and their audiences in this series, which has so far featured Matt Carlstrom from Quanta Magazine, John Stack from the Science Museum Group and Riham Mustafa from the International Finance Corporation. Keeping up with the rhythm, this week we chat to Abbie Morris, CEO and co-founder of Compare Ethics, a startup in the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) space using AI to help retailers be confident on their ESG commitments.

This is 5 Things About My Audience, a series where we interview people who are trying to reach different kinds of audiences, to understand how they approach audience engagement - and how that’s been changing over the years.

Over to Abbie Morris:

I'm Abbie. I'm the co-founder and CEO at Compare Ethics. We use AI to help retail businesses make sure that they're confident on the fast-changing impact regulations.

Headshot of a white-skinned woman with dark brown hair wearing a black and white striped shirt, posing against an orange background

1. Who is your audience? Tell us a few things you know about them. 

We primarily work closely with sustainability and in-house counsel at global retail businesses. Typically, a lot of our community members are really scared of not being compliant with new impact regulations, whether it's a fear of greenwashing, a fear of human rights violations or wider ESG compliance requirements. Everyone is really looking for clarity and certainty on what the regulations are, how they can comply and ultimately how they make sure that they're doing the right thing. I think they're also really scared about the different fines and enforcement action that's coming down the pipeline, and they want to make sure that their business avoids new regulation and legal risks.

And the other key thing is competitiveness. I think in this world, more than ever, when we all are trying to do more with less, everyone's trying to work out: okay, how do I keep my cost lower for compliance compared to my peers, so that ultimately I could still maintain an advantage in this market or stay in this market? So we're working really closely to understand how we can best support them with the right content and technology products to stay ahead.

2. What research or tools do you have that back up your understanding of them?

So there's three core ways that we do this, but all of it is having a conversation with our community. You can't beat old fashioned one-on-one conversations. It's really clear, one-on-one conversations with a critical mass of your community that allows you to identify the different themes that are emerging. And there’s nothing that I have found that beats that.

More broadly, I think just holding in-person events is really powerful. I think there's something around people feeling a camaraderie of ‘I'm not alone’ around their challenges. They open up a whole new level of conversation, which you might not get in a one-on-one environment. It's more peer-to-peer learning, and therefore you can learn from your community the next set of insights you might want to prepare for them that will be useful for them, or for your own product understanding. 

And then thirdly is obviously just staying ahead of what is affecting them more broadly. So we have our own in-house policy team that's dedicated to understanding the market change from a more top-down perspective, and then we try and marry that on-the-ground experience with what's happening from a broader policy landscape. This is how we bring together everything - our community strategy, our content strategy to our product strategy.

There's no snazzy big tools that we use, necessarily. It's just literally us and our community talking and exploring different issues - there’s no replacement for this.

3. Have you noticed any interesting behaviour changes in your audiences over the last 2 to 3 years?

Ours is quite a unique space. Typically, most policy change and regulation is very slow, but in this sustainability regulation space, everything is happening at once. Whether it's in the US, the EU, the UK, there are a lot of things happening all at the same time and that creates anxiety. So for us, actually over the last 12-18 months, people have gone from feeling quite confident on how to communicate about their sustainability credentials to ‘Oh dear, I don't really know if I'm all over the detail on this and I actually don't know where to find the right information’. So I think there has been a real dearth of good data on what brands need to do to comply. And I think that that's really where we've tried to step in and help them bridge that gap between keeping up with the regulations and moving the industry forward.

4. What’s the one thing you would really like to know about your audience that you don’t know?

I think I'd really love to know how businesses are coping with short-termism versus the long-term views of their business. It feels to me naturally when we're in this quite pressured environment, that there is a real short-termism that brands are facing right now, staying alive, keeping the lights on, making sure they're looking after their people as well as they can.

And that's very natural, but I think that what many businesses are going to wake up to on the other side is a realisation that they haven't invested in the right systems, technology, culture and real compliance requirements that they need to compete on the other side of this uncertainty. So I think for me, I'd love to understand how brands are battling that conversation internally and really understanding how that's playing out. Because I think the winners will be those that actually keep one eye ahead and look up now and again. The losers are going to come out unprepared and losing market share because they haven't invested in the right sustainability infrastructure.

In terms of boards and CEOs actively wanting to be a part of this conversation, it is moving really fast. And generally this level of uncertainty and pressure has definitely caused a bit of a ruckus between the BAU (business as usual) and getting the sustainability job done.

I also hear a lot that people don't feel like it's a level playing field when it comes to sustainability. You have some brands who are pressing ahead and investing into sustainability, and then you have others who are completely ignoring it. And then that means that those who are ignoring it are capturing more market share in the short term. Unfortunately, these businesses have not yet realised that in the medium to long term, they're shooting themselves in the foot. You need to invest in durability, extended producer responsibility, lower impact materials, and testing new business models now to win in the retail of tomorrow.

So I think when there's this pressure - when businesses are looking around each other going, ‘Hey, this guy next to me hasn't invested in sustainability and they're doing really well here. Why are we investing in this sustainability thing?’, that's when there is this pressured conversation, of the short term versus the long term, and the businesses that are going to win are the ones that continue to invest in it because they know the direction of travel is invertible. 

5. Is there a project that you’re really jealous of, that you wished you’d done at Compare Ethics?

I think one that has been really transformative, that's very helpful, is from the UN - a friend  called Rachel Arthur has just created this huge, very practical guide, a Sustainable Fashion Communications Playbook. And this is the type of asset that I think is really important for industry to get to grips with - the basic hygiene that you need to do things well when it comes to sustainability communications. I think that has been very inspiring and it had really good pickup.

In terms of startups, there are just some startups that do comms really well. I really like Walnut. Walnut is a sales tool. I absolutely love their comms. Everything is always super clear, really digestible content, very easy to access. I quite like that there is some degree of standardisation in B2B SaaS, but there is still a really good personality flavour that I think Walnut has - just having the right hierarchy of information for products, to how to use the product, to why the product, and then buyer enablement. And so I think they do a really good job from a startup point view. 

There are a lot of cliches, particularly from a branding point of view.  I've come from a background of working globally to deliver policy outcomes via responsible business. For literally decades, we've been talking about the power of business to transform lives, and all this narrative is all fantastic and it's so needed, but we just need to normalise that this is just how businesses should operate. If we really want to move this to being a system-wide change, we need to rethink how we are using language.  

I want brands to buy my product because it's actually making their business better and the impact reduction (on environment) is a by-product. I know that's why they're ultimately going to be buying. It's not because they want to save the planet. If they were going to do that, then they would have done it by now, without me. And that's why I'm really passionate about this exact topic:  how do we just make good business make sense? 

And I think that's where a lot of the branding faux pas come in, because you're trying to attach the emotion of feeling good, which actually in this market in particular, it's never going to come through. Retail is competitive and we need to align with these incentives to win the sustainability race. We still live in a capitalist system where that's the most important thing - to get business done. So by a lovely network effect, we *happen* to be making the planet a better place - products are lower impact (on the environment), human rights better protected - but that's a by-product, not the reason why they're buying it.

Wise, honest words, coming with a lot of experience in this space. Thanks so much, Abbie.

We’ve been interested in the ESG/social impact/climate technology space for a while now, so I hope our readers have enjoyed the interview as much as we have.

If you can think of someone who might be a good interviewee for this series- particularly someone working in the B2B space, drop us a line in the comments - we’d love to reach out! Self-referrals are fine if you meet those requirements :)

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