Katrin Bats: Is the selling of blue-and-yellow socks ethical?

Katrin Bats.
Katrin Bats. Source: Author's personal collection.

I would urge any business wanting to do anything to support Ukrainians to think calmly about what substantial contributions it can make, and how best to help those in need, writes Katrin Bats head of responsible business at supermarket Rimi.

As a private individual, it is also worth considering if we have done enough in the way of good works when we buy a pair of blue-and-yellow socks, or if this could arise from more thoughtful activity, she adds.

In Estonia, there are more and more businesses who consider ethics and sustainability to be important to their operations. However, Russia's war against Ukraine has put us into a whole new perspective, both as people, as employees and as employers: The borders of ethical and inappropriate behavior have shifted, and lie in different locations for many people, with some seemingly learning things anew, that others had taken for granted.

We are simply searching for many questions, answers

Do blue-yellow products help help, or is marketing on the boundary of ethics? How about donating your products to war refugees? How should money be donated to Ukraine? Under which conditions is it suitable to hire refugees, and which not? What are the "right" and appropriate ways to support this, and what does society condemn as virtue signaling?

Some already consider it right and proper to dump food or alcohol of Russian origin in the landfill site, rather than consuming it, while for others would perish the thought. Some are going all out blue-and-yellow; others contemptuously pour scorn on that. True, the right answers are difficult to estimate, and we are instead still searching for these as a society.

In business ethics, however, there are universal principles which to my mind are valid also in this new situation which are complicated for us all.

As a first step, help via your core business. Actually, there is no direct need to produce and market separate blue-and-yellow products, in order to help. Find yourself a professional third-sector partner who has direct contact with refugees and experience in this type of activity. 

That way, you can find out what kind of help is needed for whom and where that need is. With the help of the right partner, help will reach those who need it most rapidly.

Some examples: If you make pillows, donate your products; if a grocer – give those in need the required food; if you produce cosmetics, soaps, creams, toys or baby food you can also give your products to those in need; offer free or discounted services to children, if you are a hairdressing salon. The list can go on and on.

Offering your goods and services is the primary, easiest, and most direct way to offer aid to war refugees.

Second, donate money if your business situation allows it. This need not mean that the donation be a large one. Giving up a share of your profits as a small business also counts; every penny is helpful in such a situation.

In this too your choice of the partner via whom you donate also plays an important role. Do your due diligence; find out who will use the donation, and how. 

In that way you can also ensure that your valuable contribution gets spent on what you think is the right thing, be it medication, transport, weapons or other support.

Third, give of your time and skills whenever you can, and also offer your employees the opportunity to volunteer, giving them paid time off to do so and looking for opportunities where people's knowledge and skills can aid the war-torn country and its refugees.

Fourth, if possible, offer a workplace to a war refugee. These people need a function for both day-to-day and emotional reasons, as well as, of course, to be able to interact and adapt to our society. Money is needed to live, and meaningful activities help people to stop worrying about loved ones in war and insecurity, for a while.

Societal relations are essential for adaptation in society. Working helps people to meet all three of these needs. 

Employers can do more, for example, by offering their staff the opportunity to support refugees who have joined the team as mentoring friends.

Fifth, don't forget your existing employees. No company is anything without its employees. As businesses and employers, we are responsible in our own way for the people we offer work to. Their secure working environment, the skillful management of any inter-ethnic group conflicts and the promotion of people's mental health in an anxious atmosphere are all issues that every responsible employer must take into account, and address. Unfortunately, these are issues that need tender attention, even if Russia stops its attack on Ukraine in the near future.

Is it okay to talk about helping?

Against the background of all this, a difficult question remains: Is it right for a company to be talking about all this? Wartime has brought many new ugly expressions to our attention. One of them is "war marketing".

I am not saying that every blue-yellow item is inappropriate, or that every company which comes up with a special product in support of Ukraine is looking for inappropriate attention. Nor am confident enough to say that anyone who proudly talks about "their" Ukrainian workers is promoting themselves at the expense of the needy.

Nowadays, there is an active generation in the labor market, while the leaders of our companies have never been in such a situation. This is all new and scary. We understand that help is needed, and we will try to do that now and quickly.

Today, there is an active generation in the labor market, and the leaders of our companies have never been in such a situation. It's new and scary. We understand that help is needed and we will try to do it now and quickly.

As a private individual, we should also consider whether we have done enough good by buying blue-yellow socks and wearing them with pride, or whether it would be more the thought-provoking (and often a little more) activity which reaches those who need it directly and helps in a way that is needed most right now.

Really, the blue-yellow socks are okay.This also shows that you are thinking about things and trying to help. But perhaps as a society, as companies, as people, we can do a little more; we can go a few steps outside the comfort zone?

Plenty of refugees are here to stay

Experts estimate that about a quarter of those who fled the war will soon return to their homeland. Thus, a significant proportion of the newcomers will stay with us in Estonia. And here, unfortunately, blue-and-yellow socks are no longer of help.

Sadly, the initial desire of many to help, even in a small way, is being replaced with a new situation which both offers opportunities and brings wit it a variety of complicated concerns, which need addressing.

Resolving these issues in the best way for everyone requires tolerance, compassion, active participation and the understanding on the part of many Estonians. 


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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