8 easy(ish) ways to build your ethics into your business

What are your business ethics? How do you build values into your business from the ground up? Here are 8 ways I've made sure my work aligns with my values. Click through to learn how you can do the same!

It’s an overcast Tuesday and my friend and I are busily co-working at a crowded coffee shop. I’m finding photos for future blog posts (read: procrastinating) and she’s designing an ebook (read: being productive).

I lean across the table to see what her book will look like, which photos she’s using. Here’s a man in a wheelchair, typing away on a Macbook. Here’s a Latina woman leading a meeting; here’s a black man pushing a stroller and leading a toddler by the hand towards the playground.

She sees me peering at her screen and nods. “Yeah, I realized that I talk a really good game on Twitter about inclusivity. Then I looked at my blog and noticed that I wasn’t really practicing what I preach. So I’m trying to do better.”

I glance back at my computer and the two photos I just favorited: a white lady doing yoga on a mountain top and two white ladies drinking lattes on a park bench. #basic

Maybe it’s time for me – for many of us? – to do better.

It’s always been a good idea for us to build our ethics into our businesses, but in 2017 it’s more important than ever.

8 easy(ish) ways to build your ethics into your business

1. Work with clients who create things you believe in

Well obviously, right?

I rarely work with clients anymore but when I did, they were awesome: Eating psychologists who help people stop dieting and hating their bodies, women in male-dominated fields, a clothing company that makes its dresses in America and pays its workers a living wage.

I turned down work from multi-level marketing schemes and a company with a racial slur as part of its name. I turned down a woman whose name turns up “scam” as the first Google result.

Having said that, I also realize that no one can pay their rent with values. Sometimes you really need the money and the client that’s a-knocking is fine-but-not-great. They’re not the ASPCA. We’ve all been there.

In those situations, I think it’s best to just not work with people or companies who are irredeemable assholes. Like, not Uber or Comcast or Haliburton.

2. Choose your vendors and suppliers with care

Every choice is a chance. Sometimes we can be the change we want to see in the world by being intentional and thoughtful about where we send our business.

We can choose a caterer that employs at-risk youth. We can have our business cards printed on recycled paper by a local, independently-owned print shop.

We can rent office space from landlords who don’t discriminate. We can a business loan from a credit union rather than a bank that has practiced predatory lending. You get the idea.

3. Hire people who are different than you

If you’re self-employed – what luck! – you are also in charge of hiring!

It’s a pretty well-documented fact that human beings are naturally drawn to people who are similar to them – physically, psychologically, and socio-economically.

So it’s no surprise that tech companies founded by twenty-something white dudes mostly hire … twenty-something white dudes. If we’re not careful, we’re all inclined to hire people who are exactly the same as us.

Let’s try to broaden our hiring horizons.

Obviously, this is a little awkward. I’m not suggesting you ask applicants about their ethnic background, gender identities, or sexual preference. That’s both illegal and gross.

But I think we can all benefit from
a) recognizing our own built-in bias to surround ourselves with people just like us
b) make a conscious decision to work on that
c) being open to allllll qualified applicants for a position

Not every VA needs to be a 22-year-old white girl! Not everyone needs a four-year degree in Computer Science to write code!

4. Work with brands and advertisers who align with your values

If you’re working directly with companies to create sponsored content you are, essentially, putting a big, red “I approved this message!” stamp on everything you create together.

If I was a vegan food blogger and I partnered with a leather goods company, I bet you’d notice. After all my talk about climate change and the environment, I bet you guys would notice if I did a Hummer-sponsored roadtrip.

Our readers and clients know who we are and what we’re about. They notice when we promote companies that don’t align with our values and they’ll unfollowing accordingly.

5. Use diverse photos in your marketing

Representation matters. It’s hard for us to imagine ourselves in a role if we’ve never, ever seen someone who looks like us doing it.

I’ve seen a million photos of blonde women drinking coffee in to-go cups or laughing over salads. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a marketing photo of a woman who looks like me working on an oil rig.

We can all do our tiny part by just being thoughtful about the photos we use. Can I find an image featuring anyone other than a thin young white woman?  Nappy is a roundup of beautiful, free stock photos featuring black and brown people and the Lean In collection from Getty Images is great, too.

6. Promote + send traffic to people, companies, and websites you believe in

If I believe in a company or individual’s work, I can amplify their message (and help them make money) just by linking to them.

I can link to Trieu Chao a million times. I can tell Instagram how much much I love my CSA. I can tuck links into my Sunday post promoting ethical companies and under-appreciated bloggers and thought-provoking essays. Super easy! Super helpful!

7. Be open + honest about your ethics and where you stand

A reminder for all of us: when we’re silent in situations of injustice, we have chosen the side of the oppressor.

I know it can feel scary to take a stand about topics that are important to you. If you’re worried you’ll get push back or unsubscribes, you’re right. You will.

I know you might feel worried that if you’re vocal about your ethics, you’ll lose readers or clients. You might.
When you take a stand, the people who love you WILL LOVE YOU EVEN MORE. Share on XWhen you’re open about who you are and what you believe, you’re making it easier for people to commit to you or get off the wagon.

Also: the most important relationship you have is the one you have with yourself. You’ll like yourself a lot better if you stand up for what you believe. It feels good to look in the mirror and know you did your best.

Related: 5 ways to deal with trolls, unfollows, and unsubscribes

8. Make all of this normal and business-as-usual

I think the best way to do all of this is to, well, just do it. I don’t need to yell about how Middlesex is a huge step forward for trans people and diversity and literature. I can just tell you that it’s some of the best writing I’ve read in years and OMG GO READ IT.

I don’t need to write three posts about how I’m committing to using more inclusive images I can just … start doing that.

I don’t have to go on and on about how great it is that Essence makeup doesn’t test on animals, I can just say “Look at this incredibly popular lip gloss that costs $2.49!”

But I want to hear from you! Have you found a way to include your values in your business model? If you have, tell us in the comment so we can try your methods, too!

P.S. Everything I use + recommend to run my business


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  1. DNN

    I would surely hire people who think different thank I do. Reason being is because despite being a webpreneur, I’m humble enough to say I don’t know it all. Additionally, I know my train of thought alone wouldn’t always make the cut. Great minds may sometimes think alike, but it also takes diversified mindsets in order to come together and make things work. 🙂

  2. Ebony

    Thank you so much for this post 🙂

  3. Ashley W.

    I really love and appreciate this post. Thank you 🙂

    … also goddammit Middlesex is such a great book

  4. Hiba Alemdar

    Great minds create great things ; love this post and I will always keep these words in my mind ; many thanks

  5. Dressler Parsons

    Ah! Though sometimes a LITTLE bit of info is helpful when recommending books–I spent all this time avoiding Middlesex because I thought it was about Paul Revere! (“One if by land, and two if by sea/And I on the opposite shore will be/Ready to ride and spread the alarm/Through every Middlesex village and farm.”)

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Ha! I always got it confused with Middlemarch and couldn’t figure out why everyone loved some stuffy, boring old book from ye olden days!

  6. Nikki Paz

    Hi Sarah, I love this post. We all need to be better at practicing what we preach!

    One tiny thing – I think it would be better if you could write something like “a Latina woman” instead of just “a Latina” – for me, someone white writing this makes it come across in a similar way as saying like, “a Chinese”. Does that make sense?

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      That’s a great point, Nikki! Edited!

  7. Sandra, Italy

    When your blogpost popped up in my inbox, I immediately clicked on the link to your webpage… so I arrived without any preconceived notion about what I would be reading. And, upon seeing your photo choice, my immediate reaction was “A non-white hand, busily planning her day – how REFRESHING!” It made your blog shine with a different light… a STRONGER light! It goes without saying that I also loved the post, I will keep it in mind whenever I have the opportunity to choose who gets my money! Hugs,

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Isn’t it amazing how a small change like that can make such a difference? <3

  8. Miriam Sheerin

    I loved your article and it reminded me that I need to talk about what is important to me and why I started my business with it’s emphasis on working with women and of course, only using renewable energy sources for the servers that I offer. Thanks for the reminder to share why we do the things we do, the way we do 🙂

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