"There will be a new ranking system or value system for holding companies and public figures accountable."
A growing pattern of morally driven consumption has emerged over the past few years, from ethical fashion edits to anti-excess beauty to carbon credit spending to cruelty-free travel. But what was once pioneered by a niche group of true believers is ballooning into a base rate, fundamental expectation of brands. Morally and ethically sound practices are increasingly considered table stakes for brands—and are an important factor in consumers’ path to purchase.
The difficulty, according to Pooj Morjaria, was tracking and cataloguing brand behavior. Which is why he created Did They Help?, an independent watchdog website that keeps a running record of brands’ good and bad deeds.
Below, he catches up with us about moral credit, the new brand ranking system, the importance of corporate social responsibility and the imminent consumer reckoning.
Why did you decide to launch Did They Help?
First and foremost, I wanted to create a collective memory for the whole world to use. For a long time, I’d witnessed corporations, billionaires and public figures put profits ahead of their staff or use their clout or position to benefit in times of crisis.
Like everyone else, I felt outrage towards these companies. And while they received the appropriate bad press—it’s not like this is going unseen or undocumented—I think far too often this societal rage that we felt was short-lived. Within a few days, maybe a week, we’d go back to these companies and line up, eager to spend money on the latest product.
And sure, people would try to keep tabs, but the tabs that I saw people keeping just weren’t sustainable; I saw people keeping paperless tabs on Twitter, and others crowding around them. And I just couldn’t believe that this was the best that the internet had to offer. I thought, well, there’s got to be a website for this, it can’t just be in the hands of a few individuals on Twitter.
At the same time, I’d also been noticing that stories about these companies and individuals would get lost in the churn of a 24-hour news cycle. Companies would commit one foul, and then as quickly as they would commit it, it would be replaced by that of another company. Or they would do something else which would then trump it or would find another way of diverting our attention.
So a site like Did They Help?, I thought, would provide some form of organized access to that information on a particular company or public figure. What we’re trying to do is give you a profile of a company or person that’s catalogued from information on news sites about this specific entity or individual. And now all you have to do is search for a company or public figure and, bam, you can be taken to their profile page, which lists their good and bad deeds.
Why is it important to help consumers catalogue corporate behavior?
Now more than ever, the divide between multibillionaires and the rest of society is bigger—or at least it feels that way. There was a stat I saw recently: while millions around the world have lost their jobs during [the pandemic], the wealth of the uber-rich grew by $308 billion, and Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth grew by $24 billion. And that’s all whilst they continued to profit before safeguarding their employees, or by taking advantage of developing countries, or some other scandal—it’s endless.
But now what I think is different, as opposed to before [the pandemic], is that everyone is starting to care collectively about the bad practices of these companies and public figures. The whole world is going through this pandemic and we’re all suffering together; it’s imbued us with a sense of justice.
Media whistleblowers have always been calling out brands, so I don’t think that this is a novel endeavor. But the format in which we’re doing this, and the way that we’re cataloguing it—as opposed to the information we’re providing—I think that’s what’s different now.
We’ve seen brand offerings built around tenets like sustainability and cruelty-free. Going forward, do you think brands will be expected to trade on moral credit, beyond the value of their products alone?
Yes, in a way. The reputation of a company as a whole will have to be steeped in their good deeds
But I don’t know what that’s going to look like. We have a ranking system [on Did They Help?] but it’s incredibly simplistic. I wouldn’t say that that’s the best way to do it. We added the ranking system because we felt that it helped some people quantify actions of a company; the points are there to help make sense of what we’re reading.
Do you think that there will be a new value or ranking system for brands moving forward?
Yes, I do think that there will be a new ranking system or value system for holding companies and public figures accountable.
Now that we’re all in the same boat, affected by this one singular human event [ed note: the COVID-19 pandemic], I think that there’s no way that we could forget that companies acted a certain way. I think it will be ingrained in everyone. Companies and public figures can’t hide from this anymore.
Historically, brands existed purely to provide a product or a service. Do you think it’s fair to judge brands on whether or not they do good, or does that go beyond the brand-consumer relationship?
I think that we absolutely should hold them morally accountable for their actions.
If in the past there wasn’t much of this going on, I think that was because of the position that society was in. If we can, in the past one hundred years, get women the right to vote, end segregation and institute a minimum wage for employees—we can’t ignore that.
To not hold companies accountable morally and ethically would be to ignore all the changes that have happened. While they may not have had a moral or ethical responsibility in the past, they absolutely do now.
What kinds of responses have you gotten to the website from brands and consumers?
The responses I’ve gotten have been surprising, because I never expected this website to be as successful or as popular as it has been. The website gets on average between 10,000 and 60,000 visitors a day.
I’ve gotten the normal people that I thought I would get, which are the people who care about this, who want to use the website and learn about what companies have done.
But the thing that surprised me the most was how brands reacted to it. I never thought that this would actually fall within their radar and that they would care as much as they have. But what I’ve found is that a lot of these large organizations and brands—some of them really well known—have come to the website and overloaded us with submissions about all the good deeds they’ve done. For example, just today I spent the whole morning going through 42 submissions from one brand.
One of the most shocking ones was I had the CEO of a major tech company personally message me to have their profile added to the website. They messaged in to say, ‘look, we’re doing this, put us on the website,’ and I thought, this is mental, don’t you have more important things to do than worry about whether you’re on my website or not? I can’t believe that this brand and the many others like it would even care, but I guess the popularity of the website means that they have to care.
One of the questions that I get a lot is, ‘what if a company is only acting positively for the points or the PR?’ And my response is always: what’s wrong with that? I would much rather a corporation pay their staff for four weeks during the coronavirus pandemic than not at all if that came about from a need for good PR. As long as their actions change for the better. If this is what convinces them to be better, or to take corporate social responsibility (CSR) seriously, then so be it.