I started Wholegrain Digital with my wife Vineeta in 2007. At the time, consumers were increasingly looking for new and different options but were faced with a choice of well known, well-presented brands, or niche eco brands that only appealed to hippies. We believed that we could help sustainable brands reach a wider audience. We wanted to start an agency that could help socially and environmentally responsible businesses compete with mainstream businesses; we wanted to use our technical and creative skills to help good brands thrive in the marketplace.
In the early years, there were times when paying the rent and buying food weren’t a given. As our savings rapidly disappeared, we paid the bills by taking on almost any project that came our way. We did some work that I’m not proud of in order to simply keep going—one for a Chinese pharmaceutical company, another for a “cash for gold” business, and another for a somewhat questionable nightclub.
Taking on those projects made me feel like I was a failure even though they were what kept the lights on. I felt like I had let myself down and was ashamed that I had compromised my principles. But I’ve learned that short term compromise can be essential in achieving long term goals. It’s thanks to those uncomfortable early decisions that we made it through our start-up years and now have a business that I’m proud of.
But trying to be selective about our clients has taught me some hard lessons about the relationship between my values and my desire to make money. It’s shown me sides of myself that I didn’t always like and it’s taught me that we just can’t have it all. Life sometimes forces us to choose between doing the right thing and doing the profitable thing and it’s in those choices that we learn who we really are.
When it comes to marketing, companies are paying money to inspire, encourage, or trick other people into changing their beliefs or behaviour—most often what and how much they should buy in the market. That might be as simple as making it easier for people to pay their car tax online, encouraging people to donate money to a charity, or enticing them to buy a new pair of shoes.
But sometimes the behaviour we are asked to encourage makes us uncomfortable or sends up red flags; sometimes the beliefs we are asked to change keep us up at night. Those opportunities are what I call bad money—paid work that goes against our personal values or tries to change behaviours in a way that we disagree with. And how we act in those moments tells us a lot about what we truly believe in.
Tuning in to your feelings is the best way to understand what you really care about, what you’re willing to sacrifice, and when you are (or aren’t) being honest with yourself.
Our business was inspired by the rise of so-called ethical consumers—people who treat their purchases as votes for companies that operate in line with their own values. It’s the trend that drove the rise of fair trade and organic products in the mid-2000s.
I considered myself to be one of these ethical consumers. I believed my money had the power to change the world based on how I spent it, but I also believed that my money had the power to change the world based on how I earned it. If I was being picky about who I gave my money to, then I should be equally picky about who I earned my money from.
We all have an idea about who we think we are and what we believe in. I like to think that I’m an environmentalist—wearing my hemp jeans, driving my electric car, eating my organic vegetables, and crapping in my composting toilet. But I also like to think of myself as an entrepreneur. After all, it’s my business that pays for my so-called eco-friendly lifestyle. But those two sides of myself don’t always align.
There have been times when I had to ask myself which part is more important, the environmentalist or the entrepreneur. At times I have tried to convince myself that I’m an environmentalist at home and an entrepreneur at work, but I knew that was just a lie of convenience. Robin Hood didn’t work as a project manager for the Sheriff of Nottingham and then go volunteer for the poor on weekends. I have learned the hard way that I can’t leave my values at home when I go to work.
Unfortunately, that means I have had to make some very hard choices over the years. Living your values fully and completely is hard. Sometimes the right decision is staring you in the face but other factors, such as relationships with people you care about, can cloud your vision and prevent you from seeing what the right choice really is.
On one occasion, we were approached by a well known right-wing publication who felt that our WordPress expertise could help them grow their online readership. From a technical perspective, it was an interesting project. I knew that we could do a good job, but I also knew that it didn’t align with our values.
For several weeks I pretended that everything was fine while I continued discussions with them. But at the same time, I was having restless nights. I knew deep down what I had to do but there were dollar signs in my eyes. So I rationalized it. I convinced myself that it made good financial sense and that I shouldn’t turn it down without a better reason than: “It doesn’t align with my values.”
It was my colleagues that set me straight. They knew I was cheating myself and they told me that they didn’t work at Wholegrain Digital so that I could sell their souls to the Devil. I knew they were right, but thinking about waving goodbye to over £100K in revenue was a heavy weight to bear. I was responsible for paying their salaries. But they reminded me that my values were also their values and, in doing so, helped to bear some of that burden.
Despite some short term stress, we eventually got hired for other projects that we were much more happy to work on. And I am grateful to my team for encouraging me to stay true to my values. They helped me realize that I need to be honest with myself (and with them) and to have faith that we can succeed as a business without saying yes to any offer that comes our way.
I became better at telling the difference between good money and bad money but that didn’t make those decisions any easier. You see, even when the right thing to do is plain as day, saying no can be hard for other more complicated and confusing reasons.
A few years ago, Wholegrain Digital reached a point where a single client was providing almost half of our revenue. I knew it wasn’t an ideal situation but we had a great working relationship with them. That is until they asked us to build an online campaign lobbying the British government to support military action against Palestine.
My immediate, gut reaction was to just say no. But that little voice in my head told me that the client relationship was important enough for us to at least consider it. I talked about it with the team and everyone agreed that we needed to draw the line. Regardless of any personal politics, none of us were prepared to build a campaign encouraging military action that would inevitably destroy the lives of innocent people. (Our decision was strengthened by the fact that one of our team members had lived through a war and seen the impacts firsthand.)
So I politely explained to the client why we couldn’t work on the project. And I learned that it’s very hard to turn down work on ethical grounds without causing offence, no matter how sensitively you attempt to handle the situation.
We were accused of being antisemitic and our contracts were cancelled. Nearly 50% of our revenue disappeared overnight. We were lucky that the business survived. Looking back, I should have been more prepared for how this decision would offend our client. Yes, we managed to bounce back within a few months. But maybe I should have visited them in person to talk about it and hear their perspective. Maybe I should have made up an excuse to turn down the project without making it an ethical discussion.
I’m not sure. But, over the years, I’ve learned that my own values are not as black and white as I thought; when it comes to ethical decision-making, there are many shades of grey. I’ve also learned that I cannot write a formula to tell me whether a project is a good fit or not; I often need to trust my gut. And sometimes that means I have to pluck up the courage to say no to bad money, even when I don’t have a clear explanation about why I need to do so.
How to turn down bad money
For over a decade, Wholegrain Digital has had the policy to turn down work that doesn’t match our own values. It can be just as difficult to do now as it was back at the start, but along the way, we have learned a few important things about how to turn down money without ruining your business.
Be open about who you are
In an ideal world, you would never have to turn down paid work. But the type of enquiries you get largely depends on the signals that you send out. If you are clear in your communications about what type of work you like to do, you will attract more projects well suited to your skills, interests, and values. This saves you the hard job of having to decide whether to turn down money and the harder job of actually doing so.
However, we’ve also learned that you need to be careful with your language. In the early days, our messaging said things like: “We only work with sustainable and ethical brands.” But we found that a lot of really forward-thinking and eco-friendly businesses didn’t actually see themselves as sustainable or ethical brands. They would actually say things like: “We are interested in working with you but we don’t think we are sustainable enough.” Or they would ask questions like: “Will you turn us down because we are not ethical enough for you?”
You don’t want to be having those sorts of awkward conversations, and you don’t want to be losing business from positive clients because you made them feel that they weren’t good enough for you. So think carefully about the wording you use and adjust it if it isn’t delivering the results you want.
Understand your finances
It’s very difficult to make hard decisions about whether to turn down a project if you don’t know if you can afford to turn it down. As a business owner, my natural instinct is always to assume that we need the money. But, in fact, the accounts often tell a different story.
In the early days, we had to take on some projects that we were uncomfortable with in order to survive financially. But we don’t have to anymore. The business is financially mature and we have a reputation that attracts the type of clients that we want to work with. You shouldn’t give yourself a hard time for compromising if there is a genuine financial need—those compromises will keep you afloat until you are able to do more positive, ethical, and “good” projects.
The key is to treat the financial aspect as completely objective—either you need the money or you don’t. If you do, then take on the least bad work you can. If you don’t need the money, then enjoy the opportunity to be picky and only work on things that you care about.
Keep cash in the bank
It’s one thing to be objective about whether you need the money, but it’s another thing to plan ahead to ensure that you can afford to be selective. As every business owner knows, you need to maintain good cash flow at all times.
If you are reinvesting every penny in growth as soon as it enters the bank account, you’ll have a lot less flexibility to turn down projects and wait for something more desirable. After we lost half our business in one fell swoop, we decided to always keep at least 3 months running costs in the bank at all times. That way, we would be in a better financial position to make future hard decisions less hard. Sure, that might have slowed our growth at times. But it has also made us a lot more financially stable and ensured that we always prioritize the job security of our team.
Set your boundaries in writing
When money is dangled in front of you, it can be hard to remember what it is you actually care about. We found that writing down our values and principles was the only way to clarify what really matters to us so that we could hold ourselves to account.
We documented our criteria for screening projects in an ethical policy defining them as green, grey, or red. Green projects match the criteria for things that we are passionate about such as human rights and green energy. Grey means that we are either not sure (and need to research or discuss the project) or that the project is ethically neutral or harmless. Red projects match any one of the criteria for things that we never want to get involved with such as gambling or armaments.
These boundaries will never provide perfect clarity, and we often find that projects are too complex to make such a simplified assessment. But having an ethical policy laid out provides a very helpful starting point.
As we learned, there is often no good way to tell someone that you don’t agree with the ethics of their project and we need to be respectful of the fact that everyone has different beliefs. These kinds of decisions are subjective, and we need to be careful not to point fingers or imply that we think we are better than others.
There may be occasions where you want to openly take a stand against something that you don’t think is right. Fair enough. But in many cases, especially when you are basing your decision on a gut feeling, you should also try to think of the feelings of the people on the other side. Chances are that they are good people that simply have a different perspective. A better starting point than just turning them down would be to have a conversation—explain things how you see them and ask them how they see things. It might be that the reality of the project is different from how you first saw it.
If this kind of open dialogue is not possible, it might sometimes be easier to turn down bad money without talking about it too much. Giving a more general reason such as: “we don’t feel that we are the right fit for the project” might sound like a cop-out, but sometimes a cop-out is simply better for everyone.
Trust your gut
In many cases, there isn’t a clear answer when it comes to deciding what to define as bad money or deciding what to do about. It should be clear by now that trying to keep your business aligned with your own beliefs and values is hard. Looking back at our experiences, the only constant is that things tend to go better when we trust our guts.
We can spend hours (or even days) analyzing a project in search of an obvious or rational answer as to whether should take it on. But what matters more is how we feel about it. There isn’t a spreadsheet or flow chart that can tell us how projects make us feel. Tuning in to your feelings is the best way to understand what you really care about, what you’re willing to sacrifice, and when you are (or aren’t) being honest with yourself.
What if you don’t own the business?
As co-owner of our business, I am in the fortunate position of being able to make decisions that keep our business in line with our beliefs. But what if these kinds of decisions are not yours to make? If your manager assigns you a project that you don’t feel comfortable with, can you really say no? I’m not sure. But here are some principles that might help you feel good about the work you do.
Set your own personal guidelines
It’s easy to pass responsibility up the chain of command and say, “I’m just doing my job.” But you can’t entirely outsource your responsibility. You have to take ownership of your actions and see yourself as complicit in the impact of the work you do, positive or negative. Yes, you might sometimes end up working on things that you don’t agree with. But you shouldn’t do so passively.
We have our company guidelines for screening projects. You may not have similar principles to follow but you can get better at listening to your inner compass. What type of work makes your heart sing? What type of work makes your gut feel a bit iffy? It’s an ongoing process of learning and growing, but if you develop the habit of being honest with yourself, you’ll be in a better position to develop a career that you are truly proud of.
Talk openly at work
One of the big reasons that companies don’t filter the type of projects that they take on (at least from the perspective of their beliefs and values) is that many workplaces don’t have an open culture of talking about what their staff believe in. The more that people talk about things, the more that it becomes part of the organizational dialogue and culture. And you don’t have to be an owner to lead that charge. Push yourself to be more open. Start thought-provoking conversations, tell people what you think is important and give other people an opportunity to be honest at work.
Challenge management when needed
It’s never easy to pluck up the courage to question a manager on their decision, especially if it appears that you are questioning their personal ethics. If you’re not careful, it could be a fast track to a pink slip. I actively encourage our team to be open with me and challenge me. But even I was a little bit pissed off when our team unanimously said we shouldn’t work for the right-wing publication.
It’s a lot easier to have these conversations if you’ve helped create a culture that encourages them. Starting to talk about how (or whether) client work aligns with your values is easier in the abstract than in the specific. Frame things in an aspirational rather than a personal way. Start with the assumption that everyone is trying to do the right thing and wants to improve; inspire or challenge others to be the best versions of themselves rather than making them feel bad about things they did in the past. If you listen to what others have to say and always keep an open mind, management will learn to do so as well.
Make sure you are in the right job
I hope that when you reflect on how your work fits your values, you’ll find a good fit. If there isn’t, then you have three choices: decide that you don’t care, decide to push for change from within, or start looking for another job. Only you can know which choice is right for you. But if you strongly feel that your values don’t match the work that you are being asked to do (and if you believe that pushing for change is futile), then you’ll be doing everyone a favour by packing your bags and taking your talents to an organization that is creating a world that you want to live in.
Turn down bad money
There is no doubt that we have made life unnecessarily hard for ourselves by putting our values before financial profit. Despite that, we continue to do it. This year we have already turned down a project for a casino and another for an oil and gas recruitment company.
Conventional wisdom would say that turning down any money is bad business. If maximizing short term profit was the only objective, I would agree. But that’s not our objective. I started a business because I want to spend my working hours doing things that are meaningful. I want to do work that I’m proud of.
Over the past decade, we have turned down over half a million pounds worth of revenue. But aligning the work we do with the values we hold has also had financial benefits that are harder to quantify than revenue but just as significant.
When I work on things that I am genuinely passionate about, I’m more excited to get out of bed in the morning, I have more energy, and I feel happier. When we feel inspired and motivated, we do better work, we deliver better results for our clients. And clients who have the same values as we do can see that we are willing to put our own necks on the line for what we believe, and that makes them excited about working with us. The more work we are passionate about, the better work we do, and the more of that work we are likely to get.
We have turned down a lot of work and that has resulted in some tough, stressful periods of time. But I truly believe that staying true to our values has helped us grow a profitable long-term business without having to advertise at all.
It may be hard to do, but standing up for what you believe in has a real impact. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it; it’s the hard that makes it great.
I know what you’re thinking—not everyone is in a position to be so picky. It’s hard enough to turn down bad money when you have money. It’s far easier for me to say no to projects now that our business is established than it was during our early years. And I know that not everyone has that luxury.
If we want to be able to say no to bad money, we need to ensure that we have our priorities in order. If you genuinely need the money, you need to make compromises to care for yourself and your family. You should always choose to feed your children over doing work that isn’t aligned with what you believe in. We should not give ourselves a hard time for prioritizing the necessities.
However, we are lucky to work in an industry where typical income levels are fairly high. For many of us, the question is usually not whether turning down bad money will result in us going hungry or homeless, but whether we’ll be able to afford a new iPhone or a holiday in Thailand. The point is not to give ourselves a hard time when things are tough, but to recognize that those of us who have the luxury to make excuses are the ones who should make them the least.
Make good choices
When we started Wholegrain Digital, our goal was to be a shining example of how businesses could be a force for good. We tried to design the business to be socially and environmentally responsible from the outset. Twelve years later, our business is a Certified B Corp with a no-fly policy and numerous incentives to help staff live more sustainably. We’ve just built a small solar farm in London. We faced many challenges in trying to keep our business practices aligned with our ideals, but picking and choosing our clients has been the toughest by far.
Saying yes to projects you believe in is easy. Saying no to projects you don’t believe in is hard, especially when you are struggling to get a new business off the ground. In this big, complex world, it might seem like personal sacrifice is futile—that our individual efforts are but a drop in the bucket. It may be hard to do, but standing up for what you believe in has a real impact. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it; it’s the hard that makes it great.
Making these ethical choices changes our society and changes us as individuals. It helps us to learn who we are and what we really believe; it gives us a sense of pride in our work and improves our self-esteem. It can open our eyes to other issues that we never would have stopped to understand and it can lead us on a path where we will find other like-minded people working on projects that are trying to do the same thing.
So be more honest with yourself. Have the guts to act on your beliefs. And try your best to make good choices.