Consumers are increasingly shopping with their conscience. Ethical today does not only encompass the consequences of our buying behavior – such as pollution, animal testing, traceability and sustainability of ingredients and resources. It also includes a wide range of ideas such as the effect that our continued economic growth has on suppliers, who often live in developing countries and may be subjected to poor working conditions, living standards and wages. It also includes concern about relationships that we have with ourselves: that is, the toll that our consumer behavior is likely to take on our own health.
Powerful Tool for Change
Ethical consumption can be a powerful tool for change. The ethical consumer can use his money to vote every time he goes shopping. We do not like the blatant exploitation of fellow human beings. We do not approve of companies that cause environmental damage or carry out unnecessary experiments on animals or sale of arms to dictatorial regimes. We can demonstrate our disapproval when we go shopping.
If we buy cheap clothes made in sweatshops we support worker exploitation. We may buy cheap meat from factory farmed animals if we are unconcerned about the quality of life of the animal. When we buy a gas guzzling car we approve climate change.
‘Negative Ethical Purchase Behavior’
Ethical consumerism began and continued for many years as ‘negative ethical purchase behavior’, or the boycott. Some such boycotts, organized by campaign groups, are reported to have been relatively successful, such as Baby Milk Action’s boycott of Nestle´.
Consumers today are demanding to know the source of their food. Global food sourcing and increase in travel have made more and more consumers adventurous and knowledgeable. Eating healthy is also a new trend. Recent controversies, including genetically modified foods, are driving consumers to ethical foods.
There is another group of consumers who avoid the purchase of certain products associated with issues such as Animal Testing, factory farming or the arms industry.
There is a growing realization among marketers, retailers, and consumers that their actions have ethical, social, and environmental consequences. In marketing language these translate into: not tested on animals, sustainably farmed, locally sourced, recyclable, fair trade and natural or organic. This has brought about a rapid growth in sales of organic, local, humane, Fair Trade, and eco-friendly goods. However, globally this trend is more evident in the top-end premium products.
When you buy products manufactured by a company that doesn’t exploit its workers and provides them with decent working conditions, you not only become an ethical consumer but also give the company the funds to continue being ethical.
The Ethical Consumer
Knowledge about ethical consumer is rather patchy and dependent on commercial opinion polls. Not much information is available about what motivates ethical consumers to behave as they do. Nor do we know clearly what makes them alter their consumption patterns to reflect their values. There appears to be a clear divergence between opinion polls on the values held by green and ethical consumers, and the volume of sales of ‘ethical’ products.
While awareness about ethical issues is increasing, in majority of cases these are not getting translated into purchases. Many businesses adopt ethical practices believing that the consumers want that. There are other factors which may come in the way of consumers translating their ethical views to purchase behavior. Some of these are:
- Products may be environmentally preferable but they do not meet consumer criteria of price, performance, quality and easy access.
- There is inadequate information on environmental benefits of products.
- Information on pack lacks credibility.
- Enough environmentally good products are not available in the market.
- Consumers don’t have adequate knowledge about environmental issues.
- Consumers are time-pressed to look for products that are kinder to the environment.
- Consumers feel that individually they cannot make a difference.
Ethical Products Market
Though it is still a niche market ethical products have entered mainstream as can be seen by the interests shown by operators like such as Cadbury Schweppes, Kraft and Nestlé in this sector. The market shares of several ethical brands are growing rapidly. Ethical retailers like the American Wholefoods chain are gradually expanding their storebases.
The Internet has also helped in promoting ethical products. A large number of smaller brands can sell through websites, and do not need to compete with multinationals for shelf space.
The more internationally well known ethical brands include the German Weleda, Jason Natural Cosmetics, Green People, Brazilian Natura, Aveda (Estée Lauder), Neal’s Yard Remedies and, of course, The Body Shop which is the most internationally renowned and commercially successful of the ethical brands to date.
- According to forecasts, the U.S. retail sales of ethical grocery products is expected to grow from nearly $33 billion in 2006 to more than $57 billion in 2011.
- Market for ethical foods in the UK was £2 billion in 2006
- The Canadian grocery market was valued at $53.6 billion in 2005.
- Willingness to pay a premium for ethical products was most among Dutch and French consumers, with 67% and 60% respectively claiming that they would do so.
- Loyal natural food, drinks and personal care users in Europe and the US are predicted to rise from 89 million in 2004 to 173 million in 2009. Where there were only 12 percent loyal users in the US in 2004, it is expected to rise to 24% by 2009. The equivalent figures for Europe are 14% and 25%.
- Overall 67% of consumers in the US and Europe claim to have boycotted a food, drinks or personal care company's goods on ethical grounds. According the Co-op's index, UK companies lost US$2.7bn of sales through consumer boycotts in 2003.
Purchases by ethical consumers can be as simple as buying free-range eggs or as complex as boycotting goods produced by child labor. An ethical consumer also has to watch his food miles: how much energy was used to reach the product to him. Hence, ethical consumers prefer to buy things produced locally.
While there is a steady in natural, organic and ethical spending it is still restricted to the upper and middle classes – or those with enough money to worry about such issues. This is mainly because most ethical products carry a higher price tag. But with many among the major supermarkets reported to be making efforts to cut down on food packaging and source produce from sustainable sources, its extension to mass market is likely to take place at some point of time.
Ethical Buying Categories
Ethical buying can be classified under the following categories:
- Positive Purchasing
Opting for specific ethical products, such as energy saving lightbulbs.
- Negative Buying
When a conscious decision is taken not to buy certain products such as battery eggs or gas-guzzling cars.
- Company-Based Purchasing
This involves disapproving of a company’s product and avoiding purchase of all products made by it
- Fully-Screened Approach
Selecting a group of companies and their products and deciding which products are most ethical
How to be an Ethical Consumer
Often we are either too lazy or want to save that extra buck and fail in our efforts to be ethical consumers. One area where most of us fail is in travel.
- Try to grow at least 50 percent of your own food
- As often as possible buy local eggs and meat
- Support local farmers by purchasing food grown by them
- Collect rainwater
- Carry out composting
- Recycle whatever possible
- Keep the heat and air-conditioner off as much as possible
- Use compact fluorescent lamps
- Stitch and alter one’s own clothes
- Use biodegradable soaps and cleaning materials
- Hang laundry on the line to dry
- Cook most meals at home (rather than eating out)
Further reading and online resources
- Ethical Consumerism Report 2007
- Ethical Consumer Best Buy Label. Ethical Consumer's 'stamp of approval' helping shoppers to choose genuinely ethical products and services.
Videos and Documentaries
- Watch The Emergence of the Ethical Consumer
- Watch Ethical consumerism interview on Sky News by Reporter Georgia Hawkins interviewing journalist Julian Lee about his book Clean Living in a Dirty World.
- The Socially Responsible Consumer. A walk through the supermarket introducing you to the choices that are available.
- Why Buy Ethically
- What is Ethical Shopping?
- Ethical Consumerism
- Ethical Cosmetics
- Ethical Consumerism Starts At Home
- Ethical Consumers and Ethical Trade