Moving from the margins to mainstream
When we launched Ethical Consumer magazine in 1989, we knew for sure that ethical consumerism had the capacity to become an influential niche market.
People like ourselves, citizen activists who demonstrated and campaigned on ethical issues, were already, in their thousands, boycotting and seeking out alternative products.
However, although hopeful, we could be much less certain that discussions over which product choices were more ethical could ever become mainstream.
Logically it ought to have been possible. Socialist parties (as they were known then), which were openly critical of capitalism and its failure to deliver on social goals, were regularly elected on majority votes across Europe.
The majority of people were not, unlike the companies which supplied them, evangelists for an unregulated global marketplace.
But the idea of consumer choice as a legitimate route for political action was at best frowned upon, and at worst dismissed as irrelevant.
Ethical consumers - who are they?
The first indication that ethical consumerism had the capacity to become a mainstream concern came from market researchers. From 1991 onwards, commercial market research companies, responding to demand from corporations keen to understand consumer behaviour, began publishing detailed opinion research.
When we first looked at around 20 surveys in 1997, a clear pattern was emerging.
Polling almost always identified a core group of 'always ethical' citizen activists who bought ethical products .
Then there was the 'can't be bothered' group of people not interested in ethical consumption.
What was really interesting though was the large group in the middle. The ‘sometimes ethical’ would not work too hard to seek out ethical products – but if those products appeared in front of them on supermarket shelves, they might try them out.
They might also choose to support boycotts, and it was this element particularly which persuaded consumer-facing corporations that the risks of failing to respond to this new cultural change outweighed the costs of not doing so.
The growth of labels
We can divide the rise of ethical consumerism into three historical phases:
1980s – growth of boycott activity
1990s – institutional response (growth of ethical labels etc.)
2000s – growth of ethical markets and mainstreaming
The idea of ‘institutional response’ covers all those initiatives which were designed to ‘assure’ increasingly politicised consumers that some products or companies were worthy of their support.
They ranged from the foundation of campaign-group dominated labels (such as the Fairtrade Mark) to the establishment of in-house supply chain auditing teams in large multinationals.
Many institutional responses were ‘multi-stakeholder’ initiatives whereby campaigners and companies got together to agree mutually acceptable supply chain solutions. These would include the Ethical Trading Initiative and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC label) – very successful, but often riven with opposing voices.
Moving into the Mainstream
Three significant factors helped to drive ethical consumerism out of the niche and into the mainstream:
(a) Big business
Some big businesses were beginning to take ethical issues very seriously – often simply for reasons of competitiveness.
This included some companies buying up smaller ethical companies (such as the takeover of Green and Blacks by Cadbury’s), as well as others making significant investments in their CSR departments and ethical product lines (such and Marks and Spencer).
(b) Big government
Governments were also beginning to take ethical consumerism more seriously. First, they intervened by establishing mandatory labelling schemes designed to help consumers to make ethical choices.
The A to E energy labels on some electrical products are an example of this. Secondly, they began to get their own ethical purchasing houses in order by developing a range of (admittedly very weak) ethical procurement rules and initiatives for government departments.
(c) Big consumer
Finally, the big national consumer associations began to publish buyers’ guides with ethical performance information in them. With the disappointing exception of Which? in the UK, ethical issues are beginning to feature regularly in reports across Europe with readerships in their millions.
By 2009, it is pretty clear that ethical consumption has become a mainstream concern, at least in the UK. TV programmes and national newspapers have both regular series and one-off reports on ethical consumer issues.
Market data shows billions of pounds worth of business attracted by marketed-as-ethical products. And very accurate and repeated market research shows ethical
consumerism crossing cultures, classes and geographical boundaries.
So why did it become so popular?
The rise of ethical consumerism is linked to:
- its effectiveness at driving change
- an ongoing frustration with other forms of political activity
- its claims to offer a systemic solution to certain global issues.
We look at evidence of the effectiveness of ethical consumerism in our look back at 20 years of the Magazine.
A form of political activity
There is a tendency towards a decline in participation in traditional political activity across the developed world. Obvious concerns include inflexible electoral systems, lack of policy difference between mainstream parties, and increasingly complex and distant governing bodies.
The table below shows boycotts and buycotts (positive buying) consistently rated as the third and fourth most commonly practised political participation in most European countries in 2002.
Given that voting may only occur once every few years, and petitions are commonly sporadic and reactive, it is arguable that ethical consumerism – which can be practised daily – has become, instead of irrelevant, the most empowering and popular form of political participation in Europe.
Offering a systematic solution to global problems
It can be argued that the growth of ethical consumerism is built around a compelling political analysis that both contributes to an understanding of global events and offers a systematic solution.
The globalisation of markets has shifted power from governments toward profit-seeking corporations whose activities have led to a race to the bottom in social and environmental standards.
Collective action by consumers – or civil regulation – is one of the few responses with a demonstrable ability to slow that race.
To see the current global recession as likely to end ethical consumer behaviours is to misunderstand the factors driving their uptake. Economists whose narrow view sees ethical choices as necessarily more expensive, and based on traditional drivers like price, are unlikely to be able to understand, let alone predict, the ethical consumer phenomenon.
Those who see it as active attempts to participate in effective collective actions designed to address globalisation, social justice and environmental issues, will be able to predict its future direction much more accurately.
Can ethical consumerism save the world?
Many people are uncomfortable with the conjunction of the words ethical and consumer. For them it is consumer capitalism itself, with its emphasis on individualism, markets and corporations, which lies behind the perfect storm of climate change, inequality, species loss and peak oil which threatens social breakdown.
Whilst this is demonstrably true, it does not necessarily mean that a notion of ethical consumer activity cannot help locate a route out of the problems we face.
The key word here is ‘help’. No-one ever suggested that ethical consumerism would save the world.
What is required is a whole range of solutions – from international collaboration on effective regulatory intervention, to inspirational leadership, technological innovation and dramatic lifestyle changes.
Ethical consumerism will almost certainly be one of the tools – but not the only one – to move society closer to where it needs to be. This is because competitive markets are the de-facto environment in which much of this drama will unfortunately have to be played out.
Perhaps refusing to trade with carbon traders will be a necessary popular response to an imminent regulatory fudge on climate change?
We cannot predict what actions will be required. What we do know is that promoting informed discussion about what constitutes an ethical choice in every market, offers a form and context to identify the common good and collaborate on its attainment.
For this, at its heart, is what ethical consumerism is about. It is about the idea that it is beneficial for societies to promote public discourse on ethical issues in markets. With ethical consumerism now a mainstream concern, it is hard to imagine there was a day when free-market fundamentalists in the Conservative Party argued that such a discourse was pernicious.
It is a testament to how mainstream ethical consumerism has become, that there is now no-one prepared to publicly defend such a position.