A publishing empire is born
Ethical Consumer magazine was launched in Manchester in March 1989 by three recent graduates from a bedroom in a council flat.
One had experience in environmental campaigning, another in human rights campaigns, and the third in addressing animal rights issues.
Although no-one had yet coined the expression ‘ethical consumer’, it was clear that boycotts and campaigns around ethical product issues were growing fast.
By recognising all these ideas as somehow linked, and providing a guide to increasingly complex calls for support, it was hoped that a magazine might generate enough revenue to create a research team large enough to keep on top of it all.
After a spectacularly unsuccessful round of fundraising, we managed to cobble together enough money for one issue. We spent everything we had on marketing the first issue which, if it had failed, would have been the end of the story.
However, as if to demonstrate that many small individual acts can make a profound difference, there was an enormous response from ordinary consumers.
With 5,000 people signing up in the first year there was just time to buy some computers, move the card index onto a database and to learn desktop publishing.
Unlike some radical publications, Ethical Consumer magazine has never had a rich benefactor in the background to help it break even.
Even 5,000 subscribers is not normally viable for a print publication, but Ethical Consumer has somehow managed to defy financial gravity at every turn.
There have been three key elements which have helped us thrive:
A loyal and enthusiastic readership which has not only subscribed through thick and thin, but also invested capital in the business when we have asked for it. Some of these investment calls are identified in the landmarks table opposite whilst others continue to this day.
A dedicated team of staff who have been willing to work sometimes for free, and almost always at below market rates for their skills, on a project that they believe in.
More than 50 researchers have worked at Ethical Consumer over the twenty years of its life and more than 70 volunteers. Each time we need to recruit, we wonder whether people will still want to work under such sub-optimal conditions, and each time we are overwhelmed with high quality applications.
We used to joke that you needed a PhD to stuff envelopes at Ethical Consumer, until one year when it appeared to be true.
A growing revenue from print and web advertising and commercial research carried out for ethical companies and campaign groups. An increasingly experienced team at ECRA has a lot to offer larger organisations looking to work with ethical markets.
Over the years, this element has grown to become a key plank in ECRA’s financial stability. Our rating system, which leaves little room for researcher discretion, means that conflicts of interest cannot really occur.
Making a difference?
At Ethical Consumer, where we publish details on hundreds of companies a year, we have become quite adept at noticing the many small changes that we influence.
Smaller companies for example might be persuaded to improve policy in one or two areas or campaigners might pick up on a new idea or boycott which we have spotted overseas.
There is no doubt that ethical consumerism generally has grown to become a mainstream concern in the UK, and that ethical markets are probably more developed in the UK than elsewhere.
While other countries don’t have a magazine quite like Ethical Consumer we can only really claim to be a small part of a much wider movement for change.
Despite the success in mainstreaming ethical concerns, the crises of capitalism that surround us are, if anything, more urgent and less easy to resolve than ever.
As for the future, we take a look at what ECRA might be doing in the next twenty years!
Landmarks in our story
1987 Ethical Consumer begins life as a voluntary, occasional, research project
1989 Issue 1 of Ethical Consumer magazine sells out
1991 ECRA raises finance from its readers to stay afloat
1992 ECRA faces commercial reality and takes advertising in the magazine
1993 Ethical Consumer Guide to Everyday Shopping – we publish a paperback book combining some of our buyers' guides
1995 Version 1 of Corporate Critic Research Database launched
1998 Green Building Handbook published. Specialist buyers' guide researched by ECRA
1999 First ECRA website launched. Forums soon stopped after potentially libellous
statements about Nestlé!
2001 Boycott Bush website launched. Attracts 100,000 visitors per month in the USA
2003 ECRA raises £200,000 from readers and the bank for big redevelopment of core systems and websites
2005 Ethiscore website launched
2005 ‘The Ethical Consumer’ academic book published by Sage
2006 Full colour printing in magazine at last
2007 ECRA research on Clothes Shops published across Europe
2009 ECRA converts from a workers’ co-op to a multi-stakeholder co-op
Read about our plans for the next 20 years at ECRA.