Setting up Ethical Consumer

Ethical Consumer 1989 – 2014   


Jane Turner takes a look back at the first 25 years of the co-op.


It's 1986 in Moss Side in Manchester. The South Africa boycott against apartheid is in full swing. A recent law graduate and human rights activist, Rob Harrison, is keen to take more action than simply avoiding South African fruit. In a council flat in inner city Manchester, he conceives of the idea of finding out whether other products he buys are made by companies linked to apartheid. 



What starts out as Rob's personal research project develops into a rating of the social and environmental records of the companies behind the brands we buy. The aim is to publish the research so it can be used by like-minded people. Surely other people want to know this sort of thing? Involvement in South Africa is soon joined by 10 other criticism categories.

Rob ropes in two fellow graduates, including me and his brother Paul Harrison, to scour through magazines looking for criticisms of companies. His brother is a member of the Green Party with some knowledge of computers, I am a Philosophy graduate.

I had been particularly influenced by the Ethics module of my degree course and I emerged with my eyes newly-opened to animal rights. The categories we choose to rate companies by are influenced by our individual specialisms – human rights, environmental issues and animal rights.

A year later we set up a workers' co-op of 3 members. We decamp for days on end to the Commercial Section of Manchester Central Library to avail ourselves of the business directories and marketing reports and we write the criticisms we find by hand on a card index system. None of us has any knowledge of business, marketing or publishing but we read all the books we can and visit other magazines like New Internationalist to pick their brains. We spend the next couple of years learning everything on the hoof! 


The first magazine

By 1989, we have scraped together enough savings to market and publish our first black and white magazine. It was a good year to launch. It was the height of the green consumer movement.  We adopt the image of Rodin's thinker, but with a shopping basket, as our logo. I draw our first leaflet by hand using this image and we get our first subscribers.  A pricey ad on the front page of the first ever Environment section of the Guardian gets us 400 more.

In those days it was put together cut and paste style. We used a basic word processing program on the only computer we had, an Amstrad. We print out the words and cut them up and paste them onto an A4 page. The tables used for printing are produced by hand with Letrasett (young people, look it up on Wikipedia!) and a black pen and judicious amounts of Tippex. Photos are given as hard copies to our printers and resizes and crops are laboriously marked up on tracing paper overlays.



A bottle of vodka lubricates a long stint through the night but eventually we deliver our first issue to the printers. We post out the magazine by hand and get the magazines to Royal Mail by flinging them in bags over the 1st floor balcony to the van below. 

The first issue sells out and we have enough subscribers to fund the next issue. And so the publishing empire is borne!

We are still a small co-op but now have more than one computer, access to the internet and the card index was replaced by a database built by Paul Harrison.  The 'Involvement in South Africa' column has disappeared but the 10 original columns have now expanded to 19.

Here's to the next 25 years and thanks to everyone who has played a part in making Ethical Consumer what it is today. 



  Ethical Consumer Magazine




Where are they now?

Ethical Consumer magazine

Profiles of former co-op members

Jane Turner interviews some ex-staff members to ask about their time at Ethical Consumer and the impact it has had on their lives


Read more


Ethical made easy

Detailed ethical ratings for over 40,000 companies, brands and products, plus Ethical Consumer magazine.

30 day trial subscription - find out more