25 Years of Ethical Shopping

The Ethical Market


At regular intervals in Ethical Consumer's history, we have stepped back to take stock of how ethical markets are developing.  Rob Harrison looks at how thinking has changed over the last 25 years, and asks what we might expect to see in 25 years time.

  Ethical Consumer Magazine

When Ethical Consumer began life in 1989, you could support lots of boycotts, buy powdered solidarity coffee from Oxfam shops, and pay slightly too much for niche 'green' cleaning products.  Nowadays the landscape has changed completely, so much so that now it is actually quite difficult to buy any teabags that are not somehow 'ethically' certified.  

However the market for ethical products has not grown in the way that we might have expected. One factor which surprised us in the early years of Ethical Consumer was that market research suggested that around 70% of all consumers were interested in buying ethical products – figures which are also broadly reflected in polling today.  

Unfortunately by the year 2000 ethical products had only gained a 5% market share. Many academics explained this 'attitude behaviour gap' by suggesting that consumers were simply lying – or trying to impress the pollsters.

Ethical Consumer has long challenged this view, arguing instead that the problem was more likely to be an absence of good quality, reasonably-priced, ethical alternatives that were widely available.  And the detailed research that we have been able to do for the Co-op's annual Ethical Consumer Markets Report has backed this up.    

Last year, for example, big growth areas were under the RSPCA's Freedom Foods label (up 37%) and in Rainforest Alliance certified foods (up 47%), with sign ups by just a few big multinationals responsible for much of the growth. Such growth, and certification schemes, are not without their detractors, but it is a testimony to haw far we have come that the arguments are around what constitutes the right ethical behaviour rather than whether business needed to be ethical at all.

Overall, this research has shown that UK sales of ethical products grew from £9.6bn in 2009 to £54.4bn in 2012.



A properly global phenomenon

Over the last five years, with rapid economic growth in Brazil, India and China, polling has begun to look at whether attitudes to ethical products are the same in these very different cultures.  Below are the results of just one survey in 2012 which shows that, if anything, support for ethical purchasing is even stronger in emerging markets.


 Image from: Rethinking Consumption: Consumers and the Future of Sustainability 2012, Globescan and others.


Of course the supply of ethical products in these countries is at quite a rudimentary stage.

Nevertheless it supports our core assertion that the majority of people everywhere understand and support the idea of ethical buying, and that if they are supplied with good quality, reasonably-priced ethical products, then these will come to dominate consumer markets as we have seen with Fairtrade tea, coffee and bananas in the UK.



In 25 Years Time?

If our future societies manage to steer away from the commonly-shared dystopian vision of resource wars and systems collapse, then here are five things we might hope to see

  • All businesses will be required by law to report on, and articulate, their ethical positions.
  • 'Ethically' certified produce will have come to dominate all major consumer markets – including clothing.
  • Political campaigning and debate will increasing focus on the certification schemes themselves.
  • Serious ethical procurement by governments will become part of the landscape everywhere.
  • Sustainable lifestyles with fewer, higher-quality, products and ubiquitous renewable energy will be the norm.


And, as we have argued elsewhere, ethical consumers themselves, and the decisions they take globally, will play a key role in the extent to which some of the worst dystopian visions are avoided.


Further Reading

Ethical Consumer magazine

A look ahead to ethical shopping in the next quarter century

Simon Birch looks to the next 25 years of ethical consumption 

Read more


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