Ethical consumption & social class

Last updated: April 2010


Rob Harrison explores the evidence around ethical consumption and social class.


Some commentators, commonly those writing from a traditionally left of centre perspective, have been uneasy about the rise of ethical consumer behaviours. George Monbiot, for example, wrote a piece for the Guardian entitled 'Ethical Shopping is just another way of showing how rich you are'.3 In it he explained how 'the middle classes congratulate themselves on going green, then carry on buying and flying as much as before.'  He also argued that 'green consumerism is just another form of atomisation - a substitute for collective action.  No political challenge is met by shopping.'

Jess Worth, writing in New Internationalist explained how some people saw ethical consumption as “yet another way in which the poor are being disenfranchised.  If exercising consumer power is the way to bring about political change, then if you are not a consumer, you are excluded from the process.  This is equally true within rich countries, where the ethical marketplace is largely a playground for the middle classes.  If shopping is politics, then the rich and privileged get to hog all the votes.”4

There are two distinct points being made.  One is suggesting that ethical consumption is a distraction from real political change and the other is that ethical consumption is another way of disenfranchising poorer members of society.  There are three key areas of research which can shed light on these assumptions: boycotts; empirical survey data; and a global perspective on class.




Boycotts are widely recognised as one of the key varieties of ethical consumer behaviour.  Almost all the evidence we know of shows that there is no significant correlation between class and boycotting (see below).  Since not buying something doesn't require any particular wealth, this would also accord with what we might expect.

More importantly though, as the case studies box opposite illustrates, a lot of boycotting shows precisely the opposite characteristics to those identified by the critics of ethical consumption.  Such campaigns are often undertaken by poorer and disenfranchised people precisely because mainstream politics or other collective actions are not available to them.
– The pro-unionisation boycotts in the USA are clearly designed to support the development of typically working-class representative institutions.  In the case of the Boksberg and Chinese boycotts, these are not poorer people disenfranchised by the market.  These are ordinary people disenfranchised by unjust political systems using the market as one of the few effective pressure points they have access to.


Three Boycott Case Studies

1. Boksberg South Africa 1989

"By the late 1980s residents from black townships started to use consumer boycotts to challenge a range of political issues.  In 1989 these found focus in campaigns to cripple the economies of towns run by the Conservative Party [CP], a white right-wing party bent on implementing separate amenities and other aspects of petty apartheid...

The residents of Reiger Park and Vosloorus decided to oblige the CP controlled council by 'Co-operating to keep Boksburg white', by not going to town to buy from any shop.  White owned shops were particular targets.  The boycott lasted for over a year, during which some 13 large shops in the town closed down.  Large retailers such as Edgar's Clothing Store lost millions of rands; close to R500 million was lost over the two Christmas periods alone...

The Nationalist Party Government, in response to the international exposure that the boycott was generating, acted by scrapping the Separate Amenities Act.”1


2. S labour boycotts 1833 - present

"The  boycott was of major importance in organising labour, in the US at least.  Historians attribute a central, if not determining, role to boycotts in the labour struggles for unionisation.  The basis for much of their accounts of the part played by boycotts lies in the analyses of two contemporary writers: Laidler, whose 'Boycotts and the Labour struggle' was first published in 1913; and Wolman, whose 'The Boycott in American Trades Unions' was published in 1916."2

The tradition of using consumer support for trades union actions in the USA continues to this day.5  Not only to the AFL/CIO (the US equivalent to the TUC) run a range of boycott campaigns against anti-union employers, but it also provides a ‘Union Label’ to help supporters identify products made by a unionised workforce.


3. Chinese Boycotts 1905-32

Remer's 'Study of Chinese Boycotts' (1979) asserts that the boycott 'has a long history in China. He explains:

"They involved an almost spontaneous reaction by many of the Chinese people against the goods of countries which aggrieved China.  So, for example, the 1905 boycott against the US followed American restrictions on Chinese immigration, and the 1932 boycott against Japan followed Japanese policies in Manchuria.  Although in a sense spontaneous, they were not without organisation, yet this did not come from government, at least in any official capacity....

The boycotts were enforced by the ordinary group methods familiar in China..[including]..advertising and propaganda for the boycott by burning 'inferior' or 'enemy' goods, picketing, posters, public demonstrations and speeches, and extra-legal fines on merchants dealing with boycotted goods which resulted in them being paraded through the streets and even placed in cages in the street."2


A look at the survey data

In the early ‘90s, when the first major market research reports into UK ethical consumer behaviour were published, one of the things that surprised commentators was that it showed ethical shopping widely practised across all social classes.6

Since then, there has been a wealth of very detailed study of this phenomenon, and our understanding of it is much more nuanced.7  For example, one major survey of ethical shopping habits in 2006 found only 1 in 5 consumers said it was worth paying more for organics; however four out of five households were actually buying some organic produce.11


The European Social Survey

An important contribution has been made by the large, internationally-co-ordinated, European Social Survey.12  This project compares ethical shopping with ordinary 'institutional political participation' and some of its key findings appear in the box opposite.

It shows how traditional political participation, of the kind presumably favoured by George Monbiot, correlates strongly with being older, male, middle class and more educated.  Ethical shopping correlates strongly  with being female, younger and more educated and correlations with  social class vary in different  countries.

The European Social Survey and others have identified how people buying ethical products correlate with being middle class only where ethical products cost more.  However, as we discussed in our report on Ethics and Price in  EC127, there was an ethical consumer Best Buy in the top five cheapest products across 46% of the markets we considered.  We might assume that half of ethical consumer behaviours are boycotting and half are buying ethical products, and if being middle class only correlates with the roughly half of ethical buying, then ethical consumption could be said to be ‘a middle class distraction’ in only 25% of all cases.

Finally, some more complex analyses of ethical shopping and class have explored the idea of ethical consumption as being a much wider phenomenon  then simply buying Fairtrade and organic.  One survey identified, for example, how Buying British, consistently correlates most strongly with social class E - the lowest social group.9  In some cases buying British might be shown to be chauvinistic – but in others it might be more akin to the kind of ‘buy local’ campaigns so popular with the Transition Town movement.

As we have discussed above, there is an inconsistent correlation between ethical consumer behaviours and traditional measures of social class.  Some modern - and global - perspectives on social class have broken people down into different groups.  Perhaps the best known such analysis appears in Alan Durning's seminal book 'How much is Enough?', which breaks people down into groups based upon what they consume rather than what they produce.  It is summarised in the table above.  Clearly the figures are now somewhat dated, however the value of his perspective remains tangible.

Looked at in this way, the poor class is ‘disenfranchised’ in a very real sense from both markets and ethical consumption, as well as (commonly) many other forms of political participation.

However, it is precisely this unjust distribution of wealth globally which is driving a new wave of ethical consumer 'solidarity behaviours' - such as Fairtrade purchasing - amongst sections of the wealthiest consumer class.  To dismiss this as somehow irrelevant because of a Victorian class analysis of people practising it, is to undermine one of the few immediately effective ways of addressing the terrible inequalities in the first place.  If social justice is not to be archived by redistributing wealth - in this and many other ways - from richer to poorer, then how is it to happen?



European Social Survey Conclusions

Voting is Declining

Boycotting and ethical buying is rising

Higher education levels, higher social class, being male and older all correlate strongly with ordinary political participation (voting etc.).



Men are more involved in institutionalised political participation

Women are more involved in boycotting and ethical buying



Older age correlates with more involvement in institutionalised political participation

Younger age correlates with more involvement in boycotting and ethical buying



The higher the education level the greater the correlation with active involvement in institutionalised political participation

The higher the education level the greater the correlation with active involvement in boycotting and ethical buying



There is no correlation with class and boycotting behaviour

There is some, but an inconsistent, correlation with class and ethical buying. e.g. No correlation in Germany.  Some correlation in the UK - 'especially where ethical choices cost more'.


The evidence of actual behaviours explored above shows how the idea that poorer people in the West are disenfranchised by, or are not practising, ethical consumption does not really hold up.  Indeed, when it comes to boycott behaviours, it appear that the opposite may be the case - that they can empower already poor and disenfranchised communities.

It is true that there are a lot of unconvincing green products and a lot of nonsense talked around greener lifestyles.  It is also true that it is important to identify and address the most significant impacts (such as flying)  first.  But it is a mistake to view ethical shopping as simply buying pointless green things, and a bigger mistake to conclude that all ethical consumption behaviours are therefore of no value.  This is not least because some of the most valuable ethical consumer campaigns (e.g. Fairtrade, Forest Stewardship Council) are actually addressing some of the core injustices as we speak.

As to the assertion that it is a distraction from real political change, this is to misunderstand the situation as requiring a decision to only pursue one route to social and environmental justice.  At Ethical Consumer we have long explained how ethical consumption is not an alternative to ordinary political activities - such as voting, petitions, demonstrations and direct actions - but a new set of tools to be used in addition.  And their growing popularity is not evidence of middle-class vanity, but of their demonstrable effectiveness at delivering real, and immediate, improvements to the lives of people all around the world.


1. Zadek, S, Lingayah, S and Murphy, S (1998) Purchasing Power, New Economics Foundation, London at p 20. 
2. cited in Morality and the Market.  N Craig Smith Routledge1990 
3. The Guardian 24/7/07 
4. New Internationalist 395 Nov 2006 'Buy now, pay later'. 
5. see e.g
6. Mintel, ‘The Green Consumer’ 1991, and subsequent 
7. The Ethical Consumer - Sage 2005,  Harrison, Newholm and Shaw. 
8. 'Inequality in non-institutionalized forms of political participation'.  Political Studies vol 58 no 1 2010.  Sophie Marien et al. 
9.  Mintel  The Impact of the Environment April 2007. 
10 Daniel Miller, Foodstuff, Demos 2002 
11 ‘Britain’s ethical shopper: Which way now?” The Nielsen Company 2007  
12.  It was also discussed in EC120 and 126