Ethical Purchasing in Brazil and Chile

Last updated: 17/03/2014


In 2012/13 Ethical Consumer has been part of a ‘Choices’ project comparing the experiences of ethical consumption and procurement in Brazil, Chile and the UK. Rob Harrison visited both South American countries and reports on the project’s latest findings.


Far away from the economic gloom of the UK and Europe, the economies of Brazil and Chile are booming. Brazil, now the 7th biggest economy in the world, is benefiting from rising prices for the raw materials it has in abundance. 

Chile, although much smaller, is following a similar pattern with its huge copper reserves of high value to the burgeoning global electronics market.

Although the military governments of the 1980s are still within living memory in both countries, the growing democracies are successful and there is a spirit of optimism in the air. Chile oscillates between pro-market centre-left and centre-right administrations, while Brazil is now in the 10th year of a relatively popular centre-left government. 

Growing middle classes in both countries mean that, for the first time, many people can choose to buy more than just the very cheapest products available. And although elements of ethical and sustainable lifestyles are actually deeply embedded in both countries, this new prosperity has, in turn, led to a rising interest in ethical consumption of the type we are more familiar with in Europe.

In 2010, a group comprising three universities and three NGOs (including Ethical Consumer) won funding to explore the potential of these new developments and how ethical procurement by governments fitted into this discussion. (1)

One element of the ‘Choices’ project involved running surveys and focus groups in South America, and a second element involved getting practitioners to gather and share information.


The surveys said...

Unsurprisingly the expression ‘ethical consumption’ was unfamiliar to most people, though parallel ideas of ‘conscious’ or ‘green’ consumption were recognised. Researchers in Brazil were quick to spot the irony that richer people with less sustainable lifestyles found it easier to talk about ethical consumption than poorer people whose consumption actually had lower impacts. (2)

One unique aspect of the project was that it asked people not only about ethical consumption but also about ethical procurement. The two tables opposite summarise both the different responses between Chilean and Brazilian consumers and the differences between what people thought they themselves and governments should do.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the surveys show a small trend for people to think that the state should be more ethical in its purchases than ordinary people. Although the question did ask ‘if the price and quality were the same what other issues would you consider?’ – there was perhaps a belief that the state could afford to be more flexible around price with its larger budgets. There is also a lot of common sense in the idea that the state – which represents the collective interest – should be more attentive to negative social impacts than ordinary people. Firstly this is because it has greater resources to understand and evaluate different impacts. 

Secondly, if the state is left to clear up the externalities that ever lower prices engender (such as river pollution or wages supplements for the poor), then it may be more cost effective to consider longer-term or broader issues at the point of purchase. The ‘Important to me’ columns are less surprising and are mirrored in surveys around the world which show a majority of people interested in taking ethical issues into account in their purchasing. (2)

Questions of this kind tend to get high levels of positive answers which are not always translated into purchases in the shops. This ‘attitudebehaviour gap’ has been the subject of much academic reflection over the years. (5)

At Ethical Consumer we tend to emphasise the lack of a good choice of ethical products at the shops as a key element in this phenomenon rather than it simply being down to misreporting by consumers. The high level of support for good labour conditions is striking. On a practical level, Fairtrade products are rarely available in Chilean or Brazilian shops, and the lack of certified options mean that this demand remains largely unmet. With UK farmers also troubled by their lack of access to a Fairtrade label for their own domestic markets, it is beginning to feel like the avowedly NorthSouth focus of the Fairtrade label is becoming dated. 

This may be a gap that others could fill if the Fairtrade movement is unable to grasp the nettle. In an additional emphasis, the focus groups revealed a generalised distrust not only of transnational corporations but also of certification schemes and their own governments. The pie charts overleaf show how, in Chile at least, these opinions mean that a majority of people are looking beyond products to the behaviour and transparency of businesses themselves. 












Ethical Consumption by governments

This project’s attempts to discuss government buying with the general public appears to be genuinely ground breaking. Procurement is classically a technocratic speciality and not one that political elites traditionally seek external contributions on. In this project’s focus groups, many people were unfamiliar with the idea of procurement, but soon caught on with prompts such as ‘what would you do if you were mayor?’ (6)

There was a generalised pessimism about how governments, with problems of corruption, could take the agenda forward honestly. (6) Nevertheless, procurement specialists involved in this project are able to generate increasingly convincing data about the progress they are making. In Brazil, in the first nine months of 2012, sustainable purchases and contracts increased by 194%. £8.5 million was spent on goods and services using sustainable criteria (computers 39%, paper 16.4%, air conditioning 15.7%). In 2012 SMEs increased their participation in procurement programmes with the total value of SME purchases reaching 55%. (2)

Chile Compra, the body responsible for managing procurement there, is a member of the Inter American Network for Procurement and claims that 27% of its purchases have sustainability criteria. Problems occur for them where there are not widely agreed NGO certification systems present to provide transparent criteria. (6)

Ethical Consumer has long campaigned for mandatory ethical procurement by all government institutions as a vital element in the sustainable societies of the future. (7)

In the UK, ethical consumption , ethical consumption was at least ten years old before the national government began, belatedly, to look at its own purchasing impacts. What is particularly encouraging to see in Chile and Brazil is ethical procurement and ethical consumption developing at more or less the same time. This presents opportunities for positive reinforcements in both directions. 

What is also encouraging to see, in Brazil in particular, is a political culture supporting ethical procurement with enthusiasm. The notion of ‘solidarity economics’, unfamiliar in the UK, generated a government department of its own in Brazil in 2003. (2)

Laws on affirmative action (2002), climate change (2008), and school meals (2010) have also helped shape the procurement program. (2)


Where next?

One key goal of the project was to explore whether ethical purchasing and procurement could help achieve development goals for poorer communities in South America. There are three areas which appear worthy of further work.

1.Local procurement from SMEs

For impacts on the poorest people, public authorities buying locally – from SMEs in particular – is an effective intervention gaining ground around the world. Training SMEs in how to bid for contracts, for example, was a live topic both in Brazil and the UK last year. This is certainly something UNEP (see box opposite) and other global networking projects on procurement could help facilitate further.


2. More Fairtrade products for Southern consumers

As mentioned above, the North/South focus of the Fairtrade and other consumerfacing labels is beginning to look dated with new populations in the South demonstrating a desire to support good labour rights. Particularly interesting in this regard is the growth by 283% of Fairtrade sales in South Africa in 2011. (10)


3.Procurement from companies recognising trade unions

In Brazil in particular, asking tendering companies to demonstrate formal labour policies as well as environmental policies could also be an effective driver for improving conditions for the poorest. The focus of global consumer campaigns on requiring ILO Convention standards for workers’ rights in clothing supply chains (particularly Freedom of Association) has become a useful and well-developed tool. A requirement for tendering companies to recognise named trade unions did appear briefly in some local authority procurement arrangements in the UK in the 1980s before they were swiftly outlawed by the Thatcher government after vociferous lobbying by companies. (8)

It would be interesting to see what such an idea could achieve with the genuine political support a centre-left government might give it. And, as we have argued in our manifesto,7 if government purchasers were to publish the results of their research into ethical products and suppliers, it would provide practical help for consumer groups and ethical consumers who wish to use their own purchasing power to seek the same goals.


More information on the research project.



UNEP Sustainable Public Procurement Initiative

Public procurement represents around 20% of GDP in OECD countries and even higher proportions in developing countries. 

Ethical Consumer and other NGOs have long promoted ethical procurement as a key mechanism to help a transformation towards more sustainable and responsible production systems.

In June 2012, one of the positive outcomes from the Rio+20 Summit was the establishment of a further formal programme on procurement by UNEP and around 30 government partners. The project’s goals include: 

  • Building the case for sustainable public procurement. 
  • Supporting implementation through increased global collaborations.
  • Participants in the project include Brazil, Switzerland, Ecuador, the UK, Chile, Denmark, the Netherlands, Mauritius, Costa Rica, China, New Zealand and organisations such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the International Green Purchasing Network. 


This UNEP initiative has been collaborating with the Choices project and some of the stories it promotes include:

  • Japan’s Green Purchasing Policy has contributed to the growth of the country’s eco-industries, estimated to be worth about €430 billion in 2010. The city of Vienna saved €44.4 million and over 100,000 tonnes of CO2 between 2001 and 2007 through its EcoBuy programme. 
  • Europe could save up to 64 per cent of energy – or 38 th of electricity – by replacing street lights with smarter lighting solutions. 
  • In Hong Kong, replacing incandescent traffic lights with LED generated savings of US $240,000 over the lifespan of LED modules, which also allow for projected annual savings of 7.88 million KWh of electricity and a reduction of 5,500 tonnes of CO2 emissions. 
  • In Brazil, the Foundation for Education Development succeeded in saving 8,800 m3 of water, 1,750 tonnes of waste and 250 kg of organohalogen compounds, providing the equivalent of one month economic activity to 454 waste pickers, through its decision to replace regular notebooks with ones made of recycled paper in 2010. 



More information on the UNEP. (opens in a new window)

1 For more information on the project see
2 Choices Project Rio Conference December 2012 presentation from Prof Bartholo Roberto (URFJ)
3 See eg.
4 Table Sources: UNICEF State of the World’s Children 2012 and World Bank World Development Indicators Database Data Profiles 2012 - income per capital figures using GNI Atlas method – income distribution figures for the years 2000-2010
5 See e.g. The Ethical Consumer, Harrison, Newholm and Shaw 2005 at chapters 7 and 12 or The Myth of the Ethical Consumer – Devinney 2010
6 Choices Project Rio Conference December 2012 presentation from Dr Tomás Ariztía
8 Ethical Consumer Magazine (EC16) October 1991 Local councils and ethical Buying
9 ESRC-DFID Choices Project 2012