Rise of shopping ethics

Last updated: September 2009



Simon Birch charts the spectacular rise of the ethical consumer


From Fairtrade bananas and free-range eggs, to cruelty-free shampoo and chemical-free paint, environmentally-savvy shoppers can today fill their homes and dinner plates with goodies that rip off neither people nor the planet. Over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed an ethical consumer revolution that’s spawned a vast range of ethically-produced goods and services that have now become part of our everyday lives.

Of course things were a little different 20 years ago. “Getting hold of anything ‘right-on’ and environmentally friendly was just so difficult then,” remembers Ronnie Wright, one of the original band of pioneering ethical shoppers who, at the time, was living in Birmingham. “One of the few places that you could find these products was in a wholefood shop and café which also housed the local Friends Of the Earth. One of my abiding memories was that you could buy recycled loo roll that was just like sack-cloth and which didn’t really hold together very well. It was all deeply austere.”


Rubbish coffee

And it wasn’t just the recycled loo roll that was dodgy, as many of those early ethical products weren’t really up to scratch. “The first ethically-traded coffees we produced weren’t very good,” admits Ian Bretman from the Fairtrade Foundation.  “It wasn’t until we launched Cafédirect along with Clipper Tea and Maya Gold chocolate into the supermarkets in 1994 that we felt that we had products that were just as good as the rest.”

Getting the supermarkets to stock the newly-launched Fairtrade goods though was at first an uphill struggle. “In those early meetings with the supermarkets they’d look at me like I was from another planet as they didn’t believe that people would buy products to help people they’d never met in far away countries.”

Thanks to Fairtrade’s committed early supporters though, the supermarkets were nagged and cajoled into stocking Fairtrade goods. The result is that today the Fairtrade market is now worth over £700 million and the lives of seven million farmers, growers and their families in developing countries around the world have had their lives transformed thanks to Fairtrade.



Parsnips and pounds

The other standout ethical consumer success story of the past 20 years has been the mainstreaming of organics.  From a tentative start in 1989 when the supermarkets first stocked organic fruit and veg, the organic market has mushroomed into an industry worth over a staggering £2 billion a year.

The ethical consumer revolution has also even managed to help green the colossal financial services industry. “People always said that ethical investments could never be profitable,” says Paul Ellis, chief exec of the Ecology Building Society. “However we’ve been able to show that clearly this isn’t the case.”  The early supporters of ethical investment can look on with well-deserved satisfaction as the value of Socially Responsible Investment funds have ballooned from just under £200 million in 1989 to almost £7 billion today.



Levels of consumption

The scale and speed of the changes that this ethical consumer revolution has brought in have been so dramatic that it’s worth pausing to consider just how far we’ve come. “It’s so easy to take what we’ve achieved for granted,” believes Polyp, the political cartoonist and activist.  “If you’d have told me 20 years ago that you’d be able to buy Fairtrade coffee on Virgin trains or organic meat in Sainsbury’s I’d have been both gobsmacked and thrilled.”

But what’s been the role of ethical shopping in the context of the wider environmental movement, and just how important is it that you can now buy Fairtrade trainers? “Very important,” replies Roger Higman, campaigns director at Friends Of the Earth. “What ethical shopping has done is to set the standard for the rest of industry to follow by demonstrating that it’s possible to produce goods at a minimum cost to both workers and the environment,” says Higman.

“What’s now needed is government legislation to ensure that all products and services that consumers buy are as green as possible, which is where campaigns such as for company law reform and trade reform come in.” Higman also believes that we need to address the issue of consumerism itself. “What ethical shopping hasn’t done is to convince the public that there’s a problem with consumption levels as a whole,” believes Higman.  “We need a new debate about how to manage consumption in such a way that keeps greenhouse gas levels down and protects the world’s finite resources. These are the debates that are needed in the future.”

First published in Ethical Consumer 120, September/October 2009