Tomorrow's World

Simon Birchlooks to the next 25 years of ethical shopping


There’s been a revolution in ethical shopping.

Who’d have thought 25 years ago that today you’d be able to buy everything from organic carrots to Fairtrade coffee all from your local supermarket? The mainstreaming of organic and Fairtrade produce is one of the biggest success stories of the past 25 years of ethical shopping.


Fairtrade has a positive future which will benefit many more producers such as this coffee farmer in Tanzania (Image: © Matt Crossick)

But what about the next 25 years?

What will our shopping baskets look like then? “Ethical shoppers have always played a crucial role as pioneers when it comes to identifying the ethical products and services of the future,” says Paul Monaghan founding Director of Up The Ethics (a sustainability consultancy) and a key mover behind the Co-op’s trailblazing ethical policies until he stepped down as Head of Sustainability last year.

“Twenty years ago ethically aware shoppers began buying recycled paper and Fairtrade coffee all of which eventually made it into the mainstream.” However Monaghan believes that ethical shopping alone can’t bring about 100% truly sustainable and ethical consumption. “In the future ethical consumerism will only be able to go so far in producing systematic change as you’ll always need legislative intervention from governments to force companies to change their behaviour, whether this be banning energy inefficient fridges or light-bulbs.”

And what about those companies who today are selling ethically dodgy products, does Monaghan think that they’ll still be in business in 25 years’ time? “There will always be unscrupulous businesses selling unethical and environmentally damaging products,” concludes Monaghan. “Whilst we like to think that things will progressively improve every year, within 25 years we won’t have cracked this.”One company that’s already making a difference though and which has its eye firmly on the future is M&S. Having successfully launched its groundbreaking Plan A in 2007 with the aim of becoming the world’s most sustainable retailer, M&S has a clear vision of where it wants to be by 2039.

“What Plan A has done on a global scale has made our existing business model better and every aspect of our social and environmental performance has improved. We now use less energy and we use better fish and wood which is great,” says Mike Barry who heads up Plan A. By 2039 Barry believes that M&S will have moved to a circular business model, one which is more about the marketing of services rather than simply selling products. “It will not be just about being carbon neutral but being carbon positive and where 100% of all the raw materials that we use are sourced sustainably,” adds Barry.

One of the most exciting changes that could occur over the 25 years though concerns Fairtrade. “The degree to which we will be able to achieve transparency in all supply chains will be revolutionary,” believes Ashish Deo, the commercial director of the UK’s Fairtrade Foundation. Thanks to rapidly developing monitoring technology that includes embedding sensors in produce and analysing the DNA of everything from coffee beans to cotton, Deo believes that we’ll soon be able to achieve full product traceability at every stage of the supply chain.

“Transparency is crucial because it changes the behaviour of everybody along the supply chain all the way from the farmer right through to the consumer, and because nothing can be hidden or falsified standards are raised at every stage,” says Deo. The adoption of this new and revolutionary technology has the potential to result in a race to the top, believes Deo, where good and ethical behaviour becomes widely adopted.

So what will be the impact of this on Fairtrade sales? “In terms of Fairtrade 2039 will be a massively different place,” says Deo. “I would like to think that a high proportion of all commodities will be following Fairtrade principles by then, whether or not they carry the Fairtrade mark,” believes Deo. “It will have become very difficult for a single supermarket chain or brand to remain immune from what will become an industry and economy wide pressure. Ethical will become the new norm."