Are ethics being credit crunched?
Are ethical products expensive luxuries?
Over the last month or so the phones at Ethical Consumer have been hot with journalists looking for evidence that the credit crunch is affecting ethical products particularly badly. Commonly from the business press, and with an elementary understanding of economics, they tend to assume that ethical products are all expensive luxuries that with falling incomes will be quickly abandoned. There are a number of reasons why this kind of thinking is wrong.
First, the hard evidence shows that ethical markets are still growing...albeit at a slower rate than in 2007. More details appear in the latest issue of Ethical Consumer magazine (EC115), where Simon Birch’s Ethical Sceptic column reports on his conversations with some Fairtrade and organic companies about relatively buoyant sales.
Secondly, since we began to systematically research product prices for our research in April, a clear pattern is emerging. Ethical products are never the cheapest on a market, but neither are they usually the most expensive. There are usually a group of highly branded premium products at the top end of a price range and supermarket ‘basics’ own-brands at the bottom. Ethical products tend to sit somewhere in the middle.
Thirdly it is worth noting that Ethical Consumer magazine is now nearly 20 years old. Those of us with long memories saw exactly these same questions being asked when the last recession began in 1992. Of course ethical companies saw falling sales – everyone did – but the movement as a whole continued its steady growth throughout this period.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, purchases of greener products only represent a small part of a much more complex trend of growth in responsible consumption behaviours. You don’t need to be feeling wealthy to boycott products, or indeed to choose to cycle a particular journey rather than drive it. One sector particularly, ethical procurement by public authorities, is currently growing strongly after a slow start, and is less likely to be affected immediately by economic downturns.
Expecting ethical consumption to disappear in the current recession is particularly crass if you understand the movement as a rational attempt by consumers/citizens to address very real systemic political problems in the world around them. Issues with global injustice, environmental damage and animal welfare are not going to suddenly disappear because of an economic downturn – if anything things may get worse before they get better.
More to the point, if the greed of unregulated profit-seeking organisations lie at the heart of this particular bursting bubble, the idea that popular movements to bring them under control will give up because the money is tight is to misunderstand the seriousness of global justice campaigners.
This blog is a shorter version of the Editorial appearing in Issue 115 of Ethical Consumer magazine.