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Ethical shopping rides out the recession

Mar 16

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16/03/2011 16:12  RssIcon

 

Britons' spending on ethical goods rose by nearly a fifth over two years, despite economic downturn...

Ok, who said that ethical brands would be the first scrubbed off the shopping list once a recession bites? Well, many people would have referred to basic economic theory. In their view, ethical brands are 'luxuries' and in times of hardship, the rational consumer would cut back to 'necessities' i.e. the cheaper stuff.

This theory would appear to have been torpedoed by the Co-operative Bank's Ethical Consumerism Report, for which we here at ECRA provide the underlying research. The ethical market in the UK was worth £43.2bn in 2009 compared with £36.5bn two years earlier – an increase of 18%.

Much of this can be traced to everyday goods that we all put in our shopping basket. Fairtrade food grew by 64% over the two years to reach sales of £749m, while sales of the RSPCA-backed Freedom Food products tripled to reach £122m. Ethical personal products, including clothing and cosmetics, was the fastest growing sector over this period, increasing by 29% to reach £1.8bn.

The surge in ethical cosmetics owed much to Marks and Spencer's decision to switch their own brands to the Leaping Bunny. Elsewhere, the likes of PG Tips and Mars have embraced Rainforest Alliance, and Cadbury's have put the weight of Britain's favourite chocolate brand – Dairy Milk – behind Fairtrade.

This touches on another, rather important, trend. Not only have consumers shown that their demand for ethical goods is steadfast; brands are increasingly seeing a business case for ethical production. Cadbury's, for example, reportedly shifted Dairy Milk to Fairtrade partly to shore up their portion of the world's highly fragile cocoa supply.

Perversly, this recession may actually have served to ratchet up ethical consumerism. Shoppers have sent clear market signals that ethical goods are no mere luxury. Their intangible value makes them a necessity in advanced consumer society, as we discussed in our recent talk 'Class, Price and Ethics'. And those companies who have embraced sustainability, like Cadbury's, will have some difficulty explaining any decision to abandon it.

Could ethical consumerism finally be hitting the mainstream?

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