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Celebrating 30 Years of Ethical Consumer

Rob Harrison, one of Ethical Consumer's founders, looks back at what's been achieved and forward at what remains to be done.

January 2020 is not a particularly comfortable time to be reflecting on the onward march of social and environmental values.

In the UK particularly, our collective political systems seem paralysed in the face of the rise of the far-right and the ever-louder drumbeat of climate change. And sometimes it can seem like we are living in end times, or at a point where serious breakdowns appear imminent.

Image: ethical consumer first flyer
The first leaflet – hand-drawn with a ruler and Letraset then put on file!

Ethical Consumer in 1989

For those of us who have been around for a while though, there is something familiar about the political tension in the air.

In 1989, when Ethical Consumer magazine first rolled off the printing presses, Britain had been living through a decade of Thatcherism. Her government had an ideological opposition to any market interventions that protected workers, animals or the environment.

It refused to take action against the racist police state in South Africa and was engaged in cold-war nuclear standoffs with the Soviet Union. At home, low-level guerrilla warfare with the IRA was in the news on a daily basis, and mass demonstrations and riots against the regressive Poll Tax were just around the corner.

With a government hostile to solving problems through regulation or intervention, environmental campaigners, church groups, trades unions and animal campaigners were increasingly turning to consumer boycotts and market campaigns to get change.

Ethical Consumer magazine was born against this backdrop, to keep track of this new upswing in radical activity and to help guide ordinary people towards sensible product choices in an increasingly confusing environment.

30 years of Ethical Consumer

What’s been achieved?

In 1989, a core aspiration was to normalise the simple idea that it makes sense to think about ethics when you buy something. Although it may seem hard to believe now, at that time there was not much of this kind of thinking around and there was even open hostility from some economists that any good would come from it.

Measured against that simple goal, progress looks pretty good. For example:

  • Boycotting and positive buying is now the third most frequently practised political activity after voting and signing a petition.

  • Fairtrade and organic movements have spread around the world. Less warmly embraced, but very widely adopted, are more corporate-friendly sustainability schemes like FSC (timber) and MSC (fish).

  • When we started, two companies that we knew of in the UK had issued environmental reports. Hundreds of thousands of companies now do it.

  • Governments have encouraged ethical buying by requiring actions like energy efficiency labelling and reporting on modern slavery.

Of course, Ethical Consumer remains just a tiny part of a global movement calling for a more ethical approach to economic decisions generally.

Other key players number in the thousands around the word and include ethical investors and lenders, ethical manufacturers and sellers, and, of course, the social and environmental campaign groups that often drive the process forward.

But Ethical Consumer remains a unique and critical piece of the jigsaw. Few others occupy the space that we do with our focus on engaging ordinary shoppers.

We are a constant reminder to businesses that there are people out there who may wish to support them in their ethical decisions, or indeed to boycott them for their unethical ones. We are also a reminder to consumers that they are not alone in caring about more than the bottom line

Previous Reflections on Progress at Ethical Consumer

EC50 1997 – 50th issue

We looked at how ethical consumer behaviours were spreading all around the world and into many types of institution. “Hardly a week goes by without some progress being made.”

EC88 2004 – EC is 15

On our 15th birthday we noted that that the rise of the internet had “transformed the way that campaigners can share information and take action on corporate abuse”.

EC100 2006 – 100th issue

We noted that ethical buying was becoming mainstream with big companies, governments and consumer groups all joining in. However there had also been “a sea change in public understanding of the damaging behaviours of big business”.

EC120 2009 – EC is 20

With the banking crash just behind us, we noted how “despite the successes of mainstreaming ethical consumption, the crises of capitalism that surround us are, if anything, more urgent and less easy to resolve than ever.”

EC150 2014 – EC is 25

We noted how ethical buying was being identified in the Global South with 82% of consumers in Brazil, India and China agreeing with the phrase “I have a responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society.”

What remains to be done?

Although ethical buying ideas are much more widespread, there are huge chunks of economic activity for which it is still an anathema. 

These include giant monopolies like Amazon, large parts of Wall Street, much commodity trading around the world, and indeed many ordinary consumers.

Our annual review of the size of the UK ethical market usually calculates it to be around 5-10% of all consumer activity (though it is bigger in certain sectors).

If it took 30 years to get to 10%, then we’re certainly not moving fast enough to convert the whole economy to ethical production in time to address some of the more urgent problems that lie ahead. And, as we noted in the opening paragraph, these are worrying times for our wider political and economic systems.

Buying ethically, however, was never meant to be a panacea and, since 1989, we have continually emphasised that “it is not a replacement for other forms of political action but an important additional way for people to exert their influence.” The emergence of Extinction Rebellion is, notably in this context, breathing new life into non-violent direct action. 

However, it is hard to see how buying ethically will not form a key part of the sustainable future ahead. Nor indeed is it easy to envisage how we can get to that destination without it. Ethical buying campaigns can, after all, function whether or not the governments of the day support them. 

Ethical buying may also be able to help reform the very institutions (profit-seeking firms) that organise production within the systems we have.

And, like capitalism itself, buying ethically is dynamic and capable of changing fast to address new issues. In the future, for example, it is clear that the new technologies of robotics and AI, particularly in the hands of profitseeking corporations, are going to throw up many difficult ethical issues.

It is almost certain that the ethical buying campaigns of the future will be engaged in trying to introduce some kind of moral framework around the developments that occur.

There are also instructive lessons from the past in how consumer boycotts can play an important role in ostracising more extreme political views.

Stop Funding Hate’s UK campaign to pressure advertisers to stop advertising in those UK newspapers which have openly racist agendas is just one, more recent, but very encouraging example.

As we wrote in our 20th birthday issue in 2009:

“We cannot predict what lies ahead. What we do know is that promoting informed discussion about what constitutes an ethical choice in every market offers a form and context to identify the common good and collaborate in its attainment.”

Here’s to the next thirty years!