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Key trends after 200 issues of Ethical Consumer

We have recently published the 200th issue of Ethical Consumer magazine, and take a step back to look at what has been achieved over this time in terms of ethical consumption.

As we reflect on the 30-year journey to issue 200 we can see a general trend towards wider adoption or ‘mainstreaming’ of ethical consumption ideas and approaches.

A period of dramatic change

The last three years have probably brought more dramatic changes to the world of Ethical Consumer publishing than any we have seen in previous periods. From our own point of view, we have seen our paying (and non-paying) readership increase by more than 100% as interest in buying ethically has mushroomed everywhere.

Much of this has been down to the pandemic and the general behaviour changes that this caused, such as more online shopping, and a rise of interest in print publications. But there are some other factors at play.

Climate change, the pandemic and ethics

A survey of 99,000 people conducted across Europe in September 2021 found that 49% of respondents said sustainability aspects had become more important or much more important to them since the pandemic. (31% said 'more', 18% said 'much more' important; 44% said sustainability aspects were equally important i.e. no change, and 7% said they were less or much less important than since the pandemic.)

Although there are problems with surveys in this area generally, these results show a big rise in people claiming to be more concerned about ethical issues. Probably the core reason is that the reality of climate change and the failure of our current systems to deal with it are becoming more apparent by the day.

A secondary and interlinked reason is that the pandemic gave many people the opportunity to pause and reflect on their lives and ask what they really value. This generally observed rise in ethical concerns has, in turn, created a range of other effects.

What do Ethical Consumer readers think?

We asked our readers, in an online survey in early November 2022, “What do you think have been the most important developments in ethical shopping, buying and/or consumption since you have been a reader of Ethical Consumer?” The majority of respondents had been reading the magazine for two to four years.

There were five main themes that came up again and again in their replies.

1. More awareness of ethical issues and the climate emergency

Readers had noticed the same kind of changes spotted by polling companies, but tended to reference a wider range of issues.

Frequently mentioned was the role of fast fashion, both for its carbon and labour impacts. Also occurring more than once were references to tax avoidance, carbon footprints, electric cars and plastic packaging.

2. More ethical choices

Readers also commented on a big increase recently in companies marketing themselves as ethical, or in ethical products and services generally. The rise of B-corporation certification was mentioned as was a big boom in ‘sustainable investment’ options.

3. A rise of greenwashing

Our readers have also spotted a rise in companies making questionable ethical claims about the products they sell. We have noticed this too of course, and written a range of online articles to help readers spot greenwashing, bluewashing, pinkwashing, sportswashing and other ethical movement washings that are beginning to take place.

Although this is not a new development, and we have been talking about greenwashing since 1982, the explosion of claims in the past couple of years has been so obvious that government and regulators have become more involved too.

In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority published a new Green Claims Code in September 2021 and the Advertising Standards Authority recently told HSBC to stop making misleading claims around its climate impacts.

4. Reductions in meat consumption

Readers also made observations about reductions in meat consumption. In our 2022 Climate Gap report, we mentioned how the UK Government’s own Climate Change Committee had spotted this too. Readers thought this was linked to the rise in ethical choices already mentioned, with new vegan and plant-based products popping up everywhere.

5. A rise in reuse and buying secondhand

Lastly, readers talked a lot about their growing interest in product repair, reuse and secondhand buying.

This was also one of the most surprising results of our 2022 Climate Gap research – with one in three clothing items bought now being secondhand, up from one in four a year ago. We pointed out in our report, as our readers did here, that economic crisis and hardship was a driver as well as climate concern.

Image with six things with words above them: bottle refuse, bowl reuse, jar reuse, tube recycle, clippers repair, banana skin rot.

We asked ... you responded

We had a fantastic response to our reader survey for our 200th issue, with hundreds of responses. Here are just a few on some of the questions we asked.

How has Ethical Consumer impacted your habits?

“It has given me more confidence in my choices and to argue with others (including my financial advisor!)”

“Over time I’ve moved more and more of my purchases over to ethical ones.”

“Your research has been the foundation of my own current value system.”

"I no longer use Amazon.”

How has Ethical Consumer impacted the way you think about ethical issues?

“It reminds me to be hopeful about the future.”

“It has made me aware of a wider range of issues.”

What do you value most about Ethical Consumer?

“It provides confirmation that there are many people like me that have ethical concerns and values.”

Previous reflections at Ethical Consumer milestones

1997 (EC issue 50) Ethical Consumer projects are appearing in other countries around the world.

2004 (15 years old) The internet is transforming the way campaigners are holding corporate abuse to account.

2006 (EC issue 100) Ethical consumption is mainstreaming with big companies and governments becoming involved.

2009 (20 years old) The crises of capitalism are becoming more urgent and less easy to resolve than ever.

2014 (25 years old) Ethical consumption ideas are spreading to the global south too.

2019 (30 years old) Thinking about ethical impacts is becoming normalised across most consumer markets now.

Consumer behaviour and action for a sustainable future

Although survey respondents weren’t asked to link different developments, there is clearly a pattern here of rising interest in ethical issues creating spin-off effects in markets and consumer behaviour.

Recently, we’ve been asked if all this is gratifying, given what we have been calling for for decades now. Whilst it is obviously pleasing to see all this happen, it would be wrong to ignore the counter-trends which are also playing out around us. The rise of the far right and the polarisation of discourse continues to be alarming. Although Donald Trump – a key concern in our 30-year review of progress in 2019 – is not currently sitting astride any great institutions of state, the same problems that helped to create him continue to pop up elsewhere (most recently in Italy).

And, as one reader in our survey pointed out, “the crisis of over-consumption is still a major issue and is probably worse”.

Nevertheless, the role of ethical consumer action, particularly when our political systems are continuing to underperform, looks like it will continue to play a critical role in building a just and sustainable future for some time to come.