Review of 2019 and our most popular content

Ethical Consumer co-editor, Tim Hunt, looks back over the last 12 months and we reveal our most visited content of 2019.

It's been  a year of crisis’ and muted celebrations, another dramatic year. The climate and ecological crises are beginning to bite, and it’s clear we are witnessing a truly existential threat to our way of life - a threat that our current economic and political systems are unable to deal with.
As active citizens and consumers, this presents us with many difficult challenges and stark choices, as ‘we the people’ are left to drive change and pick up the pieces in lieu of good quality political leadership.

30th anniversary year

This failure of government has echoes of Ethical Consumer’s early years, which is perhaps apt considering that this year we celebrated our 30th year in print.  Ethical Consumer magazine was launched in 1989 against a backdrop of political protests and social unrest. As founder Rob Harrison commented in our anniversary issue  “there is something familiar about the political tension in the air now for those of us who were around then.”

In 1989, the anti-apartheid movement was in full swing around the globe and the UK was reeling from what many saw as the end of the social contract that had been formed in the post war years. This has echoes today with the ongoing Israel/Palestine crisis and Brexit threatening to break the United Kingdom apart.

A focus on the environment

Our 30th anniversary celebrations were muted in the context of the ecological crisis, and our conference in October, rather than celebrate our movement’s past achievements, focused on bringing together people from a variety of backgrounds to look at ways that, together, we could have a positive impact.

Here at Ethical Consumer we have a unique view, covering multiple markets in-depth and from a variety of ethical concerns. This has led us, as it has others, to the understanding that we need a holistic approach to the ecological crisis. We need to take into account the human costs of climate change, but also put people at the centre of the great changes we inevitably need to make.

This was particularly apparent in our work this year on the fruit and vegetable farms of Southern Spain. Here, victims of the climate crisis move north for work and security, only to find low wages, harsh working conditions, and a political system that is shifting increasingly to the right.

It was also apparent in our review of corporate involvement in the fires which spread across the Brazilian Amazon this summer.  This situation was clearly aided by a political decision not to conserve but to destroy, and largely for the benefit of the beef industry and its offshoot, soy.

The problem of waste

But what we’re witnessing isn’t just a climate crisis. We’ve seen increasing focus on other aspects of our environmental damage, particularly around the issue of waste.  In our guides to mobile phones, laptops and desktops we looked at the issue of e-waste, the lack of regulation in the sector and those companies actively lobbying against its reduction.

Image: burning electronics
Burning electronics waste in Ghana

But it’s plastics that seem to have caught the public’s imagination and which have become a symbol of our collective neglect of global ecosystems.  This year, we looked at two products particularly, that often contain unnecessary plastics; nappies and menstrual products. We found that there are alternatives out there, and that they are being increasingly used, but that there were cultural and systemic barriers to their widespread use.

Perhaps surprisingly the guide that most caught people’s attention this year was toilet paper! Worryingly, our research found that companies are using less recycled materials and more virgin forests than ever, as people switch to luxury and quilted brands. A good indication that, in some industries, the direction of travel is still very much the wrong way. Again, thankfully, there are a number of ethical brands in the market using 100% recycled materials, but their share of the market remains small.

Markets with systemic problems

Two of our larger pieces of research this year which covered both waste and the climate crisis were supermarkets and the fashion industry.

We looked at how supermarkets had been slow to react to the problems around them and around plastic particularly.  Anna Clayton, our own lead researcher wrote in April that “When a system is as broken as the food system of the western world, it is no good tinkering around the edges. A radical new approach – or approaches – is required.”  For the first time we began ranking smaller local ethical stores and encouraging their use instead.

It was much the same theme in our guide to fashion published in September. We reported that more than one million tonnes of clothing was bought every year, with each item only being worn an average of 7 times before being discarded. Around 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in the household rubbish every year mostly going to landfill or getting incinerated. Added to all this, there is the carbon cost of the fast fashion industry. Some estimate that the clothing market could account for 25% of all global emissions by 2050.

And again, the trend was going in the wrong direction. The average consumer buys 60% more clothing than 15 years ago with that clothing kept only half as long. Also worryingly, less than one per cent of the material used to produce garments is recycled into new clothing, though our guide to ethical clothes shops showed a flourishing alternative sector trying to do things differently as usual.

The fight back

Thankfully, it isn’t all bad news. As I wrote in October “Over the past year we’ve seen significant street demonstrations, direct actions and school strikes, that have enjoyed popular support from across the political spectrum and society in general. As a result councils have declared climate emergencies and political parties have promised change, albeit at a rate too slow for those on the streets.” And this sense of urgency for real change is only going to grow as impacts are more keenly felt.

Image: Extinction Rebellion

But of course it’s not just governments who must act (and be made to act), we all have to take responsibility for our own carbon footprints. By far the biggest change in behaviour that we have witnessed recently is the move towards a more plant-based diet. As we wrote earlier this year “Our own survey, published in the 2018 Ethical Consumer Markets Report, found that 11% of people in the UK claimed to be vegetarian and 3% vegan – an increase of 52% and 153% respectively since 2016. An earlier survey in 2018 by claimed that the number of UK vegans was 7% of the population.”

We went on to explain how these kinds of results were being repeated across the world particularly in the USA , but also in other European countries like Sweden, Germany and Portugal. One global survey in  2018 even suggested that as much as 70% of the world’s population claimed to be either reducing meat consumption or ditching it all together.”

This is the kind of radical action that we’ll need to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis and there are clearly many of you who are doing much to reduce your impacts.  We wrote about this in our crowd-sourced article “60 actions to help tackle climate change” which turned out to be very popular across the UK.

Climate change will likely dominate our research again in 2020. But that doesn’t mean we’ll neglect the other issues that matter so much. As our work with the Fair Tax Mark on tax avoidance by big tech firms recently demonstrated, they are continuing to grow and use all of their resources to avoid making a financial contribution to the most vulnerable people who live in the economies they thrive in.

A final word on the election

And this leads to the final point. We were pleased to see many Political Parties include some of our own new manifesto points in their own manifestos. But as a progressive magazine we were obviously disappointed at the final result. This is likely to have far reaching consequences. For example, we have already seen a commitment made to undermine the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction campaign to uphold Palestinian human rights.

This brings us full circle, and to a lesson that may perhaps bring some comfort.. Although the government of the day supported apartheid South Africa when we started 30 years ago, a mass global movement of consumer and investor boycotts was able to help bring a tyrannical regime to its knees and create real positive change despite attempts to undermine it by unhelpful political forces.

At Ethical Consumer we have seen our subscription sales growing faster this year than for many years previously. More and more people are therefore coming to the conclusion that we need to be active in markets as well as in polling booths to make the changes we want to see.

So while 2019 was a tough year, and while we expect 2020 to be tougher still, it is as important as ever to join with us to vote with your wallet and continue to engage in wider political action to help create the society we need and tackle the ecological and human crises we face. 

Top content 2019

Here are some of our most visited guides and features from this year.

1. Ethical Shopping guide to Supermarkets

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 22 supermarkets.

We also look at an A-Z of policies from palm oil to cocoa production, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Unicorn wholefood grocery in Manchester and give our recommended buys. 

Read our Guide to Supermarkets

2. Ethical Shopping guide to Toilet Paper

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 27 toilet paper brands.

We also look at deforestation, bleach and toxic chemicals, recycled paper, bamboo paper, FSC labelling and give our recommended buys. 

Find out more about ethical toilet paper

3. Ethical Shopping guide to High Street Clothes Shops

In this guide, we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 44 high street shops 

We also look at the problem with fast fashion, workers' rights, shine a light on the ethics of Inditex and give our Best Buy recommendations. 

See our guide to High Street Clothes Shops

4. Ethical Shopping guide to Mobile Phones

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 15 mobile phone brands.

We investigate one of the defining products of our era: the mobile phone. We also give our Best Buy recommendations and look at company approaches to conflict minerals and toxic chemicals.

Guide to Mobile Phones

5. Palm oil section

Consumers increasingly want to avoid palm oil where possible, but it's a tricky task as it's used in so many products - more than 50% of packaged supermarket products from margarine and oven chips to soaps and detergents.

We have advice on companies and brands to avoid, how to go palm-oil-free with certain products, whether there are sustainable alternatives, and should we as consumers boycott palm oil. 

Read through our palm oil section

6. 60 Actions to Help Tackle Climate Change

We asked our readers what actions they were taking to reduce their personal carbon footprint.

We had a massive response and here we list 60 of the most popular, achievable and interesting ideas on how to tackle climate change.

Explore our list of climate actions

7. Ethical Clothes Shop Guide

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 43 ethical fashion retailers

We also look at sustainable fabrics, consumer actions, animal rights, shine the light on the ethics of Beyond Retro and give our Best Buy recommendations. 

Take a look at our guide to Ethical Clothes Shops

8. Boycotts List

We view boycotts as a vitally important extension of our formal democracy. Here is a comprehensive list of current boycott calls from campaigning groups around the world.

See our boycotts list

9. Ethical Shopping guide to Jeans

In this guide, we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 37 brands of jeans

We also look at sandblasting, pollution and upcycling jeans, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Levi Strauss and give our recommended best buys. 

Read our guide to Jeans

10. Ethical Shopping guide to Olive Oil

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 32 olive oil brands.

We also look at the environmental issues of intensive production, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Zaytoun and give our recommended buys.

Have a look at our guide to Olive Oil