Steady growth for the UK ethical market

Latest findings from Ethical Consumer Markets Report 2017

The Ethical Consumer Markets Report has been produced annually since 1999 and acts as the most trusted barometer of ethical spending in the UK.

It tracks sales data across a wide range of consumer sectors, from food to fashion to energy. In 2017, Ethical Consumer worked collaboratively with Triodos Bank for the second year on this project. 

In a year that saw the steady onset of Brexit-inspired economic gloom, this year’s Ethical Consumer Markets Report is a sign of hope, and a rare piece of positive economic news. Overall, the value of ethical spending grew by 3.2% to £81.3 billion, its highest total so far. In many cases, the UK’s ethical spending is shown to be strengthening at the same time as many of its conventional market counterparts have faltered.

As rising inflation causes retail prices to increase,1 the squeeze on personal spending budgets would have led some to predict a subsequent decline in ethical spending. However, this report shows that UK consumers continue to support ethical businesses and initiatives. In fact, in the YouGov survey2 we commissioned, almost a quarter (24%) of respondents said they had bought products in the last year specifically because of their ethical reputation.

Image: Ethical Spending trends 1999-2016

This report shows that, more than ever, consumers are seeking out ethical certifications; evidenced by the striking growth in our Rainforest Alliance (16.1%), Sustainable Fish (36.9%) and RSPCA Assured (10%) categories. Readers may also be heartened to see Fairtrade return to growth (2.3%) after a turbulent couple of years which saw it adopted by Mars but dropped by Sainsbury’s, Pukka and Cadbury’s.

The ethical reputation of companies, or lack thereof, proved to be a running theme in this year’s report. It was also reflected in our Boycotts sub-category which showed significant improvement. After three consecutive years in decline, some felt that the day of the boycott was drawing to an end. But this report shows that, on a personal level, consumers are still using their purchasing power in this way.

Signs of consumer resistance to environmentally and socially damaging markets can be found elsewhere in this report. In our Renewable Energy (54.7% growth) and Alternative Fuels Vehicles (33.4% growth) categories, it is encouraging to see consumers continuing to support alternatives such as these, despite the UK government’s evident lack of financial incentives for these industries.

Ethical Food and Drink

Since 2008, our Ethical Food & Drinks sub-category has more than doubled in value and it currently stands at £9.8 billion. By its own very high standards, growth over the previous three years has been sluggish, averaging just 4.3%, meaning that 2016’s year-on-year increase of 9.7% shows a return to stronger performance in this sector.

Table: Ethical Food and drink spending

Key Trends

  • Growth is recorded across the board for the first time since 2008. Ethical Food & Drink markets faired incredibly well during 2016, recording their first year of growth across all categories since the financial crash.
  • Surging certifications. Three of our certification categories, Rainforest Alliance, RSPCA Assured, and Sustainable Fish (MSC-certified) recorded strong growth in 2016. These results are in line with our YouGov survey which showed a 28% increase in consumers buying goods because of a company’s ethical reputation.
  • Here come the vegetarians. A steady 5.1% growth in vegetarian product sales marks a sharp increase in the number of people changing their diet for ethical reasons.
  • Fairtrade return to growth. After two years of decline, consumers have come back to Fairtrade goods. Although growth may not be as impressive as in other categories, this resilience sends a strong message to retailers and consumers.

Green Home

Table: green home spending

Key Trends

  • Small green energy companies are plugging the gap left by the ‘Big Six’. With green energy becoming more affordable, more Brits are choosing cleaner electricity.
  • Microgeneration declined sharply in 2016 as government cuts to feed-in-tariffs significantly reduced the number of new installations. Almost half as many new domestic solar panels were installed in the UK.
  • Consumers are increasingly looking for the most energy efficient appliances. An impressive growth in household appliances sales has been driven by a sharp increase in the uptake of A++/A+++ rated goods.
  • Young consumers drive forward Ethical Cleaning Products. Many companies have reported a boom in the number of young customers prioritising the naturalness of the goods they buy.

Eco-travel and Transport

Table: eco travel and transport spending

Key Trends

  • Sales of Tax Band A cars slump as consumers opt for Alternative Fuel Vehicles (AFVs) instead. 2016 was another impressive year for sales of AFVs.
  • Bicycle sales continue to grow as Olympic success and healthy lifestyles drive consumer interest.

Ethical Personal Products

Table: Ethical Personal Products spending

Key Trends

  • The Ethical Clothing sector springs back to life after seven years of decline. With our new methodology, only Fairtrade and organic clothes have been tracked.
  • Our YouGov survey results show an increase in purchases of second-hand clothes.On average, consumers claimed to be spending over £60 per year on second-hand clothing.
  • Ethical Cosmetics celebrates nine straight years of positive growth. The success of alternative cosmetic companies such as Lush continue to energise this sector.


Table: Ethical Community spending

Key Trends

  • UK consumers return to local high streets. With the rise of online shopping and fast fashion, it is heartening to see that consumers are increasingly choosing to shop in their local communities.
  • Charity Shops record their tenth consecutive year of growth. All but one charity shop in our dataset recorded retail sales increases in 2016.


Table: boycotts spending ethical markets report

The YouGov survey, commissioned by this report, was answered by 2,030 people and gives us an impression of the prevalence and impact of boycotts in the UK. An impressive 48% of people said they had boycotted products and/or services from one of the following industries for ethical reasons; Food & Drink, Transport, and Personal Products (cosmetics and toiletries).

Although its 1.7% growth rate over 2016 seems low, it represents a stabilisation of the Ethical Money market after the 9% decline in 2015.

Ethical Money

Table: Ethical Money spending investments

Key Trends

  • Banking recovers from its 20% decline in 2015. Ethical banking recovered as the Co-op Bank became more stable in 2016. Growth at other ethical banks, including Triodos, was very strong.
  • Ethical Investment rates slow down. Following three straight years of double digit growth, our Ethical Investments category falters slightly in 2016.
  • Credit Unions continue to grow well. Since 2008, our Credit Union dataset has been booming, although they are still a little-known institution.

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