Mainstreaming Ethical Consumption


The above was the title of Ethical Consumer Magazine’s annual conference, providing much food for thought on how ethical consumption could become mainstream and whether in some sectors, it already is. I went along to Amnesty International’s London office last Friday to hear from a wide range of speakers representing the likes of the Fairtrade Foundation, Forest Stewardship Council, Soil Association and Divine Chocolate.

Two days later I finally got round to watching The True Cost, a feature length documentary on fashion industry supply chains that featured on my blog back in 2013 when the film was crowd-funding. I’m so glad the documentary came to fruition because it casts a powerful light on all of the key industry concerns industry, from the plight of the cotton farmers living in poverty and the carcinogenic links to cotton pesticides, to factory workers across South East Asia and the insatiable appetite of the West (you can buy the film or watch it on Netflix). I wanted to cry with frustration by the end of the film because, in the six or seven years since I started looking into ‘sweatshops’ for my undergraduate dissertation, what has changed?

Well, according to Mintel’s 2015 report, 76% of UK adults say the ethical and sustainable credentials of products and the reputation of companies or brands behind them are important when making a buying decision.

This is MEANINGLESS. It doesn’t translate into action. At least the other 24% were honest in saying they don’t give ethics a second thought. This correlates with Ethical Consumer’s research; they suggest that 5-10% of consumers are ‘always ethical’ and 20-30% don’t care. Even that 5-10% are doing better than me if they can claim to be always ethical. But then isn’t ethical a subjective term in any case?

Fairphone have tracked the minerals that go into making our electronic devices, to make a better version.

Fairphone have tracked the minerals that go into making our electronic devices, to make a better version.

A better way to measure the mainstreaming of ethical consumption is to look at sales. Interestingly, although UK sales of Fairtrade products and sales of organic products are now fairly equal, at £1.6 and £1.8bn respectively, their journeys to this point are rather different. Fairtrade sales have steadily increased over the last 20 years, experiencing their first dip only last year. Organic sales, in contrast, were severely affected by the financial crisis, losing more than £500m in sales value between 2008 and 2011.

Fairtrade is more ubiquitous on consumer products than organic. For example, 85% of tea sold in supermarkets is fair trade, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s only offer bananas that are Fairtrade and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk was the first mainstream chocolate brand to go Fairtrade in 2009. In contrast, I can’t think of many brands that have suddenly gone 100% organic, rather, that market has been serviced by less mainstream, specifically organic brands. Therefore, consumers have greater autonomy (or should we say responsibility) when it comes to choosing organic whilst the choice to buy into Fairtrade has often been made for them. I’m sure much of the sales revenue for Fairtrade comes from big business making the decision to change on our behalf. Fairtrade towns, schools and workplaces are evidence to this effect.

The mainstreaming of Fairtrade cocoa forced Divine to focus on branding and product, whilst retaining co-operative principles.

The mainstreaming of Fairtrade cocoa forced Divine to focus on branding and product, whilst retaining co-operative principles.

Certification bodies like the Fairtrade Foundation have supported business in pursuing greater transparency in supply chains, ethical business practice and sustainable initiatives. It was interesting to hear from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) who have worked very hard with big retailers like Homebase and WH Smith so that they can offer customers wood and paper products certified as coming from sustainable sources. These organisations and their logos provide a guarantee that customers trust to a far greater extent than they trust the actual business (let’s not mention VW . . .).

It’s safe to say that ethical/sustainable consumption is more prevalent when consumers don’t actually have to make a choice. Change has come from certification bodies and grassroots campaigning, but certainly not government. Retailers and brands have worked on lowering their carbon footprint and swapping to more sustainable business practices, when it suits them. For example, Pepsi-Co’s recent claim that since 2010, it has reaped $375 million in savings due to its sustainability initiatives, namely saving water and energy costs. This financial motive is no bad thing so long as we are seeing change. Other brands, like Innocent and Lush, have had sustainability and ethics engrained into their business model from the start and their profits have only benefited from doing so, appealing to the ethically conscious consumer as they do.

Lush Cosmetics has always been staffed by activists, but fear of consumer stigma meant they kept this quiet at the start

Lush Cosmetics has always been staffed by activists, but fear of consumer stigma meant they kept this quiet at the start

Ethical food including organic and Fairtrade is big business compared to ethical fashion, which is lagging far behind. It’s not that there aren’t ethical fashion brands, because there are many, but unlike in the food industry, specific ethics and sustainability initiatives have stayed on the periphery of mainstream consumption. You will find organic foodstuffs on every high street and in every supermarket, but not an organic t-shirt. There are many reasons for this including lack of supply (there isn’t enough organic cotton to meet demand), costs, complex supply chains and consumer demand. Consumers (including me) are vain, and cost conscious. This isn’t such a problem when you are choosing between two types of tea, but choosing a new coat is obviously different. Plus, although cotton can be certified Fairtrade, a t-shirt, i.e. the production process, cannot. It can be certified as fairly-traded, but there are so many different certification schemes for that, the average consumer does not have one label they can rely on across the industry.

Easy access to ethical products is the only way ethical consumption can become mainstream. For that, all parties are responsible: the government, retailers and consumers. I’ve been writing about ethical fashion for six years. 124 years ago Benjamin Harrison, then President of the United States said, “I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth or shapes it into a garment will starve in the process”.

What’s changed?

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4 thoughts on “Mainstreaming Ethical Consumption

  1. Maisee says:

    Great, thought-provoking article. I consider the ethical implications behind the items I buy when doing my clothes or grocery shopping, the latter being easier for making ethical decisions (I buy fair-trade/organic produce, teas, coffees, chocolates wherever possible). But when it comes to clothing, I do find the cost-conscious part of me appear more often than not. Buying organic, ethically produced fashion items can be pricey.

    • Emma says:

      I agree – and ethical clothing is much less readily available on the high street. It’s all about compromise though and it sounds like you’re doing great by just thinking about where your purchases have come from. Hopefully we’ll get there eventually, all together 🙂

  2. Patricia Yaker Ekall says:

    Hello Emma,

    I totally agree with: saying you’d support ethical brands is an entirely different thing from doing something about it. And that last quotation from Benjamin Harrison is a sobering thought. It’s chilling to think we have come far from that, as far as the fashion industry is concerned.

    I am a fashion blogger, who has recently decided to be a little more…conscious in what I inadvertently advertise on my personal site. I’m glad I discovered your blog. I could learn a thing or two from you about ethics in the brand to consumer relationship.

    Thanks for this post.

    Patricia x

    • Emma says:

      Thanks Patricia, that’s lovely to hear 🙂
      Also great to read about TROY London – not a brand I’d heard of before but will keep a look out for them!

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