The ethical advantage images

A growing appetite for sustainably sourced fish is part of a general movement towards ethical consumerism

The ethical advantage

The economic outlook may be gloomy, but sales of ethical goods and services have done well during the downturn, according an Ethical Consumer Markets Report, published by The Co-operative last month. A core of progressively-minded retailers and producers who are continuing to emphasise sustainability, and changes in consumer attitudes and behaviour, mean that, since the onset of the recession five years ago, the total value of ethical markets in the UK has increased by a third from £35.5 billion to £47.2 billion.

Sales of ethical produce have led the increase with more of us buying sustainably sourced fish (sales up 323 per cent), Fairtrade products (up 176 per cent) and ‘freedom foods’ such as free range eggs (up 78 per cent).

However, the increase has not been even across the range of consumer behaviours. The market for organic produce has shrunk slightly, and while more of us buy at charity shops, sales of ethical clothing are down, as are sales of bicycles, though driving a 'green' car has become a lot more common.

Underlying the growth in the market for ethical consumables are changes in consumer attitudes and behaviour that are tracked by the report. A third of us admitted to making efforts to find information about a company’s reputation last year (compared with a quarter of us who did this in 2000) and half of us said that we avoided buying a product or service on the basis of what we knew about the company providing it (up from 44% in 2000). (The Co-op report estimates that consumer boycotts, which have mushroomed since 2000, now cost UK business over £1 billion a year.)  

Commenting on the data, Barry Clavin, Head of Ethical Policies and Sustainability Reporting at The Co-operative, said: ‘The report shows that intervention by enlightened businesses, together with regulatory intervention, is driving ethical sales growth. During the downturn we’ve seen some of the biggest ever Fairtrade conversions, be it in chocolate or sugar, and business is beginning to respond to the challenge to provide consumers with more sustainable products and services such as fish, palm oil and soya. 

‘Ethical consumers are still a vitally important agent of change; however, the actions of progressive business are now a significant contributor to sales growth.’

Read the Report