Ethical living and consumerism

There is a growing interest in ethical, responsible and environmentally sustainable living, which is reflected in the goods and services that people buy. Rising individualism is also leading to an increase in ‘me’ actions such as boycotting and ‘buycotting’. These are seen by some as being at the expense of more traditional ‘we’ actions like campaigning or volunteering.

Despite the economic downturn, the market for ethical goods has continued to grow indicating a strong commitment to the ethical practices involved. Although sales of organic food are falling; sales of other ethically branded goods such as Fairtrade and Freedom Food are increasing. The choices involved in being an ethical consumer are becoming more complex – some consumers are increasingly confused by this complexity and feel overwhelmed by the many appeals to change their lifestyles.

What are the implications?

  • Increased understanding, support and awareness around climate change issues.
  • Increased focus on well-being as the idea of responsible and sustainable consumption is increasingly linked to quality of life and personal happiness.
  • The rise of ethical consumerism may also encourage collaborative consumption as people look for new ways to minimise the impact of their consumption.
  • Pressure on both VCOs and businesses to demonstrate corporate responsibility by observing ethical, responsible and environmentally sustainable business practices.
  • Environmental and ethical awareness requiring high levels of investment may impact on resources available for core VCO activities.
  • Risk that the private sector could be perceived to be ahead of VCOs when it comes to environmental concern.
  • Potential increase in numbers of volunteers for organisations that work to promote ethical and environmentally sustainable living.
  • An increase in international campaigns and movements focused around ethically and environmentally sustainable living – an issue not bound by global constraints.
  • Alternative consumption patterns leading to the development of new organisations, often social enterprises.
  • Licensing and certification of ethically branded goods are a significant source of revenue for the not-for-profit organisations involved.

  • Confused consumers may look to VCOs to lead the way help them to navigate through complex choices and decisions.

Moving forward

Much emphasis has been put on individual action to live an ethical and environmentally sustainable life. Potential exists for the VCS to help translate these individual actions into collective actions. However, in a time-poor society individuals may feel that it is easier to 'act at the checkout' than through the community.

  • How can your organisation capitalise on individual enthusiasm to encourage collective action?
  • In light of changing attitudes and behaviours, have you envisaged volunteer recruitment strategies that would appeal to people's values and a broader sense of well-being?

Environmental responsibility concerns organisations across all sectors. Individuals are increasingly aware and critical of organisations that don’t practice what they preach.

  • Is your organisation 'walking the talk'?

There is increasing pressure from funders and the public for organisations to be ethically and environmentally responsible.

  • Does your organisation understand the impact its services and practices may have on society or the environment?
  • Has your organisation got the reporting systems in place to demonstrate and communicate this to the wider public and potential funders?

Want to know more?

The Soil Association Organic Market Report 2009

Published by: The Soil Association – the UK’s leading organic campaign, watchdog and certification body

Date: 2009

Format: PDF (756KB)

What is it? Report providing analysis of the UK organic market in 2009, with similar reports since 2004.

How useful is this? This detailed report analyses the relative strength of different parts of the organic market in 2008. It finds that on the whole, organic consumption and interest in organic consumption are still growing through the economic downturn. However, some organic foodstuffs are experiencing slowed growth as consumers adapt. For instance, by cooking organically from scratch rather than buying expensive ready-made organic dishes. The upbeat conclusion is that organic consumerism will weather the downturn and continue to grow in the aftermath due to wider environmental and economic drivers.

Other comments:

I will if you will - Towards sustainable consumption

Published by: The Sustainable Development Commission – an arms-length government organisation

Date: 2006

Format: PDF (469KB)

What is it? A report commissioned to advise Government on how to create sustainable consumer choices with short and long term recommendations for action.

How useful is this?An interesting report on how the Government can set a framework for making sustainable choices easier. It finds that people are willing to make changes but need strong leadership and support from Government and business. Recommendations include: creating practical catalysts for change in everyday living; avoiding reliance on green consumers but making ‘green’ choices easier for all; and recognising the importance of community action so people do not feel they are acting in isolation. It may be useful to see which recommendations are taken up and how they may impact on your organisation.

Other comments:


Link: Desperately seeking sustainability? Summary of NCC research into information and advice on sustainable lifestyles

Published by: National Consumer Council – a charitable consumer watchdog (since merged with others to become Consumer Focus)

Date: 2006

Format: PDF (on a third party's website)

What is it? A paper exploring the role of information and advice in supporting sustainable lifestyles.

How useful is this? This research finds that consumers have relatively high access to information and advice on sustainable lifestyles. However, this depends on the social group, and only a minority seek out further information.  Information and advice can support voluntary changes in behaviour, but these should be seen as part of wider social marketing and are only part of the recipe to encourage sustainable choices, which also need to be made easier.

Other comments:

The Ethical Consumerism Report 2010

Published by: The Cooperative Bank - a high street bank with ethical commitments.

Date: Dec 2010

Format: Online and PDF

What is it? A short report providing total sales of ethical goods in the UK between 2008 and 2009, with similar reports since 2000.

How useful is this? The report provides statistics on consumer spending and attitudes covering food, green home, travel and transport, and personal consumption. It claims a continued increase in the sale of ethical products and services in several sectors, despite a decrease in some areas, and seeks to identify new opportunities.


Last updated at 15:43 Fri 25/Mar/11.

Recent comments

Natalie's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Is ethical shopping becoming a signifier of social status for the middle classes who can afford to buy hundreds of eco-gadgets? And will ethical consumerism actually translate into political action on climate change?

Megan 's picture


Third Sector Foresight

I think it is Natalie. I think its also becoming more accepted/prominent as a way of people taking action. This prompts a question about how VCOs can convert these individual consumer actions into a collective, as Stella Creasy discussed at the recent NCVO research conference

Véronique's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Have just come across this article which asks some really thought-provoking questions about ethical consumerism. It is written by Necla Acik-Toprak who is working on a PhD project on civic engagement at University of Manchester in cooperation with Unlock Democracy.

Basically: Where do you place such low-type activities within the discussion of civic and political engagement and how much weight should be given to them in the discourse of political participation? Can ethical consumerism replace traditional forms of political activities or are they just artefacts of an individualistic post-materialist consumer society with no real political substance?

In the article, Necla highlights the current lack of research evidence and understanding: “Most of the cross-national surveys (including the ESS) do not investigate ethical consumerism in detail. Without more information it is hard to distinguish whether buycotting and boycotting is a sporadic or a persistent type of engagement. In order to group this activity as a clearly political activity, there needs to be more research to establish how much ethical consumers act as ‘political consumers’ and to what extent they use this behaviour as an instrument to bring about political and social change?”

There’s a bit of both out there, I believe, Veronique. There are some (and a growing number) for whom ethical shopping is integral to their political life – is part of the same way of living as signing a petition about human rights in Tibet or campaigning for trade justice. I think of these people as striving to be good ‘global citizens.’ See Flexibility, Honesty, Collaboration for more on what their efforts mean for the voluntary sector.

Amongst these are people for whom it’s a real investment of time and commitment; they will take the time and trouble to make careful choices for good ethical reasons. There are plenty more who don’t have – or don’t give – the time to do their own research on what’s right and why; they rely on charities, campaigners or fairtrade businesses to grab their attention, and are looking for a quick way to ‘get it right’ on the basis of what they’ve heard and then get on with their lives.

Some of the commentary above is a little snide about these people for my liking. It doesn’t worry me too much if they’re not devoting large parts of their lives to making their choices – as long as they’re making them. It’s the job of the ethical trading sector, charities, etc to make sure the information they receive is attractive, easy to understand and reliable, so that a quick take is all it needs to do the right thing. And then let’s cheer them on!

Véronique's picture


Third Sector Foresight

You’re absolutely right, Richard. I’m really interested in considering how organisations could tap into the enthusiasm and motivation of ethical consumers. Ethical consumerism is clearly a fantastic opportunity for organisations in the sector, even though many people who buy fair-trade or organic products may not want to engage more. I guess for me it’s about linking individualised forms of action to more collective ones.

Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

In their most recent Consumer Attitudes Audit, the Future Laboratory found that a quarter of people were linking social status and environmental awareness. In other words - you gain social kudos by being green. I'd be interested to know if this is something environmental organisations are going to try and tap into.

Everyone seemed to think the recession would put ethical consumerism on the back burner, but there are signs (like this) that that isn't the case. What's your views on this?

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