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The Rise of Ethical Consumerism

The Rise of Ethical Consumerism

One day, French entrepreneur Nicholas Chabanne did some maths. He worked out that if consumers paid a mere €4 extra on milk each year, it would strike a fairer deal for French dairy farmers than big supermarkets were offering.

That’s how food brand C’est qui le patron?! (Who’s the boss?) was born, and now it’s the fourth biggest milk brand in France. One in five French adults buy the product despite it being pricier than cut-price supermarket varieties. The stats reflect the behaviour of a particular demographic: the ethical consumer.

“A whole lot of consumers now want to behave more responsibly,” Chabanne told the Guardian. “They would prefer, if possible, to buy healthy, quality food, produced ethically, transparently and with respect for animal welfare and the environment by people who get a fair price for it. And they’re willing to pay a bit more for that.”

The story of C’est qui le patron?! reflects a growing trend in consumer spending; one that also aligns with the findings in our 2020 Retail Trend Report. Consumer research also shows that 66%  of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable goods that are manufactured with the environment in mind. UK ethical spending grew more than ever in 2019, with a total market worth £14 billion.


What is ethical consumerism?

In our information-heavy age, we’re increasingly aware of how our actions affect the wider world. It’s hard for consumers to ignore the damaging effects of their buying habits—whether it be deforestation, exploitation or animal cruelty. This has spurred a surge in commitment to ethical living amongst both consumers and businesses.

Whether or not an ethically-driven consumer buys your product depends on factors such as what’s it’s made from, who made it, where, how and whether they were paid fairly for doing so. 

Say you run a clothing store and a socially-conscious customer discovers that the fashion industry is responsible for the exploitation and inhumane living conditions of over 3 million people in India alone. They’ll then be more willing to shop at your store if you can show that the clothes you sell were produced in fair and humane working conditions.


What are ethical trends?

Ethical trends are spurred by a collective desire to make the world a better place. They’re often associated with the consumption of ethical goods. Here are four ethical trends we can expect to see more businesses adopt:

  1. Alternatives to single-use plastics
  2. Ethical veganism
  3. Eco-friendly supply chain practices
  4. Sustainable order fulfilment

1. Alternatives to single-use plastics

As the issue of ocean plastic attracts more and more public attention, restaurants and cafes everywhere have stopped using plastic straws to align with enviro-conscious consumers. Starbucks pledged to start phasing out plastic straws in 2018, and have since announced their plan to use specially designed lids made from recycled plastic.

The popularity of bamboo toothbrushes and the success of start-ups selling alternatives to cling film made from beeswax also signals that consumers are moving away from single-use plastic in a push to protect the environment.

Image of Starbucks new lids made from recycled plastic

2. Ethical veganism

Ethical food and veganism is also gaining more attention than ever before. Last year, UK bakery chain Greggs announced the launch of its controversial vegan sausage roll, which prompted a surge in sales. The UK court even ruled ethical veganism a ‘philosophical belief’ when a vegan was supposedly fired from his job for it.

3. Eco-friendly supply chain practices

The demand for ethical goods has created a platform for sustainability-focussed companies to find innovative ways of improving their supply chain. A case in point would be Dutch chocolate producer Tony’s Chocolonely, who not only make a delicious product but also pride themselves on a transparent and ethical supply chain.

They carefully monitor each step in their supply chain to protect their suppliers against exploitation. Their goal going forward would be a 100% slave-free and ethically sourced supply chain, and they’d like to influence similar companies to do the same.

4. Sustainable order fulfilment

In response to the rising awareness of the negative environmental impact of its speedy delivery, Amazon had pledged to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030 and be completely carbon neutral by 2040.

Other companies, like UPS, are following suit with a similar initiative. Their goal is to use 25% renewable energy by investing heavily in vehicles that use alternative fuels and other technologies that help reduce carbon emissions. 


What does ethical consumerism mean for businesses?

Consumers willing to pay more for sustainable products grew by 200% between 2011 and 2015. This trend triggered huge growth for sustainable products going forward. A 2018 report by Nielson showed that sales for sustainable products now grow twice as fast as other products in their respective categories, despite a smaller market share.

In that same year, Unilever brands with sustainability credentials grew 69% faster than those without and made up 75% of the company’s overall growth.

The majority of consumers are willing to put their money where their mouth is and combat pressing environmental issues through what they choose to purchase. The growing economic opportunity of commodity activism (when companies align themselves with a stance on a political or social issue as a means of winning consumers who share that point of view)  also presents an opportunity for businesses. 

Those who commit to and communicate their enviro-conscious initiatives can position themselves as agents of change, winning enviro-conscious consumers in the process.


Sustainable business is good business

Businesses now have a responsibility to help their customers make sustainable choices, educate and reassure them that their choices can make a difference. That could be as simple as branding—like how C’est qui le patron?! puts ‘we pay our producers fair price’ in block capitals on each of their milk cartons—or it could mean making wholesale changes to how you source materials, produce and ship goods to consumers. 

There has been a proliferation of ethically-driven brands in all retail verticals, from CHÉ Studios’ sustainable shirting to Cuyana’s commitment to conscious consumerism. That’s because consumers now share the widespread belief that businesses have a responsibility to enable consumers to make sustainable choices, educate and reassure them that their choices can make a difference. 

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