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Still not ‘ethical’ after all these years

A report saying our buying habits are increasingly driven by ethical concerns made some fairly unethical contortions to reach that conclusion.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Politics

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It was widely reported this week that ethical consumerism has gone mainstream, following revelations that spending in Britain on ‘ethical’ products now outstrips retail sales of alcohol and cigarettes. The facts tell a different story. What is really striking is just how irrelevant ethical consumerism remains, despite ever-increasing media hype and the enthusiasm of retailers.

These days, every newspaper and TV show seems to have someone lecturing us about how to live an ethical lifestyle (including spiked‘s very own Ethan Greenhart). Major retailers have leapt on the bandwagon, too. No self-respecting supermarket can be seen without a wide range of organic foods. Marks and Spencer sell ethical clothing lines and fairtrade coffee in their cafés. Even the much-maligned McDonald’s now uses only organic milk and eggs.

So, it did not seem surprising when a report published by the Co-operative Bank and the Future Foundation revealed that ethical consumerism in Britain was worth £29.3billion in 2005, compared to the £28billion we spend on alcohol and cigarettes over-the-counter. This represents a rise in ethical consumerism of 11 per cent from last year. However, the media reporting of these figures left a lot to be desired. The implication is that we’re all rushing out to buy organic and fairtrade food, and that is simply not the case. The figures are actually an almighty conflation of different categories.

First, what on Earth does ‘ethical’ mean? The report (it’s actually a press release with some attached tables) defines ethical goods to include organic food, free-range eggs, fairtrade products, goods from farmers’ markets, sustainable food, vegetarian food, ‘dolphin-friendly’ tuna, energy-efficient appliances, micro-generation, and eco-friendly cleaning products. That’s not all. Also lumped in with the figures are such spuriously ‘ethical’ choices as buying second-hand goods, using public transport, shopping locally and using charity shops. So getting a bus to work is now lumped alongside buying ethical green tea.

A whole set of different motivations are mixed up. It’s true that many people see little distinction between these various categories, often assuming that fairtrade food is organic, or that organic food is fairtrade, and that both will probably be environmentally friendly. In fact, fairtrade is inevitably shipped in from countries far away – after all, that’s where the poor farmers live. The same goes for 70 per cent of Britain’s organic food. Is such long-distance shipping good for the environment? And there’s no reason why a poor farmer would grow organically except out of necessity; that is, he can’t actually afford to buy the fertilisers and pesticides to increase his yields. As has been argued on spiked before, fairtrade products might make consumers in the West feel good when they’re shopping, but they offer few real benefits to the Africa or Asian farmers who produce them (see Shop till global injustice drops, by Nathalie Rothschild).

Not only does one kind of ethical purchase often conflict with another, but the assumption that purchases of organic food or free-range eggs are always motivated by ethical concerns is misplaced. These days, consumers may find that their local supermarket only stocks organic or free-range (particularly in the evenings, when all the cheaper, non-ethical produce has already gone). Many people simply prefer the taste of free-range eggs to those from battery hens.

While ‘buying for re-use’ might practically be better for the environment than buying something new – at least in theory – the second-hand market has always been motivated by money: one owner trying to re-coup money on something he no longer needs, and a new owner trying to get something on the cheap. Even something as green as micro-generation and energy efficiency must be motivated in part by saving money – especially given the huge government handouts available for some of these projects.

More strikingly still, the Co-op and Future Foundation figures include not only spending but boycotts, too. So of the £4.5billion under the category ‘ethical food’, nearly £2billion was food boycotts; well over half the figure for ethical transport related to travel boycotts. So even not purchasing something can be added to an ethical consumerism breakdown…. What does this mean? Presumably, people were asked what they might have spent on a product if they’d been able to obtain an ethical version of it. But there is a huge difference between an opinion poll statement of intent, and the hard economic facts of handing cash over the counter.

The biggest item in this ethical consumerism basket is not a type of good at all. ‘Ethical finance’ accounted for £11.5billion of the figures. This may or may not be motivated by altruism. For example, it includes credit unions, which are usually an attempt by groups of less well-off people to get access to credit without paying punitive rates – in other words, understandable and mutual self-interest. But investments are clearly a very different thing from purchasing goods (it’s also not clear whether this was £11.5billion of new investment or the total amount invested as of 2005).

Going back to the figures, if we add up what was actually spent on ethical goods of all kinds and for all purposes in 2005, the figures are, roughly:

Ethical food: £2.6billion
Green home: £3.8billion
Ethical transport: £0.6billion
Personal products: £1.0billion
Local shopping: £2.1billion
Total: £10.1billion

Even setting aside the problematic nature of lumping together so many ethical concerns, and purchases that are probably not motivated by ethical concerns at all, the comparison with cigarette and alcohol sales doesn’t hold up.

A proper reading of the Co-op’s press release (which many journalists seemed not to have bothered doing) shows that even the Co-op knows that you cannot simply say that ethical consumerism is exploding: ‘[T]otal ethical spending is spread over a wide range of products and services, and in very few markets has it become the market norm.’ The Co-op wants increasing use of regulation, labelling and subsidy to promote ‘ethical’ products, particularly in relation to climate change. But should the government be doing more at the consumer level when there is so little spontaneous demand for these things?

And can you really change society for the better by changing people’s shopping habits? I was always unconvinced by the self-flattering notion among some Western liberals that their boycotts of South African goods toppled apartheid in South Africa (the role of the black masses in South Africa was somewhat more important than the decisions made by individuals at Waitrose in Hampstead on a Saturday afternoon). I remain unconvinced that shopping styles are an effective way to transform things in the real world outside of the supermarket.

The embracing of this new report seems to be about making the apparently unethical masses feel like they should play ball: ‘Look, loads of people are buying ethical – why aren’t you?’ But the statistical contortions required to compare ethical consumerism with real mainstream spending only distort reality. And that isn’t very ethical, is it?

Read on:

spiked-issue: Environment

Read Rob’s website here.

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Topics Politics

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