Ethical Consumer, the Green Shopper

Being an ethical and concerned shopper is more complex than it has ever been. The ethical consumer has to think about merchandise produced without cruelty, made sustainably, by producers that get a fair price, sold without excess packaging, plastic-free with zero-emissions. And not too expensive either.  

Not many people are this conscientious. Shoppers often struggle with the conflicting needs of buying goods cheaply and buying ethically. Most are likely to be wholly ethical only part of the time, either because of high prices or because their ethical focus relates to only a few things, free-range eggs for example. But whether green consumerism is something related to every pound spent or to only part of one’s spending, it is no longer a fringe activity.

'Ethical'  and 'Sustainable' Definitions 

The language of ethical shopping is a minefield.  Words can be used in quite a precise fashion or having a more general meaning. 

Ethical: often tends to mean decent treatment of workers and suppliers in terms of incomes, hours worked and how managed. It can mean cruelty-free. And it can also mean any form of enterprise or consumer purchase motivated by moral principles. 

Sustainable: tends to be used to describe a production or distribution process that has no negative effects on its environment, eg waste is recycled, there are no poisonous by-products, the product is biodegradable etc. It can be used in a very restricted fashion to mean that waste is recycled and a proportion of energy inputs are from non-fossil fuels. 

Cruelty-free: normally refers to the humane treatment of animals, no animal testing (beauty products), no use of animal by-products (fashion) or high welfare standards (agriculture).

Organic: produced without using toxic materials or chemical inputs. For foodstuffs, it means food produced by a member of a reguated organic programme controlling what inputs can be used and (where approporiate) animals or birds are kept in accordance with specified humane standards of animal welfare. 

Fair Trade: there are now several FT programmes, which generally aim to provide a decent income and a fair price for suppliers and workers compared to other market transactions. 

Green: a general-purpose adjective meaning either more ethical, more sustainable, more organic than the norm or a process, supply chain or economy that is totally sustainable, ethical and organic. Whilst this is true, the major green concerns at present relate to (1) recycling unwanted products and eliminating wasteful lifestyles, and (2) the elimination of any use of fossil fuels or nuclear power in producing electricity and gas, to power cars  or to work other machinery.  

Greenwashing: exaggerated claims of right-on eco credentials that may true of only a small proportion of a company's inputs or processes.  


How Many Ethical Consumers are there in the UK?

How committed is the public to shopping ethically? A survey we carried out in June 2019 (see Table 1) showed that only 11% were Fully-committed Green shoppers who made almost all of their purchasing decisions on ethical criteria. Quite Committed (27%) made most of their decisions on an ethical basis. Occasional Green shoppers (36%) made some decisions on this basis or focused on only a few issues.  Even some of the Not interested category claimed they made some purchasing decisions according to ethical concerns.

Table1: Estimates of UK Ethical Shoppers 2019
Fully-committed Green shoppers 11%
Quite Committed shoppers 27%
Occasional Green shopper 36%
Not Interested 26%
Total 100%

[Source: CRR research, sample of 1,051 shoppers in June 2019]

Shoppers may find it difficult to make rapid ethical choices when shopping, because they lack information. They do not know the precise meaning of the different ethical labels or standards programmes (eg Red Tractor or MSC Fish). Unethical merchandise, regrettably, is not labelled as ‘produced by slave labour’ or ‘our furniture is proudly unsustainable’. Supported by media attention, the targets of ethical consumerism do vary from year to year, and depend a great deal on what is portrayed as the latest crisis. At present it is zero-carbon sustainability, plastics and over-packaging; three-four years ago it was plastic bags, food authenticity and food quality. Before then it was cheap fast fashion and labour conditions in Asian textile factories.  

The Price of Ethics

Ethics and compassion carry a price tag. Retailers have to balance what is really important to customers and society against the price at which it can be supplied. While many consumers want to be ethical in their buying choices, they will not pay higher prices or, sometimes, significantly higher prices. A retailer deciding to eliminate palm oil from its products or only to sell MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) sustainable fish has carefully to assess the effects of this upon its consumers if prices go up. In 2000, Iceland Foods decided to sell only organic fresh fruit and vegetables, when sales of organic food were on a rising trend. A fall in sales, because its regular clientele refused to pay higher prices, stopped this policy very quickly.

A 2016 survey for the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) found high prices to be the most commonly-cited barrier to buying ethically-sourced groceries. Fifty-two per cent said that the higher prices of the more ethical options were the main reason why they did not shop more ethically. Other reasons were lack of availability (a green option is not stocked [31%]), lack of knowledge (17%) and lack of trust in green claims made (14%).

Hence to be successful, green retailers need green, ethical consumers.

Strategies for an Ethical Retailer

There are several strategies that larger retailers are using to ensure they are on the right side of any discussion about ethics. Most retailers recognise that they have to respond to public concerns. They read the newspapers and watch television: retail executives and shop floor staff and their families are subject to the same prevailing attitudes and concerns as the rest of the population, which include ‘we must do something about this’.  

Join an Ethical Standards Programme

One way to show the retailer is ethics aware is to join a kitemark scheme which indicates the standards by which it operates. There is a multiplicity and although some have a degree of consumer awareness (such as Fairtrade or Red Tractor) most shoppers do not really know what minimum standards are used. Some examples are-

  • Freedom Food RSPCA - Agreed standards for UK-sourced food based on better-than-minimum requirements for humane treatment of animals.
  • Red Tractor Label or Assured Food Standards – An umbrella for UK product, covering 6 different programme areas and 6 related schemes, assuring minimum standards of UK production.
  • Fairtrade. Fair prices paid to suppliers meeting international Fairtrade standards. In the UK many retailers now have their own Fairtrade-type, schemes which undermine the global Fairtrade programme.
  • FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Major retailers have switched to sustainable wood, a prohibition on endangered species, discontinuing the use of teak along with many other requirements.
  • MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) Fish from sustainable sources, caught or reared with minimal impact on stocks, eco-systems, and the wider environment.
  • Soil Association Leading UK certifier of organic foods, which must be produced in a specific way by a producer registered with one of nine control bodies, meeting required product and process standards and checked by regular inspections. The standards for animals and poultry are usually more humane than Red Tractor or RSPCA.
  • ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative) Agreed minimum standards for retailers, suppliers and trades unions covering pay and working conditions in global supply chains: no child labour, no forced labour, hygienic and safe conditions, can join TUs, and no discrimination or harsh/inhuman treatment.

Ambiguous Food Definitions

Shoppers often do not know what food labels actually mean. British for example may not mean that something was actually produced in Britain. It means the last substantial change has occurred here: Danish pigmeat cured in Britain can be described as ‘British’. Free-range chickens may have continual access to open-air runs for only half their life. Th term organic eggs (legal definition) relates not only to feedstuff and chemical use, but specifies a more generous space per bird, smaller flocks and better access to outdoors than Red Tractor or RSPCA. Low-fat yoghurt may contain almost as many calories as the normal range.

The Importance of Ethics as a Market

Consumers are making decisions about ethical spending in a world of imperfect information, where there are many legitimate demands on household budgets. Retailers need to support those trying to make ethical decisions by providing accurate information, without annoying other customers who do not feel so motivated or feel they are already being badgered too much already.

Reduced meat eating. There are now around 3.5m vegetarians and 0.6m vegans, who have made that decision mainly on ethical grounds. In addition, 21% of shoppers now claim to be flexitarian: they are trying to reduce their weekly consumption of meat and fish, probably on health grounds but sometimes for ethical reasons. This all means that there are new markets for retailers to develop new meat-free (and dairy-free) products and ranges.

Customers of course can be fickle. Although there are plenty of vegetarians, there are lots of ex-vegetarians. It is unwise to extrapolate from the pace of consumer choice in the last few years to see a future, say in 2025, where one-quarter of the UK is either vegetarian or vegan. A contrary view can be seen in Sainsbury’s (2018) discussion document, The Future of Food, which does assume that one-quarter of the population will be vegetarian by 2025. Retailers have to take a longer view, by introducing change slowly and carefully, avoiding disruption and having limited cost implications.

Political Pressure

Concern about the large number of plastic bags used by retailers led the UK government to agree a phased reduction in use. However any reductions were comparatively minor so a 5p charge per bag was introduced. This has produced a major fall in plastic bag use in the retail industry, although there have been some perverse results. A cotton ‘bag for life’ uses as many of the earth’s resources as 135 thin plastic bags.

There is now a great deal of legislation requiring retailers to adopt policies to limit waste, apply specific anti-slavery policies and sustainability. It should be possible to enforce such policies in the UK in stores, warehouses and local suppliers (although a House of Commons report expressed concern that some retail auditors in fast fashion had been threatened or attacked when inspecting certain UK factories). Retailers are responsible for identifying where they are non-compliant and need to make their changes in good time. In fast fashion, it was suggested (HoC, 2019) that intense emphasis on low prices was a major factor forcing suppliers to evade minimum wage laws. A further problem is that retail supply chains are now so complex, involving thousands of suppliers in different countries, many of which may outsource work to non-complaint factories which use illegally-produced raw materials. The retailer placing the order may be unaware of any of this.

In future a combination of public pressure and further government legislation is likely to force non-complaint stores and ecommerce businesses to respond strategically to current concerns about sustainability, waste, combating environmental change, humane food-supply chains and working conditions in Asia and Africa.  

Develop Long-term Plans

All major retailers have an environmental or ethical strategy dealing with their operational costs and systems, informing customers and trying to improve standards at their suppliers. These plans involve detailed changes to operations and procedures and strict timetables. In the UK the best known is probably Marks & Spencer with Plan A 2025 (they seem to have dropped “There is no Plan B" tagline). Major goals of the strategy include: all M&S packaging to be “widely recyclable” by 2022; halving food waste by 2025; and reducing operational emissions by 80% of 2007 (further details on their corporate website). The Co-op Group and Sainsbury’s also have significant environmental records (see their websites).

Work With Partners

Every retailer is simply a node on a network and cannot reasonably expect to change the world by itself. It has to work with suppliers to achieve agreed standards relating to the workforce, raw materials, products, the supply chain, logistics and its own retail operations. This also involves inspecting their suppliers to ensure that the agreed standards are being maintained. Not every supplier welcomes this, but this form of verification can be a kitemark of quality. Naturally standards programmes for UK food producers such as Red Tractor and Soil Association regularly verify that their standards are being adhered to. Third-party organisations may also provide valuable expertise to retailers in developing effective ethical or environmental policies. M&S cites its work with Oxfam and WWF: Oxfam is supporting the reuse and recycling of clothing through Shwopping (sic) and WWF  is helping with tackling environmental issues concerning water, cotton, wood, fish and palm oil.

Become Good Global Citizens

In the longer term, it may well be increasingly important that retailers are seen as good global citizens, meaning that they pay an adequate share of taxes. Global retailers are able to make choices in internal transfers that mean that much of their profits is recognised only in low-tax countries like Luxembourg, Ireland or off-shore destinations irrespective of where most of their profits are made. Otherwise-popular companies like Amazon and Starbucks which pay the UK Exchequer rather less than would normally be expected are increasingly likely to find their tax records to be subject to legal challenge and possibly public anger.

Ensure the Shops are Not Wasteful

Most large retailers’ plans for sustainability involve reducing the carbon/ecological footprint of their stores. Reports that 1% of global electricity generation is devoted to retail fridges and freezers are harbingers of a future where stores are expected to keep their doors closed in winter and make use of fridge and chilled display cabinets that minimise the use of electricity.


Current packaging has a good record in ensuring that food is tamper-free, undamaged and has a longer life. Retail policies are not simply random. Allowing goods to be damaged in store, in transit or as shoppers carry them home is not zero-carbon either. Goods can be subject to damage, deterioration, loss or theft from farm gate or factory to the consumer’s home. This is certainly true of food, but equally true of electronic equipment, crockery, perfumes and fine fabrics which are all sensitive to damage. Products like shirts or blouses do not need to be wrapped around a cardboard card and encased in polythene. But without packaging, shops will probably have to accept more damage from unclean hands or over-excited shoppers. As a result of ‘open display’ they will also need additional staff to keep re-wrapping shirts, sweaters, and other garments after customers have opened up the product to look at them.

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