Sustainability, environmental awareness and living a more ethical life are all topics that have grown in stature recently.
The good thing is that they are here to stay, will continue to grow and will only become more important.
One of the trailblazers of bringing ethical insight to a wider audience is Ethical Consumer magazine.
Established in 1989, Ethical Consumer have been at the heart of the ethical movement in the UK and are continuing to go from strength to strength.
I recently spoke to Ethical Consumer about the changes in consumer ethics over the years, how their work can fit in a modern world, traditional companies becoming greener and the top tips to become an ethical consumer. Plus a few more useful bits.
Before we get into that, here’s a little background into the Ethical Consumer magazine for those who aren’t already acquainted.
Who are Ethical Consumer magazine?
Ethical Consumer is an independent, not-for-profit, cooperative based in Manchester.
They publish the UK’s most popular alternative consumer magazine six times per year. Members can get both a paper copy as well as a digital version.
Ethical Consumer conduct in-depth research into everything to do with consumption. With the research they produce shopping guides on key consumer topics, give ethical ratings and write company profiles, all to fully inform their readers.
They also run campaigns on important ethical issues. Their aim in a nutshell is to challenge the corporate power to improve their practices and become more sustainable, ethical businesses.
I’m a signed up member of Ethical Consumer magazine off my own back. I find their work tremendously useful, and it helps inform my consumer habits as well as provide plenty of information for this website.
Without further ado, let’s get into the Q&A.
Q&A with Ethical Consumer UK
What do you define as ethical consumerism?
We [Ethical Consumer Magazine) tend not to talk about ethical consumerism.
This is because we don’t think consumerism can ever really be ethical. Instead, we talk about ethical consumption: the act of consuming in accordance with your beliefs.
For example, if you are an animal lover, you’ll probably want to avoid eating meat and dairy, using leather (there are now eco leather versions) or other products or ingredients that are tested on animals. You may also want to avoid companies that have brands that do the same.
If you are into the environment, you may want to avoid toxic chemicals or companies that don’t have a clear policy on reducing their carbon dioxide emissions.
Why is it important to be an ethical consumer?
Right now, the most urgent issue is the climate crisis. We’re already seeing the impact of climate change all over the world, from flash flooding in London and China to the ‘heat dome’ that is causing huge forest fires in the Western USA.
What we consume plays a huge part in driving climate change – so cutting down the amount we consume and changing our purchasing habits can have a big impact.
The most obvious examples are eating less (or no) meat, cutting down on vehicle use and making our homes more energy-efficient.
Of course, ethical consumption can also have a positive impact on people. For example, if we shop with companies that have a good record of workers’ and human rights, and on animals as mentioned above.
Ethical consumption isn’t a panacea for all issues, but it is something that we can all do in our everyday lives. When we collectively combine our activity, through things like boycott campaigns, we can have the power to drive large changes in company behaviour or even government policy.
Ethical Consumer was founded in 1989. How has the ethical and sustainable movement changed since then?
I think the most obvious thing is that more people are shopping ethically than ever before.
At the end of 2019, we reported that ethical consumer spending and finance in the UK reached record levels at around £98bn.
There are more ethical products available and, in the last few years, these products have become much more mainstream. Companies big and small are now taking ethical and sustainable issues more seriously.
Even the greenwash you see from some brands is an acknowledgement that consumers want to see companies doing the right thing.
As the seriousness of the climate crisis hits home, we’ll start to see a much bigger focus on environmental concerns. We’ll see big changes introduced through government legislation, which has always been a big driver of consumer habits.
A recent example is the phasing out of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
Has the mission of Ethical Consumer had to evolve during the past 30 years?
The basic mission of the organisation remains the same and our primary goal is to make global businesses more sustainable through consumer pressure.
We do this in five key ways:
1. Helping consumers to challenge corporate power
2. Democratising the market
3. Transparency of research
4. Informing companies
5. Wider political action
We do all of this through our Ethical Consumer Manifesto.
How exactly does Ethical Consumer magazine conduct in-depth research and how long does it take to come up with a rating for a business or product?
We analyse in detail the policies and actions of hundreds of companies, with respect to the environment, human rights, workers’ rights, politics and product sustainability.
Our ratings consist of around 300 sub-categories in 19 key areas, which are split between five main categories:
- Product Sustainability
Each company receives a score out of 15, while individual products can score a maximum of 20 points.
All companies start with a score of 14, and points are taken away for criticism received in each of our categories. Companies can score a positive mark under the Company Ethos category if they commit to certain things (e.g. Fairtrade) across their whole company group.
Product scores are based on the company score, with additional marks being added for positive features (such as being certified Fairtrade or organic).
Our research is compiled from a wide range of primary and secondary sources. We request information directly from the companies we rate and assess their policies on areas such as environmental reporting, animal testing, the management of workers’ rights at supplier factories and much more.
We also incorporate published research from campaign groups such as Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and War on Want, as well as other news sources, public records and directories.
Each piece of research or ‘story’ we add to the database affects a company’s score for five years from the time it was last updated.
It can take anywhere in the region of one hour to eight hours to fully research a company depending on its size. You can find out more about our research here.
What are your thoughts on corporations who have a historically bad record in ethics/the environment, trying to be greener and more ethical? Greenwashing or positive steps?
We always welcome companies that are trying to be greener.
It’s easy to be cynical and say that certain companies are only ever involved in greenwashing but there are examples of companies doing the right thing.
M&S and its Plan A commitment is widely heralded as a step forward and while there are some issues, it certainly isn’t greenwashing.
We’ve also seen many bigger companies adopt the Fairtrade mark for some of their products which, again, is a big step forward.
Other companies, such as SSE (a multinational energy company), have adopted the Fair Tax Mark, which shows a real commitment to paying a fairer rate of tax.
Do you think good ethics have a chance in a world of consumerism?
I think the direction of travel is clearly towards more ethical behaviour, but some sectors do still lag behind. The fast fashion industry is one such example.
However, there are positive. The motor transport industry is being forced to improve and the home energy market is being transformed with more green providers and the phasing out of gas boilers.
Away from the environment, US legislation has improved the situation around mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ethical labelling has made an impact in regard to tea, coffee and other markets and more companies are signing up for the Leaping Bunny Logo, regarding animal testing.
New rules at a global level on taxation are going to have a big impact on tax avoidance. And the list goes on.
What are your top tips to become an ethical consumer?
1) Buy the most ethical products you can afford – our guides help make ethical shopping easy and save you time when researching company ethics. You can vote for positive change every time you spend.
2) Less is more – reduce how much you consume where you can.
3) Get creative before you recycle – fixing, up-cycling and reusing are great ways to help the environment and save some money.
4) Shop pre-loved and second hand – another great way to help the environment and save money.
5) Help re-invigorate your local community by shopping local, keeping cash in your local economy.
6) Shop for democracy with co-operatives – probably the most progressive businesses we have in the UK.
7) Look for trusted labels such as Fairtrade or the Soil Association’s organic label.
8) Boycott the bad guys – anyone can do it and it doesn’t cost a penny.
9) Get active and challenge corporate power – ethical consumption is more than just about what you buy, it’s about being an active citizen.
10) Take back control of your money – make sure the money in your bank account isn’t funding unethical projects.
You can take a look at the most ethical banks in the UK here.
More on Ethical Consumer UK
Many thanks to the Ethical Consumer team for providing in-depth answers to my questions.
Visit their website at www.ethicalconsumer.org. From here you can become a member where you’ll receive a new magazine every two months, gain full access to their back catalogue of previous editions and be able to check out every shopping guide and full company ethical rating.