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Ethical consumerism’s long journey to the mainstream



Ryan Brightwell, founder of Bright Analysis, looks at the history, the struggles, the opportunities and the future of ethical consumerism and ethical shopping.

This piece originally featured in B&GT’s Guide to Ethical Shopping 2012.

A short history of ethical consumerism

Ethical consumerism has come a long way in the last 10 years. Those who consider the impacts of their shopping decisions on society as well as on their wallets now find themselves in good company, with a clear majority of people in the UK now reporting that they are making shopping decisions based on their values at least some of the time.

It wasn’t always this way. You don’t need to cast your mind back too many years to recall a time when tracking down ethical alternatives, be it Fairtrade coffee, ecological cleaning products or energy-efficient light bulbs, required trips to one of a handful of specialist shops, and often meant paying over the odds for an inferior product. The last decade has certainly seen ethical shopping become less of a chore.

The Co-operative’s Ethical Consumerism Report has been measuring sales of a basket of broadly defined ethical products for over a decade, and its research shows sales growing from £16 billion back in 2000 to over £46 billion in 2011. This is still a small percentage of consumer spending as a whole, but it represents growth substantially ahead of overall spending. It also provides enough examples of products that have broken through to the mainstream for some patterns to emerge.

The mainstreaming of ethical products has typically followed a two-step process. The early adopters, those who stuck with ethical products in their earliest incarnations, have enabled the first stage. These ‘deep green’ consumers, always relatively small in number, have shown that a market exists for products that are better for the environment, society or animal welfare, and continue to buy these products, talk about them and lobby for their greater availability, while they prove their ability to deliver in terms of price and quality.

But we rarely see examples of ethical products that have hit the mainstream through enthusiastic consumer take-up alone. This has taken a second push, which has come either from the big retailers and brands, which still act as gatekeepers to the mass market, or else from rare examples of progressive legislation to remove ‘bad’ choices from our shelves.

Fairtrade coffee and energy-saving light bulbs provide useful examples. Since the launch of the UK’s first Fairtrade coffee in 1988, Fairtrade has grown its share to reach over a quarter of all roast and ground coffee sold in the UK, and sales growth has continued to be strong through the wider economic downturn. According to the Fairtrade Foundation’s coffee briefing earlier this year, much of the recent growth in the market is due in large part to retailers such as The Co-operative, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer who have switched their entire range of own-brand coffees to Fairtrade, greatly increasing its availability.

Looking at energy-saving light bulbs, the compact fluorescent has been on our shelves for decades, offering energy savings that more than outweigh the additional cost in just the first year of use. Yet as recently as 2009, the old-fashioned tungsten bulb was still more widely purchased. Green and economical consumers stuck with the new technology, but others were put off by the harsh light and longer warm-up times of the earlier models. In August this year, the lights finally went out for the tungsten bulb after EU legislation effectively banned their sale. In this case, smart legislation has done more for the mainstreaming of the energy-efficient bulb than 20 years of market forces.

Struggling to get out of the ethical niche

Those ethical products which have made a real breakthrough to the mainstream unfortunately remain the exception rather than the rule. In particular, some products with real potential for societal transformation have remained stuck in an ethical niche.

Sales of electric cars, for example, remain in the hundreds rather than the thousands each year, despite the potentially huge carbon savings (at least when powered from green electricity). This is despite hopes that 2011 would prove to be “the year of the electric car” following the introduction of a £5,000 government grant for each one purchased. The Climate Change Committee, which advises government on meeting its climate commitments, wants to see 1.7 million electric cars on the road by 2020. While charging stations and (even better) battery switching stations remain practically non-existent, even the greenest members of the motoring public will be reluctant to help us start out on the long journey towards meeting this target.

Similarly, installing micro-generation technologies like rooftop solar panels, also offering potentially transformative environmental benefits, remains a niche activity. Government intervention to boost installation has blown hot and cold, singularly failing to provide any long-term certainty, as years of inadequate and over-subscribed grant mechanisms were replaced in 2010 with the introduction of feed-in tariffs, only for these to suffer drastic cuts just a year later.

It is not just the ‘big ticket’ green investments where progress towards the mass market has been less than swift. Clothing is also an area where trying to consume responsibly is as difficult as ever. Clothing supply chains are notoriously long and complex, with potential for labour abuses throughout the manufacturing process, from the harvest of raw materials like cotton through to the final assembly.

On the high street in particular, finding responsibly-produced clothing remains problematic. Chains like Marks & Spencer, with a reputation for taking corporate responsibility seriously, are as likely to be hit by sweatshop scandals as the likes of Primark, much maligned for providing clothing at ‘throw-away’ prices, particularly by those who can most afford to shop elsewhere.

The Clean Clothes Campaign, which has been working to improve conditions in the global garment industry since 1989, advocates taking action to raise workers’ rights issues with manufacturers. Its week of action against Adidas following their refusal to grant severance pay to 2,800 Indonesian workers after the closure of their factory is just the most recent example. But the Clean Clothes Campaign stops short of endorsing boycotts in the clothing sector, due to their potential to take away the source of income of the low-paid workers that their campaigns are designed to help.

Positive choices like recycled, organic, fair trade and even second hand clothing are available, with alternative brands like Gossypium and People Tree featuring on Ethical Consumer’s best buy list. However, 20 years on from the global boycott campaign against Nike, concerned shoppers are still left to weigh up the risks, with limited and imperfect information.

What might the future hold?

Ethical products have recorded strong growth over the last decade, and this growth has continued in most areas even through the economic downturn. Yet the amount spent on ethical products and services still represents a small fraction of its potential, so there is plenty of room for further growth. But what form will it take?

We can expect that the best-known ethical labels and standards, from Fairtrade to MSC fish and FSC timber, will continue to become more widely available. And unfortunately for us as consumers, we can expect still more standards and labels to emerge. According to one estimate, there are already over 400 ‘eco labels’ in the marketplace; a proliferation which undoubtedly generates confusion for the public and means that these labels need to shout louder to attract our attention. The more ethical labels move into the mainstream, the less effective they become as a way for companies to demonstrate ethical leadership and the uniqueness of their product, and this dynamic will continue to create a space for new labels to emerge.

As the Fairtrade brand has become more widespread and recognised, products aiming to show deeper benefits for producers in developing countries are growing in number. One way of doing this is through companies that are owned by the producers – not just growers’ co-operatives, but co-operatives which also package and distribute the product. Divine Chocolate, part-owned by the Kuapa Kokoo growers co-operative in Ghana, has pioneered this approach, but remains almost unique. Another is to target Fairtrade support to communities in particular need, as with Zaytoun, a company founded with the aim of creating a market for Palestinian products in the UK.

Also looking to move beyond Fairtrade is the burgeoning direct trade movement among premium coffee roasters wanting to develop direct relationships with particular growers to ensure they can source their highest quality coffee. Direct trade can pay additional premiums over and above the Fairtrade price, to incentivise quality. The model also allows roasters to work with individual farms operating outside of co-operatives, or unable to achieve Fairtrade certification due to the fees involved. Direct trade currently looks like the main source of competition from those who see Fairtrade’s impact as becoming diluted; however it faces a challenge in convincing the consumer that it can provide an ethically sourced product without a recognised label and certification scheme.

In the future, those ethical products which do successfully move out of the mainstream will find themselves subject to more scrutiny than ever before. The recent scandal at Noble Foods, Britain’s largest egg producer, is illustrative. Farms supplying the company were alleged to have used workers trafficked into the UK from Lithuania and forced to work in slave-like conditions. Media coverage of the issue focussed on the eggs certified to the RSPCA’s Freedom Foods standards, and particularly the Happy Eggs brand, showing how products that place themselves on an ethical pedestal find themselves with furthest to fall.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the producers of ethical products is the reality of the need to consume less. Oft-cited research from WWF shows that if everyone lived like the average European, we would need three planets to live on. Patagonia scored a PR success last year by taking the unusual step of asking its consumers to buy less. But we’ll need more ambitious and more wide-ranging efforts from business to encourage lower consumption if we’re going to live within our planet’s natural limits.

Ryan Brightwell is the founder of Bright Analysis, a research consultancy for sustainability and social change. He was formerly ethical projects adviser at The Co-operative Group.  

Further reading:

The Guide to Ethical Shopping 2012

Ryan Brightwell is the founder of Bright Analysis, a research consultancy for sustainability and social change. He was formerly ethical projects adviser at The Co-operative Group.


How Going Green Can Save A Company Money



going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable




sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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