How come we aren’t all ethical consumers?

Written by Adam

April 22, 2020

ethical consumers

With all the talk of climate change, species loss and social injustice, you’d think we’d all be ethical consumers. Supporting commerce that cares is a shortcut to a better world. And yet, most of our cash is splurged on brands that value profit above the planet. Here, we examine six challenges faced by social entrepreneurs and ask: how can we counter them to win more business?

A world of ethical consumers

In the perfect world, we all consume less. 

We reuse where we can and recycle where we can’t. Buying new is a moral endeavour, a GoCompare of ethics and sustainability for products we wear/eat/use with pride. 

Here, we’re all conscious consumers and every penny we spend makes the planet an even better place to be. But that doesn’t mean glamour is sacrificed for rags. Far from it. Quality, style, duration and health are all hallmarks of the ethical product. 

Utopia, right?

The thing is, this world could exist today. During my time as a social marketer, I’ve discovered thousands of ethical brands which cater to everything from meatless burgers to organic dungarees, reclaimed sunglasses and Passivhaus conversions (check out our Ethical Brands page for more). Each one provides remarkable products at great value. And yet, despite the clear benefits they provide, few of us would call ourselves ethical consumers. 

So what gives? It’s time to understand what’s getting in the way. In this article, I uncover six key challenges and provide top-line solutions to level-up the playing field.

Throwaway culture and consumer addiction

It’s a sign of the times to buy cheap and dispose often. Home coffee comes in plastic pods. Fast fashion produces clothes to last a season. Water – widely available from clouds and taps – comes in bottles (What’s Evian spelt backwards?) Single items of fruit are shrink-wrapped and tech self destructs after a couple of years. Of course, next day delivery comes as standard, as does the oversized packaging.

Trouble is, we’re used to having it all. Anything less is not enough, but do we really need – or even want – it? It’s time to count all those invisible costs that are less easy to throw away.

Top-line solutions

Whether we know it or not, we all pay the debt of bad business. Think of it as an unseen tax on your health and happiness. One that you and your children will repay with dividends evermore.

It’s time to make the transaction fair and transparent. We can start by assessing the environmental damage caused by bad businesses. Calculate the financial cost to undo or prevent the damage, then assign it to the business as tax.

This has three benefits:

  • Unethical businesses are forced to charge more, meaning they become even less competitive than social enterprises
  • Stakeholders must focus on the triple bottom line (profit, people and planet)
  • It provides funds to clean up the damage caused.

Social enterprises can start by appealing to the public and lobbying the government.

Earth is just too inconvenient

Too often the problem comes down to apathy. Take carbon-friendly energy suppliers like Ecotricity, Good Energy and Octopus for example. They offer the same product as traditional suppliers (power) and at competitive prices. The only difference is the energy they provide comes from renewable sources, like solar, wind and hydro. Sounds good, right?

Supporting clean energy is one of the most carbon-friendly moves you can make. The problem is, it’s not convenient. People only think about their energy supplier when they see their bill. They’ll sign-up to one company (be it a utility supplier, bank or investment fund) and fail to switch when a more ethical service shows up. It’s just too much of a hassle.

Top-line solutions

Here the problem isn’t so much that the wrong choice is made. It’s just made before an ethical alternative became available. Social norms have already taken hold and there are little incentives to change your ways. Switching is a hassle.

Businesses that interrupt this transaction, create ethical nudges and focus on making this process as simple and transparent as possible will win.

Ethical products aren’t readily available

Most people are happy to choose ethical products when they’re visible. Take free-range eggs and Fairtrade bananas for example. They sit next to their less ethical counterparts on supermarket aisles and many people are willing to stump up the extra cost. 

The trouble is, ethical products aren’t readily available. And most outlets don’t actively promote them. Consider retailers like Amazon, Asos, Debenhams and H&M. We don’t see Fairtrade or sustainable labels on their everyday products. And if the ethical range isn’t on display, it’s not just overlooked, it’s invisible. 

More than six out of ten people in the UK buy free-range and one in three opt for Fairtrade bananas.

Top-line solutions

Working with retailers to highlight ethical product ranges through signage and labels could make all the difference. Not possible? Social enterprises can work together to promote products to ethical consumers through online groups, shared shops and ethical e-commerce sites like Ethical Shop, Ethical consumer, and Wild Tree.

Who knew about the ethical alternative?

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know about the climate catastrophe. And yet, according to Getty images, more than two-thirds of UK consumers cannot identify a single environmentally friendly brand. 

So while awareness of the issues is sky-high, the commercial solutions are not. Part of the problem is that ethical brand messages are drowned out by big businesses with big ad budgets and big brands.  

If ethical products aren’t on a shopper’s radar, how can we expect them to prioritise social products? 

According to Getty Images, 84% of UK consumers say that being environmentally friendly is important to them, yet 68% cannot name a single environmentally friendly brand.

Topline solutions

The tide may be turning. Social enterprises are well-positioned to engage in hot topics and promote their causes. By working with organisations, influencers and the media we can link the highly publicised issues with the commercial solutions. By collaborating, ethical businesses can amplify the message through referral marketing and joint ventures.

Read our blog on 11 ways social enterprises can accelerate ethical consumerism together.

Greenwashing has weakened the brand

Greenwashing is a term that was coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt back in 1986. Even before then, companies were using it to make people believe they were doing good when they weren’t.

Today, big oil companies, banks and retailers have turned this term into an ugly art. As consumers, we’re right to be cautious of ethical claims. But this scepticism is weakening honest ethical brands too. This means consumers are less willing to support brands that tout good credentials.

Topline solutions

With social media communities and online reviews, it’s getting harder for companies to get away with green-washing tactics. By calling out foul play on social media, ethical entrepreneurs can make these companies think twice about making such claims. Ethical accreditations can also help to shine clear light between these brands. Check out Ethical Consumer’s Rating System as an example (Amazon scored a noteworthy 0/20. Tell a friend).

Perceived cost/quality trade-off

Even when ethical brands offer comparable products at comparable prices, they don’t always win. Often, just being ethical comes with a perceived cost. Many people believe ethical products are more expensive and/or less reliable than their run-of-the-mill alternatives.

Here behaviour change is blocked by an associated (if often imaginary) cost. Not only do ethical businesses still need to compete on price, but they also need to show that their ethical brand delivers a wider social value. All this without compromising on quality. No easy feat.

Topline solutions

It’s time to change the narrative. Ethical products are often made to last which, making them great value. They also tend to be made by fairly-paid, motivated and highly-skilled workers, using quality, natural materials that look fresh and are kind to the body. Ethical brands must focus on quality and price first, then use their social mission as added-value.

The take-home message

Social enterprise comes huge commercial benefits. But there are still many challenges to overcome before ethical consumerism becomes the norm. Facing these challenges head-on means we can change the narrative, alter behaviour and influence policies.

That utopia we envisioned is closer than we think. Now’s the time to make it a reality.

To find out more about how social enterprises are coming together to drive change, say hello.

Your Turn helps ethical businesses, social enterprises and organisations with heart. If you’re a brand with purpose in Yorkshire, tell us your story and we’ll promote your cause and connect you with like-minded entrepreneurs for free.

Say hello here.


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