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'ethical' consumers all talk and little action

November 2000

There is a strong undercurrent of interest in ethical issues among British consumers, according to new research published by The Co-operative Bank.

But the latent interest rarely reveals itself in consumer behaviour, with the ethical market achieving a fraction of its potential size as a result.

The report, which was based on interviews with 2000 individuals, suggests the potential is as much as 30 per cent of consumer spending.

The current market for specific ethical and environmental products is estimated at about £1.4billion. Proponents of ethical consumerism claim there is at least £8bn of consumers’ money behind ethical products or services. This includes more than £3bn of ethical investments, plus a similar volume of retail deposits with The Co-operative Bank.

But the report identifies an ethical gap between the one-third of consumers who say ethical issues are important to them, and the typical one per cent market shares of products ranging from ethical funds to Fairtrade coffee.

There is no shortage of interest. Almost two-thirds of consumers claim they have looked for at least one ethical label; half the population say they have bought a product and recommended a supplier because of its responsible reputation and a quarter say they have looked into a company’s social responsibility policies at least once.

The treatment of employees is the most important issue, then a product’s environmental impact.

But shopping action on these issues is the exception rather than the rule. Only one in seven consumers said ethical issues would make them choose one product rather than another, even at the same price and quality.




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