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Selling ethical consumption

by Judith Friedlander
01 April 2013
We’ve hit 2013, the teen years. Cynics may laugh but ethical consumerism is arguably growing up, and there is a strong case for selling it.

There is an inherent problem with the description ‘ethical consumer’ and that is the word ‘consumer’ itself. If only we could eat our words—and use them as food for thought. The word ‘consumer’ often infers rampant wastefulness; a member of the modern-day shopping species who hunts for a bargain at any cost—except to him or herself. Perhaps we should be calling ourselves ‘fertilizers’. Nevertheless, even if ‘ethical consumer’ is a contradiction in terms, this is our starting point.

A number of academic studies have also questioned whether ethical shopping is merely, well, ‘academic’—implying ethical consumers don’t walk the talk. It is often suggested consumers are either in the ‘don’t care’ or the ‘too hard’ basket. It is easy to empathise with being overwhelmed by or plain disconnected from social, environmental and animal welfare issues associated with the production and consumption of products.

A Queensland University of Technology study1 of 280 Australian grocery shoppers found there are essentially four types of modern shopper—‘budget-conscious’, ‘controlled’, ‘busy’ and ‘apathetic’—and that there does not seem to be a substantial subgroup of ethical and socially responsible shoppers. And a 2007 Journal of Business Ethics study (Auger and Devinney) suggested policy makers take a "more cautious approach to drawing conclusions about the impact of ethical issues on consumer markets".

Yet, there is ample evidence to suggest we are not ‘oxymorons’; that we can—and are—shopping ethically and becoming wallet activists, engaging in positive buying that favours ethical products and also engaging in what is described as ‘negative purchasing’ or avoiding unethical goods. Ethical consumerism includes varied issues such as animal welfare, environmental issues, labour standards, human rights and health-related issues.

A look at Australian food consumption trends, projected trends and a number of recent wins by advocacy groups working on behalf of consumers indicates a more positive and complex story.
Consumers appear willing to spend more on certain items and ranges knowing that this may help in reducing environmental impacts or there may be some more happy chooks or pigs down at the farm.

Consumers appear willing to spend more on certain items and ranges knowing that this may help in reducing environmental impacts or there may be some more happy chooks or pigs down at the farm. And there are indications that consumers are prepared to pay a price premium for Fair Trade products.

Here are some morsels to digest: According to Australian market research organisation, IBISWorld, organic farming has grown at a compound annual rate of 10 per cent since 2008 "and is expected to continue to rise as consumers factor in the health benefits and environmental impact of their food choices". IBISWorld forecasts an increase of 12.5 per cent across the industry over 2013. It concludes in a recent report that:

"Consumers are becoming increasingly eco and health conscious ... more willing to pay a premium price to prevent environmental degradation caused by conventional farming methods ... Major retailers such as Coles and Woolworths continue to respond to this trend."

IBISWorld also reports a growing consumption of vegetarian meals and that by 2025 we can expect vegetarians to comprise close to seven per cent of the population. Says IBISWorld: "A growing preference for ethically and sustainably produced meats, eggs and dairy."

An informative 2005 Belgian survey (de Pelsmacker, et al.) of 808 respondents indicated that the average price premium that consumers were willing to pay for a Fair Trade label of coffee was 10%, and 10% of the 808 respondents were prepared to pay the current price premium of 27%. This sizeable percentage can support a strong niche market which, in turn, can impact on the overall market.

According to leading environmental and animal welfare groups, consumers are changing ethical corporate practices and sending ethical consumption messages to major supermarkets and food brands through their purchasing decisions and advocacy. There are rich pickings on the internet and it is easier than ever to find and source information on causes and interests.

Social media is also becoming a powerful consumer tool, challenging manufacturers and retailers to provide transparency and accountability and to guarantee the ethical claims they make about their products. There is much more fluidity in the media and consumers now have more direct influence on companies.

Greenpeace’s recent campaign against tuna companies’ use of fish aggregating devices had enormous impact, forcing a number of high profile companies to announce a change to more sustainable fishing practices. The advocacy organisation has also engaged in discussions with retailers such as Woolworths and Coles about their own-brand tunas and sourcing stocks through pole- and line-fishing practices. The Greenpeace website’s Canned Tuna Ranking lists brands and their various commitments—or lack thereof—to sustainable fishing practices.

If there is any doubt that consumers have an important role to play in food manufacturers and retailers’ offerings, consider the following social media metrics. Greenpeace reports that there were 45,814 visits and over 19,500 sign-ups to its website. Facebook posts numbered in the tens of thousands and Twitter reached over 600,000 people regarding signing a petition to reject ‘bad fishing practices & help save sharks, baby tuna & turtles’. John West’s website now states that "By 2015 John West will end sourcing tuna from fisheries using methods that current science shows to be unsustainable".

‘Sow stall free farms’ and ‘free range eggs’ are terms the average consumer is now aware of and while animal welfare advocates say there is a long way to go, there is no doubt that the large supermarket chains are hearing the voices of concerned consumers.

The animal advocacy organisations RSPCA, Voiceless and Animals Australia work with the large supermarket chains to improve animal welfare and raise the bar with suppliers. According to a 2012 news report, a Voiceless spokesperson stated:

"Our main food retailers, both leading and responding to consumer sentiment have recognised that sow stalls do not increase productivity or welfare compared to well-managed group housing of sows. For example, Coles announced it would no longer source its own brand of pig products from enterprises that use sow stalls ... Woolworths expects to achieve the same."

Guidelines such as the RSPCA’s Approved Farming ‘Paw of Approval’ on products that come from animals that are part of the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme are enabling consumers to dispense with the ‘too hard’ argument. An RSPCA spokesperson said that its ‘very active’ Facebook audience played an important role in advocacy. The web-based Ethical Consumer Guide ( also provides a guide to the "complex web of company ownership, assessments and related issues ... a starting point in developing a greater understanding of the connections between how we act and its effect on the world around us". And the RSPCA reports that its Hens Deserve Better website has been visited by almost 40,000 unique visitors in the past nine months.

A spokesperson for Coles told The Sydney Morning Herald in November 2012 that the supermarket chain had recorded a 50 per cent growth in free range egg sales in the past year. While the definition of free range is contentious, there is a strong argument that as more consumers tweet about the issue, it’s looking more positive from the chickens’ point of view.

The so-called supermarket milk price war between Woolworths and Coles has led to accusations of discrimination against farmers, brand manufacturers and smaller retailers. It is interesting to note that in February this year, Coles launched its own YouTube video ‘Our Coles Brand Milk Story’ in which Coles argues:

"Higher input costs, the high dollar and weaker export markets are causing problems for some in the industry but it is wrong to blame Coles for this".

This social media campaign aims to counter such Twitter comments as this one from @downesy:


It also appears that fewer Australians are now drinking bottled water which advocacy group DoSomething! has been working towards for five years with its ‘Go Tap’ campaign. Roy Morgan research reported that in 2007, 26 per cent of the Australian population consumed bottled water, compared to 23 per cent in 2011. DoSomething! has targeted younger people and the largest declines have been in the 25–34 year age group (36 per cent in 2007, to 29 per cent in 2011) and the 14–25 year age group (35 per cent in 2007, to 31 per cent in 2011).

With a more fluid interface between retailers and consumers, premiums are increasingly relating to cost and accountability. Selling ethical consumerism is about convincing people it is not ‘too hard’ and that being proactive is resulting in retailers serving up more ethical offerings.

Judith Friedlander is a post-graduate researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney. Examining the role of the media in contributing to successful environmental campaigns and focusing on organisational media strategies to encourage people to adopt a more sustainable diet, she draws upon her background as newspaper editor and feature writer with The Australian, The Sun-Herald and The Sydney Morning Herald and as Channel Nine television producer and researcher.