25 years of championing consumer ethics

Ethical Consumer has a worldwide reputation for making global businesses more sustainable through consumer pressure. Its ground breaking magazine was officially launched in 1989 and the associated website...

Ethical Consumer has a worldwide reputation for making global businesses more sustainable through consumer pressure.

Its ground breaking magazine was officially launched in 1989 and the associated website tracks the social and environmental operations of 40,000 companies behind the brands we buy every day – ranking their track record on everything from human rights to environmental issues and animal welfare.

The co-operative has 300 members, 5,000 subscribers and an annual tally of over 900,000 visitors to its website. It offers consultancy and advice to dozens of charities, businesses and NGOs, including Oxfam, Amnesty and Medecins Sans Frontieres, also working with the Co-operative Group on ethical trading projects.

It started life as a humble research project led by Rob Harrison from his council flat in Manchester in 1986. The young law graduate was one of many activists campaigning against apartheid and decided to do something a bit more radical than just boycotting South African fruit.

Rob came up with the idea of finding out whether other products were made by companies linked to apartheid and to publish the research. Along the way he roped in a couple of friends equally committed to change.

Rob Harrison
Rob Harrison

“We were concerned about corporate power and how it distorted everything with its priority of profit,” he recalls. “We needed to have time to understand it more, instead we thought ‘let’s do a magazine’.

“We had no idea how to publish so we went to loads of people but no-one wanted to give us any money. We cobbled together enough cash for one issue, bought an advert in The Guardian, got 1,000 cheques through the door and hit a wave of public interest. We had to learn on the hoof.”

More than 25 years later, Ethical Consumer has won global respect for its pioneering work and the impact it has made. Rob is still at the helm with 10 staff and an army of volunteers operating from a base in inner-city Manchester.

Back in 1989, issues such as global warming and testing of cosmetics on animals were only just beginning to register on the consumer radar. Today, supermarket aisles are awash with organic produce and Fairtrade goods have gone way beyond just coffee and chocolate. The ethical share of the retail market is around 5% and sales of ethical products have grown dramatically from £9.6bn in 2009 to £54.4bn in 2012.

“The idea that driving change by identifying how consumers can be powerful – and can make choices based on information – has proved to be amazingly effective,” says Rob. “We’ve been one of the most significant thorns in the side of corporate power and picked up some quite big players who do see the need for change and for whom business is not just about making a profit. We now have the capacity to make positive links between consumers and producers.”

Throughout its existence, Ethical Consumer has been a champion for the positive work the co-op movement can do. “The Co-operative Group has been at the forefront of the ethical consumer movement and we want to see that continue, despite the recent difficulties the Group has had,” says Rob.

“In the UK, co-ops tend to be more ethical than other businesses but it is quite a broad umbrella with worker co-operatives tending to be most ethical, agricultural  co-ops not so much and consumer co-operatives somewhere in between. The movement is very complex, but the kinds of ethics we have seen in the Co-operative Group are much the same in other countries and equally positive.”

In October 2008, the organisation converted from a worker co-op into a multi-stakeholder co-operative with worker and investor members supported by a grant made by the Co-operative Fund in 2008 and raising £180,000 in shares.

The conversion was designed to give them better access to external capital and skills – while retaining the not-for-profit and co-operative principles. Minimum investment is £200 and maximum £20,000 and any consumer can become a member of the co-operative.

Ethical Consumer is perhaps most renowned for its ethical rankings for thousands of companies and products, all fed from a database built up over 20 years with information from sources such as campaign groups, business directories, company reports and government data. Each element that makes up a particular ranking is explained and sourced in the company pages and research reports are available on the website.

Rob says: “We have web stats and know our most- visited pages are around banks and clothing and other areas where the ethical choices are not so obvious. In the last couple of months we have had a huge spike in traffic around Israeli goods and there’s no doubting boycotts can work. If you get it right they can work in a week.”

In recent years, Ethical Consumer has been at the forefront of a host of international campaigns, including boycotts of Nestlé, Primark and Amazon. Last year it joined forces with the Rainforest Foundation on a consumer palm oil campaign. In 2013, it also launched the Save Our Bank campaign, to keep the Co-op Bank ethical after its sale.

This year its new Fair Tax Campaign is encouraging consumers to buy from companies that pay a fairer rate of tax – putting pressure on tax avoiders to instigate more socially aware tax policies and transparent tax reporting.

most ethical least ethical
Ethical Consumer asked its readers to rank their 10 most – and least – ethical companies

To mark its 25th anniversary, Ethical Consumer magazine asked its readers to rank their 10 most – and least – ethical companies. The top ten least ethical companies were: Nestlé; Monsanto; Amazon; Shell; Tesco; Barclays; Exxon; Wall Mart; Coca Cola; and Primark. Readers’ top ten ethical brands of the last 25 years comprised the Co-operative Group, Lush, Traidcraft, Triodos, People Tree, Ecotricity, Suma, Good Energy, Riverford and John Lewis.

Rob Harrison agrees there is still a lot of work to be done around governments tightening up legislation on issues such as the labelling of goods, disclosure of company details and other measures to allow consumers to make a more informed choice. But after 25 years in the field, he is proud of the progress which has been made.

“We have had some great tussles with companies and major retailers over the years. They have threatened us legally, with lawyers ringing us up. You know they are doing that because they are taking a hit and feeling the pain – and those have been exciting moments.

“People have looked at our model and what is going on in the UK where ethical consumption is more developed. We have done lot of other research work with lots of interest from China, South America, and Japan, working internationally with businesses and helping NGOs use their purchasing power. We have got a lot of companies very nervous and will continue to put the pressure on.

“It’s about cultural change and making it acceptable for people to consider ethical issues when buying stuff. If we look at where we have come since 1989, the impact has been huge. From factory conditions in Bangladesh to Fairtrade issues and climate change, all big companies now have programmes where they try to articulate changes with some measure of corporate responsibility. It’s become normalised to talk about it.”

This article was amended on 9 October 2014. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Ethical Consumer’s website received 100,000 visitors annually. This has been corrected.

In this article

Join the Conversation