Co-op Group report on ethical consumption says shoppers need help to do the right thing

‘We need to act now to support consumers in making ethical purchasing decisions, be that the way we heat our homes to the food we eat’

A 20-year study into ethical buying habits from the Co-op Group shows households are on average spending only £100 a month on lowering their carbon impact. 

Released as consumers are being urged to eat more vegetables, wear more sustainable clothing and drive electric, cycle or catch the train to help save the plane, the Group’s Ethical Consumerism Report has tracked consumer shopping habits since 2000 and provides analysis of concerns about the environment, animal welfare, energy consumption and the ethics of food production, from plant-based food to Fairtrade and organics. 

It reveals that spending on plant-based foods, renewable energy for the home, eco transport and sustainable home energy purposes and sustainable (second-hand) clothing amounts to just £1,210 per household, despite the government committing the UK to a target of net zero by 2050.

Environmentally conscious consumers have more than trebled their spend in a decade – up from £372 in 2010 – but need help from businesses and politicians to make planet friendly choices, says the Group.

Back in 2000 the total size of the ethical food market was just £1bn. This latest report into consumer spending revealed that concerns over worker rights, fair trade, animal welfare and sustainable food sourcing have brought that spend to almost £14bn – a 12% increase year on year. The Fairtrade, RSPCA Freedom Assured and Rainforest Alliance brands all rose in value while spend on MSC certified sustainable fish fell from £899m to £818m. 

Related: Do more, faster, together – UK co-ops pledge climate action ahead of COP26

Ethical shoppers are switching to vegetarian and plant-based foods which have experienced a 34% sales to almost £1.5bn in the year that the Group introduced a price-match initiative for its own-brand vegan foods against equivalent meat products.  

Some of the spend is still going on gas boilers (£306 per household), which will be outlawed from 2025 – and a large proportion is down to the surge in electric car ownership, estimated to be £439 for each household in the UK. Each year on average homes spend £331 on renewable energy, £33 on sustainable (second-hand) clothing, £306 on energy efficient appliances, £101 on sustainable home products and £439 on eco transport.  

Co-op Group CEO Steve Murrells, who is speaking at the COP26 summit today, said: “The world can’t hold its breath waiting for global leaders to make statements on how to tackle climate change, action is needed now. Our Ethical Consumerism Report is a barometer on consumer behaviour and the report offers clear evidence to policymakers that they can positively influence change. The rise in electric car sales is a direct result of a favourable tax regime while the continuing sales and installation of gas boilers shows even more needs to be done to help consumers and businesses make positive changes for the good of the environment.” 

He added: “But we need to act now to support consumers in making ethical purchasing decisions, be that the way we heat our homes to the food we eat.” 

The UK ‘green pound’ has reached record levels, breaking through the £100bn for the first time, the report finds, with ethical consumer spending and finance in the UK amounting to £122bn. However, the low carbon spend within this accounts for only £33.6bn.  

Brand boycotts on ethical grounds have risen sharply to almost £4bn, up 18% in the year. 

Free-range egg sales topped over £1bn for the first-time and were helped by the increase in market volume as more supermarkets joined the Group in only selling free-range eggs. 

Mr Murrells added: “Shoppers are turning up the heat to boycott businesses which fail to act on ethical or social concerns. The findings are a warning to brands that they must do business a better way for workers, communities and the planet but it offers clear evidence to policy-makers that they can positively influence change.” 

Alternative fuel cars sales have almost doubled in value from £5.4bn to £10.4bn., and green home spend rose to over £20bn with energy efficient boilers topping £5bn despite gas boilers being banned from 2025. Green electricity tariffs increased by £8.9bn but are likely to be hit in 2022 following the collapse of some smaller renewable energy firms, such as Pure Planet, due to rising global energy costs. 

Sales of energy-efficient lightbulbs fell in 2020 after the global lockdown and restrictions hit supply chains. Factory closures at the height of the pandemic disrupted production. But sales of LED light bulbs in the UK are expected to increase significantly following the ban on retailing halogen lightbulbs from September 2021. 

Second-hand clothing sales hit £864m, and sales of ethical cosmetics increased to almost £1bn also, an 11% increase, and boosted by a shift towards online shopping and skincare products during the pandemic.