Are you an ethical consumer?

The question is not straightforward. For some, the answer will be a resounding yes or no – you’ll be confident that all or most of your purchases are made according to ethical criteria, or that none of them really are, and that other concerns, lik price, or brand, or convenience play a much bigger role in what you buy. For most people, the answer will be somewhere in the middle – some of the time, but not others. You intend to be, but occasionally fall short.

But the question is the wrong one. Ethical consumerism isn’t a binary thing. The way ethical considerations influence product choice varies enormously, by type of product, by ethical criterion (e.g. fair trade status, carbon footprint, corporate governance) and by the mindset of the individual when buying (for example, if you really need a coffee but have forgotten your reusable cup, you might not always forgo the caffeine on principle).

And not all product choices require the same ethical cognitive load on the part of consumers.

In decades gone by, it was your conscious choice to opt for fair trade coffee or sugar, or free range eggs. Now almost all major lines in these categories meet these basic ethical criteria – they are expected as (almost) standard and the burden is passed from the consumer to the supplier.

Sustainability and climate change loom large here. In August this year, 32% of UK adults mentioned climate change and pollution as a major issue for Britain, according to Ipsos MORI’s long running Issues Index. A decade ago, the same index put the figure on less than 5%.

Ethical consumerism is increasingly about sustainable consumerism – reducing carbon footprints, striving for net zero. In this context, we often hear about green consumers, that subset of us that base their purchasing decisions on these principles. This is the wrong way to think about them.

Consumers aren’t green or non-green (Yellow? Grey?). Climate change is a socio normative issue and virtually everybody in the UK thinks it is a serious threat to the country. Instead, consumers are different shades of green.

Shades of Green is a concept that differentiates between the differing levels of weight consumers ascribe to ethical criteria – like sustainability – when making purchases.

Shades of Green: All People

Source: Trajectory Optimism Index Oct 2020-Feb 2021 (Base: 7,500 UK adults)

Representative sample of adults were asked to rank the importance of different purchasing considerations (brand, ethics, price, quality and convenience) across six product categories. Quartiles refer to rankings, percentages the proportion of people who ranked ethical considerations in each quartile.

For a very small minority of consumers (around 4%) ethical concerns are the driving force in most product categories – ahead of price, brand, quality and convenience. These are the dark greens. For a much larger group of consumers (around 46%) they aren’t a consideration at all – given a choice, these consumers will go for products that they see as cheaper, better or more convenient.

These consumers are light green – they might believe just as strongly in the urgency of climate change, but when at the till other considerations weigh more heavily. For everyone else (around 50%) ethical concerns are somewhere in the middle. Part of the consideration set, but competing against brand, price, quality and ease. These consumers are still green – they’re just less green than their die-hard counterparts.

Shades of Green: By Generation

Source: Trajectory Optimism Index Oct 2020-Feb 2021 (Base: 7,500 UK adults)

Representative sample of adults were asked to rank the importance of different purchasing considerations (brand, ethics, price, quality and convenience) across six product categories. Quartiles refer to rankings, percentages the proportion of people who ranked ethical considerations in each quartile.

There is a big shift coming in this area. Younger consumers are not much more likely to be dark green (5.9% of Gen Z are dark green) but they are much less likely to be light green – 26% of Gen Z, and 36% of Gen Y are light green, compared to 55% of Baby Boomers. Older generations are overwhelmingly likely to put ethical considerations at the bottom of the pile. Younger generations put them somewhere in the middle – they might not rival price (that’s hard to shift) but they could override brand or convenience.

This data raises as many questions as it answers. How do different ethical criteria stack up, and in which product categories do they matter most? As brands evolve, do brand and quality considerations start to work in concert with ethical ones? Can sustainability criteria become hygiene factors in the same way that fair trade and free range have (largely) become hygiene factors for sugar and eggs?

Businesses in every category will have different answers to these questions, depending on the profile of their consumers and the adjacency of their market to the climate crisis. To find out more about how this might affect your business, please get in touch at info@trajectorypartnership.com.