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How to harness ethical shopping’s ’floating voters’ 03.02.11

Ever since they first entered public consciousness in the late 1980s, a great deal of time and money has been spent pondering the mysteries of the ethical shopper. How many of them are there? How influential are they? Where do they shop and what makes them tick? writes the Ethical Trading Initiative’s Stephen Rylance



Today, ethical trade is going mainstream. Most leading retailers now have global teams dedicated to it, while some have made ethical values central to their brand. But the ethical consumer - that is, the shopper for whom ethical considerations are a determining factor in their buying habits - remains an elusive figure.

The truth is, ethical consumers are still very much in the minority. Indeed, the latest research suggests that ‘principled pioneers’ and ’vocal activists’ - those who campaign on ethical issues and fundamentally embed these values into their lifestyles - make up just 8 per cent of the population.

For the rest of us, price and quality remain the key drivers of consumer choice on the high street.

So should we conclude from this that most ordinary shoppers simply don’t care?

There’s certainly a small group of ‘deniers’, who prefer to stick their head in the sand. According to our research, they have become a nice market in their own right.

But then there are the people in the middle. These are ordinary, decent people with busy lives, who believe the brands they trust play fairly, and will assume that this is so until someone - the media, or a campaign group, or even a friend or neighbour - tells them otherwise. For them, the ethics of their favourite retailers are a question not of demand, but of expectation.

These are the ‘conveniently conscious’ shoppers - the ones who want to do the right thing as long as you make it easy for them. Most of us probably belong in this bracket.

In fact, brands and retailers are far more interested in these ‘floating voters’ of ethical shopping than they are the ethical activists - or the ostriches, for that matter.

In today’s fiercely competitive marketplace, brand capital - the feelgood values and associations consumers attach to the companies they’re loyal to - can be critical. So while ethics may be just one among a whole package of expectations the consumer holds, if they feel a company has let them down in this area, the resulting breakdown in trust might just be enough to tip the balance in a rival’s favour.

What does all this mean for an organisation like ETI? Unlike Fairtrade, ethical trade is not a consumer-facing proposition. We do not have a product range to offer, nor can we provide a simple action through which consumers can cast their vote for better international labour standards.

Our mission is to improve the working lives of poor and vulnerable people and it is businesses, rather than consumers, that we engage with order to achieve this. Our work is by its nature incremental, and while we expect our members to make measurable progress, this doesn’t always result in outcomes that resonate immediately with consumers or that help them negotiate the ethical shopping maze.

Earlier this year ETI commissioned research to help us better understand these issues from the perspectives of both companies and consumers. The findings revealed a hunger for information about the sourcing practices of high street retailers. In particular, consumers are receptive to positive messages from the brands they are loyal to.

This is not to say that they welcome spin - today’s sophisticated consumers can spot that a mile off. What they do want, they tell us, is clear, simple information and honest, realistic messages. They respect communications that do not overclaim, and which focus on tangible achievements. They don’t expect companies’ supply chains to be perfect, but they do want to know that they’re doing what they can to make things better.

As ethical claims proliferate, there is a risk that consumer trust in them will diminish. For our part, ETI’s tripartite constitution puts us in a unique position to bring balance and context to the ethical trade debate. We can support our members to find robust and credible ways to communicate their commitment to ethical trade. Our NGO and trade union members can also help to illuminate what good practice looks like, and to guide public understanding so that consumers can make more informed judgements.

We will not defend companies unless they walk their talk. Equally, we will challenge critics of ethical trade who oversimplify the issues, or who think that there are easy fixes.

Positive, realistic communications between companies and their customers can only be good for ethical trade. The more companies are able to share their achievements, the more they will be motivated to keep raising the bar. This virtuous circle can only pay dividends for workers.

This article first appeared on Stephen Rylance ETI blog, to see all his articles click here

Peter Shield

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