Moving into the Mainstream

A report on the Ethical Consumer Magazine conference ‘Mainstreaming Ethical Consumption’ by Jo Salter of Where Does It Come From?

Ethical Consumer Magazine’s conference took place at the Amnesty International Building in North London on Friday 25 September. With a range of speakers from key ethical businesses and organisations it was going to be an exciting day! On the way I met up with Hayley, an ethical fashion blogger from Howtobe who had interviewed me a few months ago, so we had lots of ethical chat on the way too to get in the mood.

moving into the mainstream

The opening address by Rob Harrison, one of Ethical Consumer’s founders, was straight to the point. He outlined the current ethical market and how it has been effected by recession and austerity – the good news is that ethical consumption has been growing steadily. Interestingly, although the organic market has clearly been effected by the recession of recent years, evidence shows that the market for fairtrade goods has increased 10% per year since 2000 and has been unaffected by the financial climate. In terms of the ethical market Rob said that 60-75% of people say they try to buy ethically sometimes – this offers a huge opportunity for ethical businesses! In conclusion Rob believes that the ethical market will become much more mainstream with companies improving in their marketing and certification playing a huge role. Rob said that products with an ethical story would come to dominate the market which is great news for us at Where Does It Come From? – telling the product’s story is our core ethos!

After Rob’s address there was a panel session entitled ‘Challenges for Ethical Labelling’ with participants from the Fairtrade Foundation (Barbara Crowther), The Phone Co-op (Vivian Woodell), FSC (Carla Tavares) and the ISEAL Alliance (Amy Jackson). Each member of the panel gave a short presentation on their organisation and how they approach labelling. Barbara Crowther talked about the Fairtrade brand and how 93% consumers recognise it and 83% of consumers trust it, a fantastic achievement showing successful brand management. ISEAL is the global membership association for sustainability standards and members include the Fairtrade Foundation, FSC and many others. Amy talked about how a standards label acts as a ‘window’ for consumers to make them aware at a glance of all the work being done by organisations to meet that standard. She believes that these labels therefore have a leadership role moving forward.

After lunch, during which we munched a spread of sandwiches and networked with interesting conference participants, it was time for the first keynote speech. Our speaker was Kate Soper, a philosophy professor, who delivered an academic talk on ethical consumption with some valuable insights. Kate’s view was that ethical consumption needs to consider the whole area of reducing consumption altogether, and that the current ethic of ‘work and spend’ needs to be examined leading to a different philosophy on how we spend our time and work-life balance. Her approach an ‘alternative hedonism’ focuses on better health, more free time and a better way of living. That sounds good to me!

We then broke out into discussion groups. I had opted for the group on Ethical Labelling. This was by far the biggest group which meant that there was less discussion and more presentation! Led by Lucy Findlay from the Social Enterprise Mark and Conall O’Caoimh from Value Added Africa, we looked into how labelling can be used to enhance product offerings. Conall’s work in streaming products directly from African producers into shops such as Marks and Spencer (encouraging them to produce tea bags direct to the shelf rather than sacks of loose tea that needs further production) was a fascinating example of changing the status quo. During our brief discussion at the end of the session one of the attendees representing an Indonesian coffee company expressed the view that most of the labelling systems are focussed on giving benefit to the consumer but not the producers.   I thought this merited further discussion and it is a view expressed by my own suppliers. There is a huge amount of work for producers and suppliers to become Fairtrade, Organic or accredited in some other way. Obviously the consumer is key as it is their demand that leads to product success or failure, but the costs and the work required to become accredited are not insignificant. Perhaps we should look at ways to include the producers more in the definition of accreditation standards so that they can work through other areas that might benefit them more, such as consumer feedback.

We then headed back into the auditorium for the second keynote speech which was by Hilary Jones of Lush Cosmetics and was entitled ‘What it means to be a campaigning business’. Lush prides itself on its political activism and its campaigning for animal and human rights. Hilary did state that she felt that Lush have a better insight into the views of the people than politicians do, as Lush’s customers tend to discuss their political opinions in the shop. Personally I’m not convinced by this as it is unlikely that Lush attract an even cross section of society. However Lush have certainly gained a strong high street presence with their products and are certainly amongst the most mainstream of ethical businesses. The balance between campaigning and running a business is a tricky one though – ethics are key but there is a risk of alienating part of your customer base if you’re not careful.

moving into the mainstream
moving into the mainstream

The final session of the conference was a panel entitled ‘Ethics at Scale’. For me this was the highlight of the event, with speakers from Divine Chocolate (Charlotte Borger), Suma Wholefoods (Bob Cannell), Triodos bank (Huw Davies), Soil Association (Clare McDermott) and Fairphone (Tessa Wernink). Charlotte Borger won us over with her free chocolate and excellent presentation. I completely resonated with Divine’s goal to produce a ‘premium product with an ethical USP’ and to grow the customer base from grassroots supporters into the huge realm of chocolate lovers. As a brand co-owned by the cocoa farmers themselves (many of whom didn’t know their cocoa was used in chocolate bars until Divine came on the scene) Divine are an inspiring example of how an ethical brand can position itself to grow in the mainstream market. Fairphone was also a very interesting presentation. As a Fairphone user myself I was very interested to hear how the crowdfunding model had worked and how the brand would maintain its ethics without becoming unaffordable. By creating a long lasting product Fairphone are limiting their future customer base. This is key to ethical consumption but limiting as a business model! Tessa from Fairphone also wins my ‘favourite slide’ award with this one…..

After the event we all headed off for some networking, lubricated by delicious ‘vintage roots’ wine and organic beer. I chatted with an interesting range of people during the event and exchanged contact details so hopefully we can all learn from each other as we go forward in our journey to mainstream ethical consumption! Thanks to the Ethical Consumer Magazine for a successful event – I am now a subscriber!

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