Ethical sales rise as consumers go sustainable

Sales of ethical goods and services in the UK have increased almost tenfold in 20 years to hit record highs, according to the Co-operative Group.

The retailer said consumer spending on sustainable products reached £29.7bn in 2018, up from £3.1bn in 1999 when it first started tracking them. Overall household consumption has merely doubled in that period while inflation rose 52 per cent, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.

Jo Whitfield, Co-op Food chief executive, said consumers had persuaded businesses to embrace everything from free range eggs to Fairtrade bananas. Governments have pushed them to buy energy efficient lightbulbs and clean energy with bans or subsidies.

Ms Whitfield said: “We should rightly celebrate the growth that we’ve seen in ethical markets in the UK over the last 20 years.

“UK businesses and NGOs [non governmental organisations] have pioneered many of these developments and today we have multibillion pound markets that either didn’t exist or if they did, other mainstream businesses were unconvinced of their potential to succeed.”

Line chart of Rebased showing How ethical spending has grown

There are some warning signs. Although sales of alternative-fuelled vehicles grew in 2018 to £3.6bn from £3.1bn in 2017, sales of the most fuel efficient diesel and petrol cars fell by £312m as more people opted for SUVs, which give out greater volumes of CO2 than medium-sized and battery powered cars.

Sales of Fairtrade products, which guarantee a minimum price to producers, also dropped in 2018 by 7.5 per cent to £1.6bn as retailers ditched the official standard on some products in favour of their own schemes.

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The Co-op’s ethical spending figures include vegan and organic food, sustainable fish, ethically sourced cosmetics, second hand clothing and bicycles.

As well as using retail sales data, it surveys a panel of 2,000 people.

Its headline data include spending in charity shops, donations to sustainability charities such as green groups and money that customers said they actively chose to spend on the local high street rather than online or out of town.

Those categories have increased from £8.1bn in 1999 to £11.5bn since 1999.

“Back in 1999 community and charity spending made up the bulk of the total. It was often the only way to shop ethically. Now there are so many opportunities,” said Co-op.

The Co-op has also announced it is to recycle plastic film for the first time. Few local authorities collect items such as crisp packets and the wrap used on vegetables and ready meals because it is hard to deal with.

The Co-op, which produces more than 750m pieces of plastic film each year, said that from the summer it will collect used plastic from its own stores to take to a recycler.

Only a fifth of the 2.3m tonnes of plastic placed on the UK market every year is being recycled, with 1.2m tonnes of plastic packaging used for consumer goods ending up in landfill.


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