Lucy Findlay

The rise of ethical consumerism: considering the impact of purchase decisions

Although it is heartening to see that consumers are increasingly looking at sustainability and ethical issues in their purchasing decisions, as evidenced by a recent international study by Unilever, I do worry about whether they are actually able to make an informed decision.  The proliferation of ‘greenwashing’ does mask and make buying decisions more confusing.

Greenwashing is the corporate practice of using clever PR and marketing claims to mislead customers into thinking a company and its products are ethical/sustainable/environmentally friendly etc. Sadly, the rise in consumer interest in sustainability and ethics seems to be marked by the rise of this tactic by big corporate brands.

This is a smoke screen for their anti-social behaviour, as has been evidenced time and again in the hypocrisy of the banking world.  I will never forget, on the passing of the Public Services (Social Value) Act, being lectured about what to do to add social value by a big name High Street bank, whose Chief Executive the week before had been apologising for yet another expose leading to huge fines by the regulator.

Another very high profile example is the Volkswagen ‘Dieselgate’ emissions scandal in 2015, where the organisation admitted fitting cars with software designed to give false readings in emissions tests. This served as a public reminder of the need to be vigilant for misleading messages – if a multinational giant that was once considered a leader in sustainability was deliberately deceiving customers, then it poses the question – who else is up to this dodgy practice??

Unfortunately, greenwashing isn’t always easy to spot, especially where there is an existing high level of consumer trust within a brand. Even where there isn’t trust, many consumers take claims at face value and do not question other behaviours of that company – people have short memories! There are so many ethical labels and claims used by brands to entice customers to buy their products, so where to start for consumers when it comes to knowing who they can trust?

This is the focus of our latest campaign – Beyond the Badge – which aims to help consumers identify genuine labels and claims, and therefore make more informed choices, rather than taking things at face value.  For instance if a product claims to be ‘fairtrade’ – did you realise that it is only certified as such if it displays the FairTrade Mark?

We are pleased to have the support of several high-profile partners, including Soil Association Certification and Ethical Consumer, to engage with a wider consumer audience across multiple sectors.

In our research , I was interested to come across the UL Environment ‘Seven sins of greenwashing’, which identifies seven of the most common greenwashing tactics used by big brands. Interestingly, these include ‘the sin of no proof’ – where a claim is not substantiated with any reliable proof – and ‘the sin of worshipping false labels’ – where the impression is given of a third-party endorsement, where no such thing exists.

To me, these seem particularly relevant to the markets in which we operate, as from its inception, social enterprise has been plagued with vagueness and moving the goal posts.  The advent of social impact reporting and social investment have not helped this cause as they do not support the uniqueness of the social enterprise business model – essentially that by putting people and planet before shareholder profit the business is focused on the social/environmental need that it aims to address.  It may be hard to prove – but the social outcomes are central, not a by-product.  Hence the Social Enterprise Mark – a way of assessing and identifying genuine social enterprises that have a proven commitment to trading for the benefit of people and planet.

We want to encourage everyone to consider the potential impact of their purchase decisions, and to think about whether brands that they support are actually living up to their ethical and sustainability claims. I invite you to get involved, by pledging your support to the campaign and spreading the word amongst your own networks, by joining our Thunderclap campaign, which will send an automated social media post out from your account to create a buzz of conversation about the campaign.