Profiling the ethical consumer. Part 2

female-1699816__340In the previous post, I have shifted the focus of my investigations from ethical products to ethical people and shared some insights about responsible consumers and various types of them. Having identified major differences between scrupulous shoppers which go along the lines of concerns, commitments, opportunities and actions, I am now in search of some common features that characterize the customers who never fail to care about global impact of their shopping decisions.  The intriguing questions are: who are they, how do they look like, where do they come from, where do they shop?

Some discrepancies in research findings seem to arise here. Thus, the Co-operative Bank report (2000) suggests that ethical consumers do not appear to share any sociopolitical or demographic characteristics, and neither political outlooks, nor social-hierarchical position, nor gender, nor age can act as reliable determinants of one’s shopping ethics. Instead, what unites responsible shoppers is the stance on the issues of consumerism and concerns over the moral problems in the production and consumption of services and goods. However, the view that ethical consumers do in fact share some similar features is substantiated by various other studies. Thus, Tallontire et al.’s (2000) review cites the research by Co-operative Bank (1992), Traidcraft (1996), Nicholson-Lord (1999) and CAFOD (1997) which suggests that virtuous shoppers are most commonly found among middle-age women with higher income and educational levels.

The most recent Key Note Market Assessment Report (2012) on green and ethical consumers also indicates that the sales of organic, fair trade and free-range are driven by consumers who fall in the highest socio-economic groups (predominantly A and, to a lesser extent, B). The age band, however, appears to have shifted towards younger population – according to the report, the above mentioned types of ethical foodstuffs enjoy the highest level of penetration among consumers aged between 20 and 24 years. Differentiation of high-minded shoppers among gender lines appears to have changed as well, and while women continue to be the ones most concerned about animal welfare and food miles, organic and fair trade markets are now dominated by male customers.

Available knowledge about mindful buyers is not limited to the age, sex and social position. In fact, some studies (Oxfam Campaigns, 1995) are as specific in the profiling of green shoppers as to identify their media preferences (Guardian newspaper), race and ethnicity (white/British), marital status (married), and political outlooks (Labour supporters). Nicholson – Lord (1999) also points out the supermarkets that ethical consumers tend to patronize – these are largely high-end chains such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. Most recent research indicates that principled buyers are also more likely to be the heaviest radio listeners as well as newspaper readers (Premier TGI survey, date n/a cited in Dunn 2013).

From this, a much clearer image of the ethical consumer emerges, and it seems like an elite and privileged shopper dominates the responsible consumption landscape leaving those less well-off and well-informed out of the picture. Indeed, a recent Eurobarometer survey (European Commission, 2011) shows that less than half of the Europeans are ready to pay extra for fair trade products. Interestingly, the level of education is indicated to be a better predictor of the willingness to pay the ethical premiums than income (although who can deny a positive correlation between the two?).

At the same time, current trends suggest an increased consumer awareness of ethical issues.  According to the Co-operative’s latest Ethical Consumer Market Report (2012), 9 out of 10 UK consumers now recognize the Fairtrade logo. Although neither awareness, nor declared intentions necessarily translate into real purchases, recent surveys suggest a stable increase in consumer spending on ethical products. Thus, in 2012 10% of the UK population claimed to regularly shop for organic grocery products, nearly 20% were committed buyers of fair trade, powerful 60% expressed strong preferences for free-range and promising 17% reported concerns about food miles (The Key Note Market Assessment Report, 2012). This, coupled with the predicted increase in the availability of organic and fair trade products on the mainstream food market (Key Note report, 2012), leaves reasonable hope for a better future of the UK ethical consumerism. In fact, it is predicted to enjoy 40% growth in the next three years and reach  impressive £76.7bn by 2016.

The question remains, however, as to whether and how the image of the ethical consumer will change in the course of time and in response to the food industry issues, tendencies and trends.


Co-operative Bank. 2012. Ethical Consumer Markets Report 2012. [Accessed 12 December 2013] Available from

Cowe, R., & Williams, S. (2000). Who are the ethical consumers. Co-operative Bank, Manchester.

Dunn, A. (2013) Understanding Britain’s upmarket ethical consumers. Marketing Magazine [Online]. 29.05.2013. [Accessed 6 December 2013] Available from

European Commission (2011). Making a Difference in the World: Europeans and the Future of Development Aid. Special Eurobarometer 375, Brussels. [Accessed 12 December 2013]. Available from

Key Note. 2012. Green and Ethical Consumer: Market Assessment

Tallontire, A., Rentsendorj, E., & Blowfield, M. (2001). Ethical consumers and ethical trade: A review of current literature. Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich.


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