According to conventional wisdom, in times of financial hardship shoppers are only interested in a bargain. But ethical products, such as Fairtrade chocolate, solar panels and eco-friendly cars, have proved to be recession-busters.
In the last year, the amount Britons spent on them rose from £43bn to £46.8bn, an increase of 8.8 per cent and almost 250 per cent up from the £13.5bn spent in 1999.
The scale of the growth of guilt-free products, detailed in the Co-operative Bank's Ethical Consumerism Report 2011, not only points to a growing awareness among consumers but also among businesses, which are keen to be seen acting with greater social responsibility. Among those embracing change is Cadbury, which in 2009 announced that all its Dairy Milk chocolate would be Fairtrade. Mars and Nestlé have followed suit, with their Maltesers and KitKat products, while Tate & Lyle now sells a range of Fairtrade sugar.
But there have also been some big losers, with organic foods suffering particularly badly as shoppers seek cheaper options. Sales sank 10 per cent in 2010 to £1.53bn, a 23 per cent fall since the organic sector peaked in 2008 at a value of almost £2bn.
Barry Clavin, who helped compile the report, said one of the surprises was that even during the economic downturn supermarkets have been prepared to increase the shelf space available to ethical products. "It's selling so it keeps its space," he said.
Fairtrade food sales rose 36 per cent from £749m to £1.02bn in 2009-10. Spending on green electricity generators, such as solar panels and small wind turbines, rose 386 per cent from £51m to £248m, while sales of low-emission and electric cars shot up by 128.7 per cent, from £370m to £846m. In 1999, when the Co-op first reported on ethical sales, only £4m of "green" vehicles were sold.
Sustainable fish saw the second largest increase in ethical foodstuffs, with a 16.3 per cent rise from £178m in 2009 to £207m in 2010. A decade ago, when the Marine Stewardship Council – the gold standard of seafood eco-labelling – was in its infancy, sales were negligible. Further rises are expected for this year's figures following Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight campaign against discards. The MSC's James Simpson said: "It's great news for the oceans. In the MSC-certified fisheries, supported by UK shoppers and businesses, fish stocks are up."
Charles Clover, of the award-winning documentary The End of the Line, said: "It's wonderful to see sustainable fish sales have shot up. This is a welcome shot in the arm for our oceans."
Clio Turton, of the Soil Association, said of the fall in organic sales: "It's been a tough year in line with lots of other sectors but the decline is levelling off and we are a bit more confident for this year that it is stabilising."
Unemployment hits 17-year high
A spike in public-sector redundancies drove the unemployment rate to a 17-year high in the three months to October, in the latest jobs report from the Office for National Statistics. The overall jobless figure hit 2.64 million, up 128,000 since August. About 8.3 per cent of the UK workforce is now unemployed, up from 7.9 per cent in the previous quarter.
Over the same period, 67,000 jobs were shed in the public sector, mainly in local government.
Youth unemployment rose. Those aged 16 to 24 out of work increased by 54,000 to hit 1.3 million. About 22 per cent of young people are now out of work.
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