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Open Eye: What to do when life's too fast to be thrifty, Green, or vegan

Are you a distancer, an integrator or a rationaliser? Yvonne Cook reports on research into ethical shopping
Louise tries to avoid buying anything new. Her job as a primary school teacher earns her a reasonable income, but most of what she owns is secondhand. She's thrifty because she believes it's the right thing to be.

Elaine, a comfortably-off tax consultant, goes to a lot of trouble to buy non-leather shoes. A passionate supporter of animal welfare, she refuses to purchase anything that could possibly be connected with cruelty.

Both are examples of a burgeoning group - ethical consumers. Although very different in their interests and aims, they are alike because what they choose to buy is not based solely on price, or quality, or personal needs and preferences. They are also aiming, in a small way, to make the world better. There's no simple way to spot an ethical consumer in the street. They come from different backgrounds, ages and income groups. The issues that concern them are equally wide-ranging: animal rights and welfare; human rights; fair trade; child labour; the arms trade; global inequalities; and the environment.

Among the few British academics studying ethical consumerism is Terry Newholm at the Centre for Complexity and Change at the OU. For his PhD research, he has been looking closely at the habits of a group of 16 ethical consumers.

"The first thing that struck me is that they are a very diverse group of people: different in terms of income, in terms of what they think of as ethical, and different in the ways they manage being an ethical consumer. We are all bombarded with all sorts of issues we feel we ought to be interested in. So I was really interested in how these people make choices. It seemed to me you couldn't handle them in a totally logical way - you'd be sitting down for ever thinking what to buy."

Terry divides the behaviour of his ethical consumers into three groups - distancers, integrators and rationalisers - based on their buying strategies...

Patrick has opted out of a society he sees as destroying tradition. He is unemployed, travels everywhere by bicycle and public transport, and buys as little as possible. Patrick is an extreme example of a distancer.

Distancers cope by changing their lifestyles to avoid whatever it is they consider unethical. Some concentrate on one area, such as diet (vegetarians and vegans) or transport (cycling instead of driving). In extreme cases they become `downshifters', distancing themselves from consumer society. From Patrick's point of view, it is impossible to untangle the complexities of production and decide that one product is more ethical than another. The only rational response is to consume less of everything.

Anthony is a campaigner and performance artist whose work frequently has a political dimension. He's vegan, and tries to buy environmentally- sound products. He sees his ethical consumption as complementing his activist lifestyle. He is an integrator, someone who is so involved in ethical issues that they integrate their whole lifestyle - work, consumption and social life - around fighting for the ideas that they believe in.

Alan enjoys motor-cycling, mountain biking and (within some limits) travel, even though he admits they can damage the environment. But he has carefully arranged his central heating system to be as energy efficient as possible - and as a vegan, he sometimes spends a lot of time and thought on whether or not he should buy a particular product. He's a rationaliser. Rationalisers tend to say things like: "I want to be ethical, but I also want to enjoy life." They limit their ethical consumption to a few areas or products, and their ethical shopping habits don't necessarily impinge on the rest of their lifestyle. Terry believes most ethical consumers tend to favour one of these strategies, although an individual's behaviour may show examples of all three.

Ethical consumerism is not just confined to a small clique. Green consumers were the first to attract widespread attention. A MORI poll in 1988 found that 44 percent of people claimed to have bought at least one product because it was `green'.

Since then a host of `ethical' products - fair trade coffee, RSPCA-approved `freedom food' - have appeared on our supermarket shelves. The latest addition, `GM-free', is a sign of how ethics can be mixed up with other issues. Some consumers are avoiding GM foods purely because of health fears, but others are boycotting a threat to the environment.

Ethical banking and investment is another growth area. Does this mean we're all becoming more ethical? Not necessarily, says Terry, it may be more do with the rise of the shopping society. "Because we see ourselves more and more as consumers, the focus of our ethical concerns has switched to this area."

The complexities and contradictions facing would-be ethical shoppers are immense, as Terry knows at first hand. "I wanted to buy low-energy lightbulbs, but until very recently every low-energy lightbulb on the market, as far as I could tell, was manufactured by a company involved in the arms trade."

A recent campaign to boycott goods produced by child labour faltered when it became apparent that its success would mean destitution for large numbers of children in poorer countries.

So can consumers hope to sort out right from wrong and be a force for good? Or is it just about making themselves feel better? Terry argues they can - provided they are realistic about their limitations.

"Just because things seem overwhelming is not a justification for doing nothing. In spite of the seeming complexity of the situation, my examples of ethical consumers are in the main able to achieve their aims.

"Most of us are too fast-living - and comfortable - to distance ourselves from consumer capitalism. But we can study the arguments, and then decide what we can do that is likely to have an effect we would approve of. Many consumers are making a decision to do something that they see is within their capacity - and then get on with living."

Terry Newholm started his working life as a designer of social housing. Before he joined the OU as a full-time researcher, he helped to set up worker co-operatives in Central London.