A new generation of consumer activists is emerging in Britain, with more than one in two people boycotting the products of companies that they regard as unethical, according to a study.
From Nestlé to Esso, multinationals have been the subject of high-profile consumer boycotts in recent years. In the first study to examine the extent of brand boycotting, published yesterday, it emerged that the cost of consumers switching brands for ethical reasons last year was £2.6bn in lost business.
While 52 per cent of consumers have boycotted at least one product during the same period, two-thirds claimed that they would never return to a product once it had been associated with unethical practices.
The figures came to light as part of The Co-operative Bank's Ethical Purchasing Index, which has annually analysed the extent of ethical consumerism over the past four years. This year's report incorporated an additional study involving 1,000 consumers that aimed to gauge the extent of ethical boycotting and its impact on industry.
The high level of boycotts was consistent with a continued increase in the overall growth of ethical consumption in the UK, according to the report.
The value of ethical consumption in the UK - including the sale of products, banking and financial services, and products that are boycotted - peaked last year at £19.9bn. The total sales of ethical products rose by 44 per cent from £4.8bn to £6.9bn between 1999 and 2002. During the same period, the market share of the products rose by 30 per cent.
Simon Williams, the director of corporate affairs at The Co-operative Bank, said: "The research enables us to drill down and look at people's motivations and we have discovered that many consumers are driven by ethical concerns.
"For instance, many people shop locally for convenience, but for others the overriding consideration is to buy from local stores in order to support their community."
He added: "The full extent of ethical consumerism will always be difficult to gauge, given that it is about the motivation behind a particular purchase as much as the product or service itself.
Boycotting big brands, shopping locally, recycling and using public transport cost consumers a combined total of about £5.6bn during 2002, the study revealed.
Food, household appliances, cosmetics and tourism were among the most frequent choices of purchases for ethically minded consumers. Around £1.77bn was spent last year on Fairtrade and organic products. Free-range eggs, for example, accounted for 40 per cent of all eggs sold. A further £1.47bn was spent on "green" household products, including environmentally friendly cleaning products and energy-efficient appliances.
Consumers spent £187m on cosmetics that were not tested on animals. Despite the fact that eight out of ten people are opposed to testing cosmetics on animals, less than two per cent of all sales comply with the Humane Cosmetics Standard.
A further £107m was spent on "responsible" tourism, according to the report, which was compiled by The Co-operative Bank in partnership with the think-tanks the New Economics Foundation and the Future Foundation.
Melanie Howard, director of the Future Foundation, said: "The use of boycotting, recycling and second-hand purchasing as a way to express personal values is in line with trends towards greater social engagement. This application of "ethical" behaviour when shopping highlights the need to assess the wider economic impact of this activity to the UK."
The growth of consumer awareness has gone hand in hand with an increase in the pressure applied to big businesses to conduct themselves in an ethical and transparent manner. Earlier this year, Linda Perham, the Labour MP, tabled a private member's Bill demanding greater social and environmental accountability from big businesses.
The Corporate Responsibility Bill, which was backed by 293 MPs, would make it mandatory for companies to provide reports on their social, environmental and economic impacts and establish a new regulator for corporate standards.
It coincided with findings of a Mori poll in June last year revealing 92 per cent of people believed "multinational companies should meet the highest human health, animal welfare and environmental standards wherever they are operating". The Queen's Speech subsequently included proposals for a Companies Bill, which would require businesses to produce environmental and social reviews.
Ms Perham, MP for Ilford North, said: "The latest report shows that consumers are becoming increasingly intolerant of companies that are less aware of their corporate responsibilities. We hope that the new Companies Bill will oblige companies to uphold the ethical demands of consumers."
The findings of the report complemented a growing trend among companies to examine their corporate responsibility, according to the Ethical Trading Initiative, an organisation devoted to the promotion of good working practices.
Man-Kwun Chan, the ETI's head of communication and research, said: "It is very encouraging to hear that consumers are becoming ethically aware. We have experienced an increase in terms of companies becoming more concerned about their responsibilities.
"But the question is whether it can be sustained. There is quite frequently a difference between intention and practice among consumers."
'I'm a fairly ordinary consumer'
Penny Fraser is one of a growing number of ethically minded shoppers.
As well as buying as many of her family groceries as possible from organisations such as Fairtrade and the local Co-op, she has boycotted companies whose business practices she believes are ethically unsound. Nestlé has long been dropped from her shopping list because of its controversial associations with baby milk in Third World countries. Gap clothes have more recently become out of bounds as a result of the US company's alleged exploitation of sweatshop workers across the world. McDonald's is also avoided.
"I'm what you would describe as a fairly ordinary consumer, but the avoidance of unethical products is important to me," said Ms Fraser, 37, from South Manchester, who conducts social research for a charity.
"I've been boycotting Nestlé products for a long time now. Wherever possible, I buy alternative products. But as a family, we would sooner go without certain products than eat Nestlé's."
For Ms Fraser, shopping with ethical preferences has become significantly easier in recent years because of the ever-increasing choice of alternative products available in supermarkets.
For the past 20 years, the Swiss-based multinational has been condemned for promoting powdered breast-milk substitutes in the Third World, which critics claim contributes to the death of babies. Germaine Greer was among a number of authors who boycotted the Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival because it was sponsored by Nestlé. Last year, the company retracted a demand that Ethiopia repay its £3.75m debts.
The anti-Gap movement was galvanised when a demonstrator set a pair of Gap trousers alight four years ago at the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle in protest against working conditions at factories in Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Mexico. The actress Minnie Driver plans to highlight the plight of sweatshop workers by joining one in Cambodia.
The oil giant and its Texas-based parent company ExxonMobil have long been targeted over its environmental policies and its alleged funding of the election campaign of the US President George Bush. From Mr Bush's withdrawal of the Kyoto Protocol to his foreign policy in Iraq, activists have expressed their opposition by boycotting its stations.Reuse content