Leading article: People power

Friday 29 February 2008 01:00

It is possible to detect a climate of scepticism in some quarters towards the idea that ethical consumer pressure can effect real change in our society. Whether the issue is carbon emissions or developing world sweatshops, it is never hard to find someone (and they can be on the left or the right) who will argue that any individual action we take as consumers is pointless and that only intervention at a governmental level can change things.

Such scepticism is misplaced. This week alone we have witnessed three striking examples of the power of the ethical consumer. At the beginning of the week we learned that the UK market for Fairtrade food products rose by 80 per cent last year. Then, as we reported yesterday, there has been a spike in the sales of free-range chicken and a corresponding decline in demand for cheap and inhumanely-raised broilers. Finally, we have learnt that Marks & Spencer is planning to charge for plastic bags as part of an effort to curtail global pollution.

Media pressure in all three instances has played a crucial role in raising awareness (and The Independent has had a strong role in these campaigns). But as the M&S chief executive, Stuart Rose, put it yesterday: "We're responding to what our customers have been telling us."

This is not to argue that regulators and governments have no role in tackling ethical abuses, whether in retail or in environmental protection. Plainly they do. But recent evidence does suggest that those who insist that individual consumer decisions do not matter in the vast scheme of things are wrong. In fact, they seem to matter more than ever.

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