Ethical Consumers and E-Commerce: The Emergence and Growth of Fair Trade in the UK

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ABSTRACT

In this article we seek to investigate the claim that active consumer choice can influence societal transformation through study of the growth in the market for 'fair trade' goods in the UK, and by evaluating the effect of their availability through e-commerce. We assess this phenomenon with reference to the literature on ethical consumerism locating it within consumer studies, and discuss the role played by the use of information and communication technologies. Changes in the nature of consumerism have been identified, and the issue of the impact of the consumer in societal and global change is discussed here in relation to the wider issue of sustainable development.

Introduction

The concept of ethical consumerism has emerged over the past 15 years to describe actions taken by individuals seeking to actively support products according to their perceived ethical credentials. Ethical consumerism attempts to utilise the rhetoric of consumer power to actively shape the market in a particular way. It therefore draws both on conceptualisations of the consumer society as well as the wider debate surrounding the process of sustainable development. This article explores the theoretical basis of ethical consumerism through the specific case of the growth of fair trade in the UK. In addition, the role of e-commerce is considered in terms of its potential to impact on the activity of ethical consumers.

Ethical Consumerism and Sustainable Development

The concept of sustainable development encompasses ethical aspects of both social and environmental justice, and academic analysis of ethical consumerism has emerged from this broad concept. Ethical consumerism can therefore be regarded as a process which contributes to an ecologically sustainable future through construction of sustainable lifestyles. Characteristics of ethical consumerism include both 'fairness' in the sense of support for producers and also environmental sustainability. Thus emergence of the 'ethical consumer' and 'ethical shopping' via recycling and product boycotts over the past decade demonstrates concern for sustainable consumption and social justice. Consumers, as concerned individuals, can orient their choice and exercise purchaser power in favour of products whose production has caused least harm to the environment. Through this process the consumer becomes connected to, and an active participant in, global social and environmental issues.

This approach has not gone without criticism however, as other commentators have identified consumption as a major problem both for social development and environmental sustainability. In particular Sagoff (1988) points out how individuals make choices as citizens which differ from the choices they make as consumers, furthermore while citizens have a long-term interest in protecting the environment, consumers are swayed more by short term interests and preferences. Analysing the role of ethical consumerism must take this broader picture into account, particularly in identifying its role in sustainable development. This would be helped if the relationship between social economic and environmental issues were better understood, as well as the role e-commerce takes in relation to changing consumer behaviour.

The fair trade concept, in joining the idea of both economic activity and social development, is replete with ethical and sustainable overtones. Ransom (2002 p 20) asks, 'can the process of production be democratised, ownership shared, organised labour encouraged, child labour made unnecessary, environmental sustainability and human rights promoted?' This is expected to happen through the established process of consumerism, the normal working of the market changed only slightly to ensure that a greater share of the profit is returned to the original producers

Ethical Consumers and e-Commerce

Transferring consumer activity to the internet requires adoption of some of the values intrinsic to the technology. …