How are ethical considerations influencing what consumers buy?

Mintel’s latest research reveals that the UK is increasingly eating with a conscience, but prices and confusion over the different certifying schemes is also impacting the sector.

3 May 2019
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  • Across the UK, people spent £8.2bn on ethical food and drink, including organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and Marine Stewardship Council certified products.
  • Over the past five years, sales of ethical food and drink have shot up by 43% from £5.7bn in 2013.
  • This year, sales are forecast to increase a further 4% to reach £8.6bn.
  • The sector’s ongoing popularity sees no signs of abating, as sales of ethically certified food and drink are projected to rise by 17% to reach £9.6bn between 2019 and 2023.
  • 83% of UK adults say they have bought food/drink with some sort of ethical certification, but it’s proving a particular hit with more mature Brits. Those most likely to buy ethically-certified food/drink are aged over 55 (87%).
  • Brits’ love of animals sees free-range (66%) ranked as the most widely bought food with an ethical certification; a claim which is widespread in selected everyday categories like eggs and chicken. In fact, concern over animal welfare (45%) is the number one reason for buying any food/drink with an ethical certification.
  • Fairtrade ranks as the nation’s second most popular ethical food and drink, bought by 53% of Brits.
  • Foods with a Red Tractor certification were bought by 49% of consumers and organic foods were purchased by 30% of Brits.
  • Environmental sustainability appears to chime among under-35s, who show higher purchasing of food/drink with related certifications. A third of 16-34s buy Rainforest Alliance products, compared to an average of 25% of Brits; while 30% buy products with the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label on-pack, compared to an average of 20%.
  • But cost is a significant barrier, as seven in ten UK adults say that eating sustainably/ethically is harder when money is tight.
  • Confusion is having an impact too, as six in ten UK adults say that it is difficult to know the differences between the various sustainable/ethical schemes.
  • Around half of UK adults say they are loyal to companies/brands whose ethics align with their own, rising to 56% of under-25s.
  • In fact, a third of UK adults say they have stopped buying products from companies that have acted unethically, rising to 43% among under-25s.
  • While 49% of UK adults believe that their food and drink choices make a difference to the environment, slightly more (51%) disagree or are unsure whether or not this is true.
  • The Blue Planet effect is having an impact on plastic use as 67% UK adults have made efforts to reduce the amount of plastic packaging they bought in the year to February 2019.
  • Keen to cut back on plastic waste, six in ten Brits say they would be happy to use their own containers at supermarkets, for example to carry meat or fish.
  • But while consumers are keen to do their part to reduce waste, 83% of Brits believe that retailers should do more to help reduce packaging waste.


“Ethical food and drink has enjoyed strong sales growth in recent years, but price poses a significant barrier to greater uptake. This makes it imperative for companies to demonstrate to consumers how they can shop ethically without breaking the bank and how ethical products can – in some cases – even be the financially-savvy option,” said Alice Baker, Mintel research analyst. “Drawing attention more strongly to where standard own-label products have ethical certifications would allow retailers to demonstrate to shoppers that they can buy ethically and potentially save money too. Products using surplus produce, for example the ‘wonky veg’ boxes offered by various supermarkets, can also be presented as both a financially-savvy option and an ethical one to tackle food waste.”

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