Ethical shopping on the cheap

It is generally believed that buying ethical products is more expensive, but you’d be surprised which everyday products are socially responsible

Fair brews: Coffee generally has a good fairtrade reputation, but what of our other daily household foodstuffs? Photograph: getty images

Fair brews: Coffee generally has a good fairtrade reputation, but what of our other daily household foodstuffs? Photograph: getty images


If you throw a bunch of Fairtrade bananas in your shopping trolley, can you save the world? Sadly, being a truly ethical shopper – concerned for workers’ rights, worried about child slavery in the production process, mindful of damage to water supplies and the wider global environment, watching your carbon footprint and watchful of inhumane treatment of animals – takes a lot more work. Meanwhile, the horsemeat scandal has made us even more aware of the problems in food supply chains.

The general perception is that the most right-on, socially responsible brands cost more money. For most consumers, it’s hard to know where to start. Is being an ethical consumer merely a luxury for those who can afford it?

Behind the Brands, a new report from Oxfam, forensically examines the social and environmental impacts of world’s 10 largest food and drink companies, including Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Danone, Unilever, and Nestlé.

Associated British Foods, the manufacturer of Patak’s sauces, Burgen bread and Twinings tea, is revealed to have a particularly poor record in regard to its treatment of women workers in the developing world, water supplies, and farmers who grow their ingredients; it is also criticised for a lack of corporate transparency and for its climate change policies.

Nestlé’s record may surprise its critics: although the company is still under an active boycott for its promotion of breast milk formula in the developing world, it is nonetheless ranked by Oxfam as having made the most progress of the 10 companies surveyed.

Pricewatch visited SuperValu in Churchtown, south Co Dublin, to see if it was possible to do a completely ethical, affordable shop in a major supermarket. In short, it isn’t. No matter where you shop, it is very rare to find a completely ethical product. That said, there are degrees of bad behaviour, and SuperValu and other supermarkets do have ethical options.

For this unscientific survey, products chosen as “ethical” had to have received a score of at least 10 out of 20 by Ethical Consumer, a UK-based organisation which tracks all aspects of corporate behaviour and provides consumers with information on companies’ policies regarding workers and people, animals, the environment, politics and sustainability. Unfortunately, there is no centralised source of information on the corporate ethics of Irish brands. By and large, however, buying Irish is a good idea.

Major surprises
There are some major surprises on this more ethical shopping list. KP, the manufacturer of Skips and Hula Hoops crisps, have a strong reputation. Haribo, Jelly Belly, Swizzels-Matlow and Chupa Chups are among the more ethical sweets. Onken yogurt and Yeo Valley dairy products ranked miles ahead of Rachel’s organic yogurt. Amongst well-known beer brands, Carlsberg and Tennent ’s have some of the best track records. Tilda rice and Ragú pasta sauce also perform creditably.

Lindt chocolate is reasonably ethical, with a score of 11.5 out of 20, far higher than the score allocated to Green and Black’s Fairtrade organic chocolate, which is manufactured by Cadbury. Ecover dishwasher tablets were only slightly more expensive than Fairy dishwasher tablets.

For the average consumer, it is all somewhat bewildering. The majority of working people don’t have the time to investigative every product they buy. In particular, people on low incomes, from all backgrounds, have very little choice but to buy the cheapest available item. Many of the most ethical brands, such as Biona and Suma, are rarely stocked in the main supermarkets, and require a special trip to a health food, organic, or independent store.

As shorthand, consumers should look out for one of several logos on the products they buy, including:

Fairtrade: widely regarded as the gold standard.

Rainforest Alliance: a weaker version of Fairtrade.

Soil Association: campaigns for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use.

Marine Stewardship Council: sustainably sourced fish.

Forest Stewardship Council: guarantees the product comes from responsible sources.

Leaping Bunny logo: no animal testing.

The certification systems aren’t perfect, and some have been criticised by environmental groups for not going far enough, but for most consumers, they offer a useful starting point.

However, corporate social responsibility doesn’t have to be a mere add-on. In 2007, Marks and Spencer introduced Plan A, a series of initiatives which saw them promise to become the most sustainable and ethical retailer in the world by 2020, and which has been praised by leading NGOs. “Customers wanted change, but they didn’t know where to start or what to do,” explains Mike Barry , head of sustainable business at M&S. “They wanted us to do the heavy lifting.”

The company estimates that it has saved €120 million by reducing energy, waste and packaging, and conserving water.

“The horsemeat scandal has clearly shown that food producers can’t just bury their heads in the sand and hope they won’t find problems in their supply chains,” says Barry. “The media or consumers will increasingly find the story and they will challenge retailers and producers.”


Try to have at least one meat-free day per week. Meat is expensive.
Look out for the recycle sign on food you buy – it costs more if you have to send the packaging to landfill.
Keep an eye out for occasional deals on Fairtrade products in supermarkets such as Lidl and Aldi
Reduce your food waste. Keep a record of what you throw in the bin
Conserve water. Getting in the habit now will save you money when metering is introduced.

Don’t assume only expensive brands have ethical standards. You might be surprised to find what brands have good track records.
Shop local, particularly in butchers, greengrocers, and farmer’s markets; you can still find good deals, and it’s easier to check the provenance of your food.

Choose an issue or two that concerns you and make your shopping decisions accordingly. Use social media to contact the brands and companies and ask them what they are doing to improve their record.


Ethical Consumer Magazine:

Slavery footprint: F ind out how many slaves work for you at

Ethical Trading Initiative: