Q&A: Ethical trading

Being an ethical business can reduce the negative impacts on people, animals and the environment. But, as Kat Alexander from The Ethical Company Organisation explains, it can also help to boost your bottom line

What is an 'ethical business'?

One that considers the ethical impact of its actions, products and services with regards to the environment, people and animals. Ethical businesses demonstrate this through their products (eg fair trade, organic, cruelty-free, etc), but their behaviour is another key consideration. So, for example, a business might sell organic pasta, while being involved in environmentally destructive practices in other areas, such as using unsustainable palm oil, in which case it wouldn't be considered ethical.

Are ethical businesses a new phenomenon?

No, they've have been around for a very long time, although communicating these ethics is becoming more commonplace because consumers now understand more about ethical issues. Big business has certainly jumped on the 'ethical bandwagon', realising that it's popular with consumers. A good example is fair trade coffee, which was first launched in the early '90s by a few specialist companies. Now, most UK supermarkets sell their own-brand fair trade coffee.

Why set up or become an ethical business?

As already mentioned, consumers have become more aware of what 'ethical' means and they're voting with their wallets. Ethical businesses have the potential to become very successful and examples include Cafédirect and Good Energy. The Good Shopping Guide is an online ethical comparison site that is a helpful guide for consumers showing the best (and worst) businesses when it comes to ethical trading. With over 1,000 consumer brands, consumers can find out which brands to buy and which ones to avoid.

How big is the UK's 'ethical business' sector?

The Triodos Bank published an Ethical Consumer Markets Report (PDF) and the most recent version [2017] estimates that sales of ethical goods and services reached £81.3bn and the UK's ethical market grew by 3.2% in 2016.

Are customers really attracted to ethical businesses?

The Triodos report suggests that boycotts of unethical products increased to £2.5 billion in . According to the report, there was a 9.7% increase in the sales of ethical food and drink in 2016. Sales of Rainforest Alliance products grew by 16.1% between 2015 and 2016 and sales of sustainable fish rocketed by 36.9%. This proves there is strong consumer demand for products from ethical trade businesses.

Do businesses trade ethically for moral reasons?

A truly ethical business usually starts up with the best of intentions, usually driven by the owner's personal beliefs and a lack of market alternatives. However, sometimes these businesses 'sell out' to less-than-ethical businesses. Everyone can benefit from businesses trading ethically: the consumer, who feels better about the product they've chosen; the supplier, who receives a better wage/working conditions; and the business, which feels good about what they are doing, while making a profit by offering an ethical alternative.

But don't ethical business usually trade in a limited number of sectors?

Ethical businesses now operate across all sectors. We offer independent Ethical Accreditation to truly ethical business and our members operate in a wide range of sectors, including food and drink, fashion, health and beauty, finance, energy supply, office supplies, furniture, you name it.

Does being ethical mean I'll pay more for my supplies?

Depends on what your business does, but even if you do have to pay more to your suppliers, generally speaking, consumers are willing to pay a bit more for ethical goods, so you don't lose out.

What three key pieces of advice would you offer to someone who wanted to set up or operate as an ethical business?

Firstly, make sure there's a market for your product or service. Secondly, communicate your ethics to you consumers and trade partners. Finally, stick to your ethical principles.

Written with expert input from Kat Alexander of The Ethical Company Organisation.

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