Ethical choice making ground with shoppers
Ethical worries are staging a comeback in the battle of conscience versus price, after suffering some serious post-recession fatigue.
Each year the Sustainable Business Council/Fairfax Business and Consumer Behaviour Survey asks shoppers what environmental and ethical factors they think about when buying products.
Typically there is a good showing for buying green, Fair Trade and local - then the scruples disappear for many people when they have to choose against price.
Last year the mighty dollar had its strongest showing yet in the survey's five-year history, with six in 10 shoppers picking price as the single most important factor when asked to choose just one.
This year cost fell back to just above 2011 levels, trumping other worries for about 47 per cent of people.
People were asked to choose from a list including buying local, Fair Trade, eco-friendliness and - for the first time - avoiding animal cruelty.
Animal cruelty trumped everything for about one in 10 people, similar to Fair Trade, environmental sensitivity and buying local.
The proportion who said they'd ditch a brand if they found out it was behaving unethically also bounced back to the 2011 level of 67 per cent.
Close to a quarter of the more than 2000 respondents said they had switched brands for ethical reasons in the past year, with people listing Anchor's new milk bottles, Cadbury's use of palm oil, Cottonsoft's approach to sourcing timber for loo paper, and cheap Bangladeshi clothing labour among the targets of their wrath.
A few had long memories: Cadbury, for example, ditched palm oil in 2009.
Marketing researchers say people tend to over-inflate their own ethical behaviour in opinion surveys.
But the two big supermarket chains say they are seeing a noticeable upswing in ethical product sales.
Free-range egg sales - often seen as a barometer of people's willingness to pay more to assuage their consciences - have been increasing, rising 8 per cent by volume in the previous 12 months, according to a spokeswoman for the Countdown chain.
Rival chain Foodstuffs, which owns the New World and Pak 'n Save brands, said sales were up on a range of ethical products versus their traditional peers.
The co-operative's sustainability manager, Michael Sammons, said free-range eggs were up 11 per cent on the previous year on relatively stable overall egg sales.
Supermarket sales figures from the Egg Producers Federation show free-range egg volumes grew 8.5 per cent in the year to May 19 versus just under 2 per cent growth for caged eggs, a rate which paced the overall egg market. But barn and organic egg sales volumes fell. Caged eggs increased more in volume than free-range because they were starting from a much higher base - accounting for about 77 per cent of supermarket sales versus just under 16 per cent free-range.
Sammons said organic produce - including baby food, cereal, flour and nuts - was up across the board at the three regional Foodstuffs co-operatives.
Increased distribution packaging changes could be behind some of the rise, he said.
Although Sammons did not want to break down figures for individual cleaning brands, he said Ecostore cleaning products were booming and, in general, cleaning brands that could demonstrate environmental credentials were outperforming the more established household cleaning brands.
Sales of tuna caught without fish aggregation devices (FADs), which Greenpeace has blamed for catching thousands of tonnes of bycatch, were dramatically up versus other tuna, he said.
He said shoppers did not always have to choose between price and environmental or other factors.
Pams tuna, for example, traditionally a cheaper brand, was FAD-free.
And two Wairarapa Foodstuffs stores - Sammons could not immediately say which - were selling only free-range eggs because they were able to buy them from local suppliers at prices only marginally higher than battery eggs.
Sammons said where battery eggs were significantly cheaper there was an obligation to stock them so people without much spare cash could afford eggs.
"Not everyone in New Zealand is in a position to pay more for free-range or organic."
Feedback from shoppers was that they wanted to see where a product was made and what was in it.
Sammons said third party certified eco labels such as Fair Trade and Environmental Choice were the easiest way to convey ethical or green credentials to consumers.
Dole has said it will drop its ethical choice labels on imported bananas, which were criticised for not being third party certified. Sammons said that was a good decision.
"At heart it's about giving the customer visibility with clear labelling."
The 2013 Sustainable 60 Awards are now open. The comprehensive entry process allows you to tell a compelling story of sustainability and have it reviewed, measured and validated. Entry closes Friday, June 21. Visit sustainable60.co.nz for more information and to download entry forms.