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The Handbook of Ethical Purchasing


On October 13th 2021, a new book was launched by Rob Harrison, one of the original founders of Ethical Consumer.

An introduction to The Handbook of Ethical Purchasing: Principles and Practice

October 2021

Bringing more than 30 years of experience in making markets work towards more ethical goals, the Handbook of Ethical Purchasing is designed to help:

  • ordinary consumers navigate greenwash
  • ethical companies to avoid some of the classic errors of selling to ethical buyers
  • local authorities to deliver social goals through purchasing programmes
  • campaign groups to create pressure on unethical companies
  • everyone to navigate the contested world of ethical labels and standards

According to Rob, "When we began talking about buying ethically in 1989, very few people had any idea what we were talking about. Nowadays, many thousands of people around the world work professionally on everything from the tracking of carbon footprints and modern slavery in company supply chains, to campaigners trying to address the unsustainability and injustice driven by some palm oil and plastics manufacturers.

We also know that educational and training materials for people wanting to practice ethical buying and selling within institutions or just at home, and on wanting to learn about standards setting and the political pressures they will encounter, are thin on the ground. The Handbook of Ethical Purchasing is therefore designed to help both ordinary people and industry professionals to understand the movement towards ethical buying, its political background and, most importantly, how to become involved more effectively."

The book's chapters look at different types of purchaser, company and campaigner in turn as follows:

  1. Basic Principles
  2. Ordinary Citizens
  3. Campaigners
  4. The Role of Multinational Companies
  5. Local Authorities and Other Public Bodies
  6. The Role of Governments
  7. Smaller Companies, Charities and Social Enterprises
  8. Ethical Labelling Schemes
  9. Selling to Ethical Purchasers
  10. Why It's Important

The book is written as a series of interlinking principles and introduces the language and key techniques that people are beginning to use to address the moral, practical, and political problems that commonly occur.

Most of all, the book shares insights into the possibilities and limits of ethical market campaigning, and operates as a practical handbook for people across all industries and sectors to become involved in the important changes that need to be made in this vital transition to more ethical economies.

Extract on the power of ethical purchasing

Choice gives purchasers power

Although some markets still have monopoly providers – railways, utilities, and search engines are three that come to mind – the marketisation of societies has meant that, particularly for people living in big cities, a choice of providers is now common. Ordinary economics recognises that this can give economic power to a purchaser, but for purchasers considering ethical or political issues, this can also give them, in some senses, a political power.

In the town where I was growing up in the 1970s, there were two local shops. One was run by a man who put adverts for far-right marches (National Front) in the window of his shop. The other was not. I was not the only person who did not buy from him.

Bigger purchasers can have more power

Where the value of the purchase is large (a local authority commissioning a building for example), the power to ask for ‘special’ requirements is much greater (the employment of local people for example). One of my favourite quotes which illustrates this point comes from a building contractor Michael Conlon working for Preston Council in 2018: “If a client said to me, ‘I want all your staff to wear kilts’, I’d say: ‘Which tartan would you prefer?’”

Whilst some buyers are the only customer of a company and can effectively dictate the ethical conditions of production, in other circumstances – such as an individual buying a pack of coffee from the world’s biggest food multinational – that ‘power’ is tiny. This is why many thousands of collective actions have mushroomed in this space in order to aggregate millions of smaller purchasers into an important force. [1]

It is quite evident from studies of consumer boycotts that, on occasion, this aggregated power can be significant. A well-studied case occurred in 1995 when Shell decided to dump an old oil platform by towing it out to sea and sinking it. In what became known as the Brent Spar boycott, as many as 70% of consumers in some parts of Germany stopped using Shell petrol stations as a result of the campaign. One of the biggest multinational companies in the world was forced to capitulate within weeks of the campaign beginning despite its protests that its approach was ‘scientifically valid’.

Sometimes it looks like voting or democratic power

Some people have compared purchasing with voting. In some senses this is useful because purchasing, like voting, is more than mere persuasion or argument. If a majority feels differently to you on an ethical issue and boycotts your products, no matter how wrong you may think they are, you still have to accede to their wishes to keep trading. This was the case with Brent Spar. It also occurred during the Alabama bus boycotts over racially segregated seating rules in the 1960s. In Alabama, some bus company owners inexplicably believed strongly in racial segregation. They held out for nine months and faced virtual bankruptcy before finally admitting defeat.

Old photo from 1960s Alabama with racial segregation sign at bus station
Racial segregation at the bus station in 1960s America.

In other senses, likening purchasing to voting is problematic because richer people could be seen as having a greater vote. This obviously applies less to bread (which everyone buys in roughly similar quantities) than it does to luxury cars (only bought by the super-rich), but it is one of many reasons to prefer electoral democracy whenever this is possible.

Purchasing also has some advantages over electoral democracy, in that it can be exercised (for some products) every day rather than annually or every four or five years in a normal voting cycle. The contested idea of purchase voting is also discussed in more detail later on in the book.

Reference / note:

1. There is more on collective campaigning in Chapters 2 and 3.

Buy the book

The Handbook of Ethical Purchasing: Principles and Practice by Rob Harrison is published by Routledge and costs £29.99.

You can buy it directly from Routledge, or search online for a variety of other sellers who are not Amazon using our handy guide to ethical bookshops (online and bricks & mortar).

Ethical Consumer subscribers can get a 20% discount (if buying direct from Routledge) by logging into the Ethical Consumer website, going to 'My account', and selecting Subscriber discounts.