A view from Kevin Morrell

Millennials talk a good game but do they really buy organic or Fairtrade?

A survey of buying habits is challenging the stereotype of ethical shoppers and reveals an entire age group continues to be overlooked, writes professor Kevin...

The Fairtrade movement can be traced back to the 1940s when the missionary project Ten Thousand Villages started selling needlecraft, musical instruments and jewellery made in Africa and places like Puerto Rico across the US.

Ethical shopping is now a global phenomenon and growing every year, with a survey by consumer insights firm Nielsen finding a quarter of UK shoppers looking to buy green goods in 2013, up from eight per cent in 2011.

For some, the stereotypical image of an ethical shopper is a tree-hugging, mung bean sandwich eater in their twenties and wrapped in a home-knitted cardigan. What we found, in a survey of buying habits from nearly 700 shoppers at three UK supermarkets challenges this stereotype.

A survey by consumer insights firm Nielsen found a quarter of UK shoppers were looking to buy green goods in 2013, up from eight per cent in 2011.

Although younger shoppers talked a good game, when we asked them if they had actually bought organic food or Fairtrade goods they didn't quite practise what they preached. And it wasn’t the older shoppers with more cash and time to seek out organic food, who were the most ethical. Instead it was the middle-aged shoppers who bought more ethically.

For so long thought of as weighed down with family demands and tightening budgets the middle-aged shopper may have been overlooked as targets for marketers when promoting the ethical qualities of their brands. But it turns out they are the ones walking the walk.

Our survey found a curvilinear relationship between age and purchasing Fairtrade or organic goods. Both younger and older shoppers were less likely to shop ethically than their middle-aged counterparts.

Younger shoppers, 30 or under, were most likely to recommend Fairtrade products, but strangely the least likely to buy them. This may be that, though they would like to, younger shoppers can’t afford the extra cost of Fairtrade and organic goods which often come at extra cost.

Not all ethical purchases have a price premium. Often Fairtrade goods are competitively priced. There may even be no alternatives in a category like bananas. But usually there are costs incurred with ethical decisions.

Even inspecting a label, or stopping to consider how an item of clothing could be made so cheaply involves cost. As we say in our paper "Ethical consumption behaviours in supermarket shoppers: determinants and marketing implications" shoppers have to "switch gears" – make more of an effort to look for these goods. Some people do this, some don't.

Younger shoppers, 30 or under, were most likely to recommend Fairtrade products, but strangely the least likely to buy them.

Older shoppers might just be stuck in their ways, unaware perhaps, of the now vast array of ethical goods on offer, preferring to stick to their habitual shop. Or it might just be that young and older shoppers are not shopping for families, so buy a smaller basket of food, reducing the potential pool of ethical products.

Whatever the reason the results provide food for thought for marketers charged with highlighting their brands ethical qualities.

They may need to align their marketing towards the middle-aged shopper, whose purchasing decisions, more and more, could be based on ethics and not just price or quality.

The ethical implications of shopping may need highlighting for these shoppers, perhaps using the same kinds of cues that guide consumers sub-consciously around supermarkets.

Another consideration for marketers is differences between men and women. It has been argued that women were more concerned with organic food and Fairtrade, but our survey, of which 53 per cent were women, found no meaningful difference.

An increasing number of consumers understand that their decision in what to buy has an impact, it is a virtual vote on the ethics of the brand they are purchasing.

A basketful of supermarket goods will have clocked up a serious number of air miles. This has implications in terms of climate change, it also means choices in our local store have an impact on people working in other parts of the world, while the rise of pro-environmental choices such as organic foods is also having an effect.

The rise of these movements has challenged how we think about supermarket shopping, now we may need to rethink the stereotypical image of these shoppers. Increasingly the green shoppers are no longer the outliers, they are becoming the middle-aged mainstream.