Henry Eastick Written by Henry Eastick

The rise of the ethical consumer

The last two decades have seen consumers place increasing importance on the provenance of the products they purchase, leading to a surge in sales of ethically produced, Fairtrade and organic foods and drinks. What was a steady change in buyer behaviour has been rapidly increased by the restrictions enforced by the global COVID-19 pandemic, placing an already hot topic even more firmly in the spotlight. Against this backdrop, we assess why this change has occurred, what the ethical consumer means for the sugar industry, and the steps Ragus has taken to adapt.

An unprecedented two decades for consumer behaviour

Now more than ever consumers place a premium on products that have greater transparency from source to shop. This has caused unparalleled changes in purchasing patterns. Per household, the average spend on ethical products has increased 600 per cent compared to twenty years ago, causing the market to grow from £11.1 billion in 1999 to £41.1 billion today. The overwhelming majority of this is still made up of ethical food and beverages, where annual spend has increased from £1 billion to £12 billion since 1999.

Growing awareness of social, environmental and animal rights issues in people’s personal lives has been a key driver for this change, with buyers and suppliers across the food and beverages industry reacting accordingly. For example, organisations are ensuring they only work with ethical producers, by maintaining transparent, auditable supply chains which adhere to stringent environmental and ethical trade accreditations. ISO 14001 environmental management systems and SMETA certification as part of Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (SEDEX) are the two prominent accreditations covering environmental sustainability and ethical trade which many firms are adopting voluntarily as essential requirements.

As a result, the previous twenty years have seen UK businesses make huge strides on the sustainability front, fuelled by consumers choosing to vote with their wallets. The trend shows no signs of stopping, with ethical concerns now commonplace across a huge variety of sectors, from clothing to energy. Food and beverages have been at the forefront of this change and look set to play an even greater role in the future.

Ragus routinely visits sugar cane and sugar beet growers who form the foundations of sugar supply chains.

How has this impacted the sugar industry?

The effect of the rise of ethical consumerism on the sugar industry has been two-fold. Firstly, supply chains for sourcing raw sugar, particularly cane sugar, which is typically grown in less economically developed countries, have come under increased scrutiny to guarantee they are free from exploitation and corruption. Alongside this, the industrial sugar manufacturers who rely on this raw sugar have come under pressure to ensure their production facilities operate as sustainably as possible by setting environmental objectives and targets such as reducing utilities consumption year on year, improving plant and process efficiency.

In response to demands for more transparent sugar sourcing, industrial sugar producers, as well those food and drink companies that rely on their products, have signed up to organisations that audit supply chains. These typically consider everything from the impact on the environment to use of genetic modification, but for sugar the focus is on the welfare of all stakeholders in the supply chain. Founded in 1992, The Fairtrade Foundation pioneered these types of assessments and certifications and has since been supported by sugar-specific organisations such as Bonsucro.

Increasing consumer awareness of the environmental effects sugar production facilities can have on the environment has primarily manifested itself through corporate social responsibility (CSR) questionnaires. Among other things, these assess the manufacturing processes of sugar producers, enabling buyers to quickly audit the sustainability of the sugar they are looking to buy. In turn, consumers can purchase an end product that has been produced with as little impact on the environment as possible.

What has the rise in ethical consumerism meant for Ragus?

Ethical sourcing has been integral to operations at Ragus for the last twenty years. By routinely visiting our suppliers in person, we assess first-hand the supply chains we use, ensuring all our sugar products are free from exploitation and corruption. Supporting this are several accreditations we hold, such as Fairtrade, the SEDEX and Bonsucro.

The Fairtrade mark is widely recognised by consumers for its commitment to guaranteeing a fair wage for all actors in food and beverage supply chains. Currently, SEDEX and Bonsucro are not as widely known by consumers but are equally important to those within the sugar industry.

SEDEX is one of the world’s leading and largest ethical trade service organisations, providing collaborative platforms for sharing responsible sourcing data on supply chains. This means its members can easily find and work with suppliers that meet their standards in labour, health and safety, business ethics and the environment. Its e-learning platform providing sustainability resources and training modules and the self-assessment questionnaire aims to help firms ethically develop and improve their operations.

Bonsucro is a global organisation that fosters environmental, economic and social sustainability, specifically in sugar cane production. Not only does it assess member companies, but it also supports them to continue to improve beyond certification standards.

However, accreditations form just one strand of Ragus’ CSR strategy. Most recently, we reshaped our internal structure to provide suppliers, customers and other stakeholders with a focal point for all activities relating to CSR. We are aware that ethical consumerism will continue to shape the market and requires ongoing improvement, and this forms a crucial part of our wider CSR strategy. Our relationships with ethical suppliers are long-term, and we look forward to maintaining this network and expanding it over the coming months and years.

Ragus has over 90 years’ experience manufacturing pure sugar products. Contact us on +44 (0)1753 575353 or sales@ragus.co.uk to speak with a member of our customer services team today and learn how you can benefit from our responsibly produced sugars.