The rise of the ethical consumer


At a time when many of us are feeling the pinch and may have less to give, we’re choosing to make a difference through our everyday spending decisions, according to Social Enterprise UK.

Do you give much thought to where your hard-earned money goes when you’re buying your morning coffee, doing the shopping, at the gym or paying your gas bill?  With life this busy it’s understandable if you don’t.  But at a time when many of us are feeling the pinch and may have less to give, we’re choosing to make a difference through our everyday spending decisions, according to Social Enterprise UK.  Research shows that more of us are making ethical choices, opting to buy from social enterprises when going about our daily lives [1, 2].

Social enterprises are businesses, but unlike ‘ordinary’ businesses they exist first and foremost to do good things for people and the planet.  They’re in our communities and on our high streets – from coffee shops and cinemas, to pubs and leisure centres, banks and even energy suppliers.

Social enterprises, which include co-operatives, reinvest their profits back into the business or local community, rather than paying them out to owners or shareholders, and the end result is that people in need are given a lifeline or the environment is protected from harm.

Watch online

Watch a short film featuring three social enterprises - The People’s Supermarket, Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen London restaurant and Stour Space.  There are more than 62,000 businesses of this kind making a positive difference in communities across Britain.

Social enterprises


Fifteen is a global organisation with young people at its heart. Fifteen has three restaurants worldwide - Amsterdam, Cornwall and London which offers apprentices to youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The People’s Supermarket

‘For the people by the people’ – a volunteer-run co-op in central London, serving the local community with good cheap food that's fair to consumers and producers. 


As the UK’s only social enterprise supplier of gas and electricity, surpluses are reinvested into Ebico’s Trust for Sustainable Development that funds community initiatives that promote energy efficiency and tackle fuel poverty.  The company works with the largest generator of renewable electricity, and serves over 50,000 households across Britain. Ebico has very high levels of customer service and recently received a 'top 3' rating in consumer rights magazine, Which?

The Co-operative Bank

People are also making ethical financial decisions.  In the wake of the banking crisis The Co-operative Bank saw a 79% increase in customers switching current accounts to them from their high street rivals in 2010 [3]. The Co-operative Bank is wholly member-owned, democratically run and reinvests a proportion of its profits back into local communities.


This social enterprise provides affordable healthcare to two million people and 11,000 companies. Simplyhealth has been running for over 100 years and has no shareholders.  Its profits are invested into running the business or distributed to worthy causes. Last year it donated £1.6 million to national health related charities and local causes in Andover, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester.

The Big Issue

The Big Issue has been offering homeless people the opportunity to earn a legitimate income for 20 years by selling the weekly entertainment and current affairs magazine.  The Big Issue believes in offering ‘a hand up, not a hand out’.

Elvis & Kresse

This social enterprise creates stunning life-style accessories.  The Fire-Hose range is made exclusively from genuine de-commissioned British fire brigade hoses which, after a distinguished career fighting fires and saving lives, were otherwise destined for landfill.  50% of profits from the fire-hose line are donated to the Fire Fighters Charity.

Pants to Poverty

You need never feel guilty for buying new underwear again…  this social enterprise makes some of the most comfortable and stylish pants on the planet, working with a farmer co-operative in India.

Stour Space

This social enterprise placed on the River Lea overlooking the Olympic stadium in London offers exhibition, performance and studio space for artists. Stour Space holds monthly exhibitions and markets, and houses The Counter, an award-winning café.

Peter Holbrook from the national campaigning organisation, Social Enterprise UK, said:

“If people want wealth to be distributed more fairly across society and are annoyed by companies making huge short-term profits to satisfy their shareholders, buying from social enterprises allows them to make a conscious choice that will benefit the communities they live in. 

“Social enterprises profit society by helping people in need or by protecting the planet.  Simple choices that we make when going about our daily lives can make a real difference. As consumers we have incredible power to make the world a better place.  It’s a win-win situation as long as the customer is happy with the product or service.”

Did you know?

  • Social enterprises are starting-up and working in Britain’s most deprived communities - with 39% of them based in the most deprived areas of the UK compared with just 13% of mainstream businesses.
  • Social enterprises are a natural home for female entrepreneurs and have more women on their boards than FTSE 100 companies. A quarter of social enterprises are owned by women, almost double the number of those running small private businesses.
  • Social enterprises often employ people who traditionally come up against barriers when trying to find employment, such as those with disabilities, a history of homelessness or drug and alcohol problems.


[1] The general public is the biggest purchaser of social enterprise goods and services: 37% of social enterprises get their income from consumers, compared to 18% who earn their income from the public sector and 13% from the private sector.  Fightback Britain report, August 2011 – download from

[2] Co-operatives fall under the social enterprise umbrella, and the turnover of consumer co-operatives has increased 25.7% over three years to £16bn in 2010. There are now almost 5,000 registered co-ops in the UK, operating in everything from farming to funeral care, wind farms to web design.  The co-operative economy 2011 – download from

[3] The Co-operative Bank saw a 79% increase in customers switching current accounts to them (from competitors) in 2010 -