Activism by default – is it here to stay?

Over the last two decades, businesses and brands have been making it easy to ‘do the right thing’, and consumers have happily ridden the wave. But, is this trend of default activism set to last?

Many consumers no longer need to weigh up the social pros and cons of their buying decisions themselves. Instead, they can be activists by default, letting businesses and brands make the ethical and environmental judgement calls for them.

A coffee chain, for instance, may only serve Fairtrade products. A beauty brand might give a percentage of its profits to a social cause. A taxi firm could only have electric cars in its fleet.

By making sustainable choices the default option, businesses have made it easier for consumers to ‘do the right thing’. This convenience means very few dig behind the labels that say, ‘good for the environment’ or ‘doing good for society’. Perhaps because they’re aware of the tricky dilemmas involved in these decisions and can’t imagine solving them any better themselves.

But people may soon start to question these labels more …

Activism by default

Very few dig behind the labels that say, ‘good for the environment’ or ‘doing good for society’. 

Making sustainable choices the default option is a direction of travel that for most of us feels right.

This works for businesses too – many of which face tough regulatory and reputation pressures to behave ethically and reduce their environmental footprint.

Often companies won’t hit their environmental-impact targets unless their customers choose the greener or more ethical options. That’s why there are hundreds of examples of companies – from photocopier providers to energy suppliers, mobile phone makers to retailers of wooden furniture and timber  – making sustainable features the default.

With these companies you don’t need to choose whether to print on both sides of paper. It happens automatically. It’s the same with your mobile phone that slips into sleep mode after a short space of inactivity. Your energy provider could have made the green tariff their core tariff and the garden furniture you sit on could well be made with wood sourced only from sustainably managed forests.

The growth of goodness

Ethical consumerism has seen a sharp rise since the turn of the century. A report published by convenience retailer Co-op highlights that its market size in the UK has jumped from £11.2bn to £41.1bn today. A four-fold increase.

The same report highlights the consumption of Fairtrade Bananas. Today, UK consumers spend almost £290 million a year on Fairtrade bananas alone, compared to a total Fairtrade market of £22 million twenty years ago.

Indeed, in some supermarkets, Fairtrade bananas are the default banana offering, making it very likely that you’re a silent activist banana eater – and you probably don’t mind.

But how long can businesses and brands rely on people’s casual desire to ‘do the right thing’ to be the filter they use to make their buying decisions? Is it ultimately just another a fad?

Additionally, what might drive consumers to actively ‘opt out’ or for businesses to change their default positioning?

No such thing as a green banana

Green and ethical fatigue could always kick in. Way back in 2010, Mike Berners-Lee first published his book ‘How Bad are Bananas?’ - a rich compendium of our everyday lives, that sets out the carbon footprint of almost everything we do and buy.

How long can businesses and brands rely on people’s casual desire to ‘do the right thing’ ?

Its aim was to help consumers who want to do the right thing for the planet to make the right choices. It recognised that most of us are utterly confused about the real impact of our lifestyle. We just knew it was bad.

‘How Bad are Bananas?’ did little to assuage our fears. You can look up anything from the carbon footprint of a banana or cup of coffee, to a daily car commute or a load of laundry and feel a whole lot more shameful than reassured.

The overarching realisation is that it’s impossible to be 100% green. But while we can’t be perfect, we can be better. And having sensible default options can surely only help.    

Entering a ‘new normal’  

The impact of COVID-19 is impossible to overlook. The outbreak of the virus has sent shockwaves through the global economy, with many countries on course for a recession.

For both businesses and consumers, the growing emphasis will be on recovery. In the short term, the kind of ethical consumerism we have seen in the past could take a back seat. For many people with concerns over their financial stability, ‘doing the right thing’ may no longer be an option – as the ‘right choice’ is often only available at the right price.

However, while immediate focus has been on prioritising an economic reboot, the longer-term impact of the crisis may strengthen both business and consumer resolve to do the right thing.

From a practical perspective, many advisory bodies and industry leaders have called on governments to prioritise a  'green economic recovery', reserving support only for those businesses making a conscious effort to act sustainably.

Similarly, consumer sentiment towards businesses is being impacted by how they have responded to the crisis. Those who have forgone short-term financial gain to support the global response could well benefit in the future.

Know more by default

Ultimately, the best situation would be for all of us to know more about built-in green and ethical choices. Then we can make an informed choice about whether it’s right to stay in or opt out.

At Aviva we work with our business customers to help them decide if our Stewardship funds are  appropriate default options for their workplace pension.

That’s because we’ve seen there’s a small but growing trend in people being interested and prepared to commit their money to ethical investment.

Our job is to provide information to employees investing in workplace pensions, so they understand what the default option involves. We believe the default option should really be the starting point for knowing more about what you buy, do and invest in. At the very least, make sure you know what the default is.

Information overload

 As with most choices, sustainable investment involves some dilemmas.

There can be a lot of information to take in to be fully informed. Keeping things simple is the best thing companies can do to help individuals know more and feel comfortable about their choices.

And as with most choices, sustainable investment involves some dilemmas. Personal perspectives inevitably come into play: what does ‘doing the right thing’ mean to you?

"Everything we do can add to our footprint and we have to think hard about our choices. While in theory the right information and data exist to help us make sensible choices, all too often our view is obscured by reams of irrelevant and distracting diversions. But the complexity of sustainability is not insurmountable. We can identify the areas that will drive the most impact and focus our attention there. By doing this, daunting problems can become less so." Marte Borhaug, Global Head of Sustainable Outcomes, Aviva Investors

At Aviva, we’re trying to make it easier for people to understand responsible investment and the choices involved. We’re working with the British Standards Institute to see if a kitemark can be established for responsible investment that becomes a recognised symbol, like Fairtrade Coffee.

We think, why not Fairtrade Finance? But not simply by default.

Further reading

ESG and ethical investing: what’s in a name?

Aviva’s Responsible Investment approach

Wealthify Ethical Investing



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