Dr Ian Yeoman, Futurologist
Much has been said about the consumer and climate change, but do they really care? While many trends have encouraged the growth of ethical consumption in recent years, there are some trends which have a negative or at least limiting influence. Ethical tourism is fashionable and is encouraged by the current dynamics of demographic change. However, it sits uneasily with many aspects of modern lifestyles. Greater wealth has made people more willing and more able to express their moral beliefs in how they holiday, but at the same time it has made consumers more demanding – they have high expectations and are unabashed in seeking out the best deal. A growing economy has facilitated greater choice, but it has also come with a demand for lower prices and greater convenience.
For example, Britain has a low price culture. Yeoman and McMahon highlight that today's consumer is four times more price sensitive than a decade ago. It seems consumers have got used to flying with Easy Jet or sleeping at Travelodge. These goods are basic commodities which suffer deflationary pressures. From an ethical consumption perspective, although surveys regularly report consumers' willingness to pay extra taxes or a premium to stay in green hotels, the magnitude of this willingness often fails to materialise into people actually paying more for the products. The biggest successes in ethical consumption have been products which are either marginally more expensive (such as fair-trade coffee) or the same price as the standard offerings (such as many of the green energy packages which are available). Research undertaken by The Observer found that only 7% of people would pay a premium of 20% or more for an ethical product – whereas 31% said they would not pay any extra for ethical goods. Ethical experiences still need to compete on price with their unethical competitors. The ethical cachet, like a desired brand name, can encourage a consumer to spend more. But even with keen ethical tourists this is balanced by cost constraints. The keenest minority of wealthy ethical tourists are sometimes willing to pay large premiums – but for the wider public steeped in low price culture, small premiums are still the order of the day.
Ethical holidays are more widely available than before. However, they still represent only a small percentage of all holidays. Basically, ethical choice is difficult as travellers are not motivated to seek out alternatives, whether it is time constraints, availability or price. With the majority of people feeling time-pressured (especially in the key ethical demographics) it continues to be the case that only a minority of potential ethical tourists will travel using public transport. It is harder for consumers to be ethical where for example on a short break they leave the office at 5pm on a Friday night and want to be at their destination by 8pm. It is difficult to be ethical when children are impatient and public transport options are limited. It is difficult to be ethical when the cost of travelling by public transport is expensive and inconvenient when compared to using a car.
A further limiting factor on ethical consumption is that in many cases it is not the easy or glamorous option. Sometimes consumers' ethics can clash with the have-it-all lifestyles we enjoy, especially in the wealthy groups most influenced by the debate. For instance, lately there has been a great deal of negative press around the environmental responsibility of air travel. However, modern consumers, especially the wealthy, positively expect to be able to take at least one foreign holiday a year. As these two trends clash, the ethical consumer must judge whether they should take only short-haul holidays or indeed whether foreign travel is at all compatible with their ethics. Recently some have sought to resolve this tension through carbon offsetting, whereby the consumer is able to pay for programmes in tree-planting or renewable energies which are claimed to neutralise the damage caused by their flight or their entire holiday. The traditional approach to ethical consumption has been to lump all issues under the one heading of ethical. A consumer interested in one issue is very likely to be interested in all of the other issues. However, although the issues are often treated as one – they are not the same. Indeed sometimes they work against one another. In the future these tensions will grow, as the worsening environmental prognosis will force society to weigh the environment against other ethical considerations. As we have seen, it is one of the ironies of the movement that those with the most to lose are often the most engaged.
Can a sophisticated ethical consumer face a world without air travel or without foodstuffs (coffee, spices, tropical fruit) from the wider world? Furthermore, even if consumers were to forego these goods – what would be the impact upon the economies of the developing world? Economies whose long-term strategy is precisely to gain greater access to affluent Western markets. Life is difficult for today's tourist as they live a complicated life of conflicting choices.
Looking to the future, the present fad with ethical tourism may die out, especially due to the ill balance of inflation in the world.
So, basically the tourist may say they are concerned about the environment or ethical living but it doesn't translate into practice. Ethical consumption is not a key driver amongst the vast majority of tourists - only a small minority.
Ian Yeoman's new book, Tomorrow's Tourist discusses what the future tourist will look like in 2030, where they will go on holiday and what they will do.
15th April 2008
Dr Ian Yeoman
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