Careers With Impact: In Conversation with Researcher & Co-op Member at Ethical Consumer, Ruth Strange

We sit down with Ethical Consumer’s Ruth Strange, to talk about the organisation, their mission and values, including how the UN Sustainable Development Goals relate to their work and how they plan to grow in the years ahead. Ruth gives us a bit more insight into company culture at Ethical Consumer, as well as sharing useful resources for those looking to dive more into the industry and issues Ethical Consumer tackles.

EJ: To start, could you tell us a bit more about your organisation and what it does?

RS: Ethical Consumer's primary goal is making global businesses more sustainable through consumer pressure. On our magazine and website, you can see our shopping guides, helping you choose the most ethical options in energy, food, clothes, home and body care, finance, tech, and travel. We also report on and participate in a range of campaigns such as taxing Big Tech, boycotting Amazon, and getting a better deal for workers in supermarket supply chains.

EJ: Interesting.  So, looking at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, where would you say your main focus is as an organisation and why is this important to your company’s mission?

RS: I would say Ethical Consumer’s main focus is in two key areas. First is Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production.

Since 1989 Ethical Consumer has been researching and pushing for more Responsible Production and Consumption. I've switched the words there to focus on the company’s responsibility, because that is where the damage is done. There is a campaign right now by the Corporate Justice Coalition to make it illegal for businesses to have human rights abuses or environmental destruction in their supply chains. This quote really hit me: "it can often feel that the pressure is on us as the consumer, to make choices when we shop to try to limit the damage to people. But by the time a product reaches us, the damage has already been done". Another way to look at it is that every purchase is funding real life situations, good or bad. Our work tries to make those choices more visible, so that people can use their spending power in line with their values.

EJ: That’s great. So in terms of progress towards Goal 12, what else do you think needs to change in the coming years?

RS: We do an annual Ethical Consumer Markets Report, which shows an ongoing trend of people making more ethical decisions when buying all sorts of products. Companies have to take notice of this to some extent, and there is also a lot of pressure from campaign groups on companies to improve their environmental and social behaviour. But for many of the biggest brands, profit still comes first, and they continue to pay executives and shareholders big bonuses while squeezing as much from workers as possible and always aiming for growth. We need laws like the Business, Human Rights and Environment Act described above, and we need more support for different business models such as cooperatives that value workers and communities more. We also need to be developing different economic models that don't rely on extracting so much from nature, such as 'degrowth'.

EJ: And you mentioned that you focus on another element of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – what is that and how do you have impact there?

RS: This would be Goal 13: Climate Action.

We decided at a Political Strategy Day to do more work on Climate Action and to give it more visibility, because the next ten years will be critical in mitigating the worst impacts of climate breakdown.

In terms of our own actions, we created a new rating to apply to all companies we look at. This rating looks at what they are doing to reduce their climate impact and led to us initiating a 10-year project to assess the 'Climate Gap'. The project determines what key actions are needed from government, business, and consumers to meet even the relatively modest emission reduction targets for 2030, set by the UK government.  From this, we released our Climate Gap Report to coincide with the COP26 negotiations in the UK in 2021, and we aim to track progress over these critical next 10 years.

EJ: Staying on how critical the next ten years will be for the UN SDG’s, what key Climate Actions still need to be taken?

RS: You can read more about this in detail in our Climate Gap Report, but key actions for the UK government in the areas of Food, Transport, Heating and Consumer Goods include rebalancing agricultural policy, halting airport expansion, subsidising lower carbon heating solutions and requiring companies to report on supply chain emissions. From a business perspective, we want companies to report on those emissions, and of course cut them, and as consumers, the most impactful things we can do include reducing air travel, car travel and meat and dairy consumption. Of course, we are all citizens too and can join campaigns to change companies and laws.

EJ: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Switching the focus now: for those interested in an impactful career at your company, what do you at Ethical Consumer look for in a potential employee?

RS: Most of our 20 co-op members are researchers and writers, and several look after our subscriptions and finances, but as we've grown, we now also have people dedicated to in-house tech, web editing, social media, and partnerships. So we look for skills in these areas. In May 2022, we are recruiting a Partnerships Coordinator to help build Ethical Consumer’s network and relationships with external organisations, campaign groups and businesses. They will play a key role in planning our annual conference in the autumn, and will work with our Marketing and Consultancy teams on partnership strategies and delivery.

EJ: And in terms of attitude and attributes? What type of people fit best with Ethical Consumer?

RS: We always look for people who are committed to co-operative working, who can contribute to the whole organisation's culture, admin, and strategy through clear communication, taking part in decision-making, and good organisational skills. This can be reflected in the candidate's attitude to working with others or evidenced by initiatives taken in the past to improve systems or solve problems. Candidates also need to have an awareness and interest in ethical consumption of course! For particular roles we will also look for experience in the particular skills needed for the job, be that research, social media or partnership and network building.  

EJ: So it sounds like you have a really positive, collaborative work culture, that’s great. If a candidate likes the sound of your company, but maybe needs a bit of help learning about the industry and issues you tackle, can you recommend any resources to help them out?

RS: Of course! We have a really interesting website where you can explore all the issues we tackle and think about how they relate to your own life. And if you want to find out more about cooperative working, there is some great training offered by the Cooperative College https://www.co-op.ac.uk/, Stir to Action www.stirtoaction.com/workshops or Cooperantics, who also have lots of online resources at https://cooperantics.co.uk/.

EJ: Nice, and what is your best advice for someone just starting out in their career?

RS: A really important thing in applying for jobs is to give clear examples of how you meet the criteria for the role, but don’t forget that relevant experience can come from voluntary work, life experience or recent training as well as paid work.

You can also help the organisation you’re applying to imagine you as a potential colleague through examples of the way you work.

 Of course, we have to select the applicants which seem most suited to the role in the end, but none of us know who else has applied until the shortlisting phase, so be ambitious - if you're really interested it's always worth trying.

EJ:  Tell us a bit more about your company culture. Why do you love being a part of the Ethical Consumer team?

RS: The people are great. We are always trying to improve our support structures too, especially through the recent changes with Covid and remote working. We are also very flexible about working times and days, as long as it works for the teams you work closest with.

EJ: Perfect. Before we go, anything you can tell us about what you’re working on, or is there anything exciting coming up for Ethical Consumer?

RS: We continue to put out our regular product guides and magazine, but we are also aiming to do some internal restructuring this year. We want to refresh and streamline the way our subgroups interact and make decisions in order to reduce the time spent in whole co-op meetings as we grow. We are also trying to streamline and simplify things about our research process, which has gradually become more complex and is making it harder to train people and keep up with our update cycle for product guides. So working on this is a priority for us moving forward. Externally, we hope for the Partnerships Coordinator to continue building our relationships to likeminded organisations, campaign groups and companies.

To keep up-to-date on all current roles, follow Ethical Consumer on Ethical Jobseeker now.

To read more on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and their impact, click here.