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The Big Read: The rise of the ethical consumer – can it uplift low-wage workers too?

The Big Read: The rise of the ethical consumer – can it uplift low-wage workers too?

Ethical consumerism, broadly defined as buying products and services produced in a way that minimises social or environmental damage, is on the the rise in Singapore. (Illustration: TODAY/Samuel Woo)

  • There is a growing movement of younger consumers here who practises “ethical consumerism”, even if it means paying more
  • Zero-waste stores have seen their business grow substantially in recent years
  • The trend is a result of developments around the world, as well as the rise of social media which has raised awareness and also empowered consumers
  • Nevertheless, such consumer behaviour is not yet the norm in Singapore, as most consumers here are pragmatic and cost-conscious
  • To get buy-in for other facets of responsible consumption, such as paying more to improve the wages of low-income workers, will require more time and discussion, experts say

SINGAPORE: In 2015, Ms Jasmine Hussain watched a documentary titled Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, which showed how animal agriculture had become the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, and an even greater emitter of greenhouse gases than the transportation industry.

The film opened her eyes to the environmental impact of livestock production, and set her off on the journey towards becoming an ethical consumer. 

“I kind of made the decision to go vegan overnight after watching it ... It was the least I could do since I was studying ecology and environmental science,” said Ms Hussain, who was then a 19-year-old undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.  

Changing her consumption habits even further after that became a “very natural transition” for her, she said. It was also made easier by the fact that such behaviour was seen as the norm among her like-minded classmates. 

“If I was already being vegan and conscious about my eating habits, I was also going to be conscious about my spending habits as well, and be willing to spend a bit more on going to the zero-waste stores,” added Ms Hussain, who is now 25 and works in the green finance industry.

Zero-waste stores operate in a similar fashion as regular grocery stores, but they do away with excessive packaging by encouraging patrons to bring their own containers and buy only the amounts they need. 

Some also sell organic produce and products that are touted to be more environmentally friendly, though often at higher prices. 

The ready availability of such stores in Edinburgh had made it easier on the wallet for Ms Hussain to sustain her lifestyle, as the “price range was more affordable” compared to what she found when she returned to Singapore in December last year.

Nevertheless, Ms Hussain has continued with this lifestyle and is part of a nascent but growing group of ethical consumers in Singapore. 

Ethical consumerism is broadly defined as buying products and services produced in a way that minimises social or environmental damage, or both. This could range from buying cosmetic products that are free of animal testing to buying only from companies which pay their workers decent wages. 

While combining ethics and shopping can be a rewarding experience for some, there are those who are not ready to embrace it yet since the price tag attached to such purchases is often perceived to be higher than normal.

Though the presence of stores selling sustainable alternatives in Singapore is not as widespread as what Ms Hussain had encountered in Scotland, various businesses in this sector said that they have witnessed a sharp growth in demand.

Ms Florence Tay, the co-founder of Singapore’s first zero-waste grocery store UnPackt, said that when she and her business partner Jeff Lam started their business at Sembawang Hills Estate in 2018, knowledge about sustainable consumer practices was limited.

“At that point of time, people were only aware about the problems caused by single-use straws and plastic bags,” she said.

In the months prior to the store’s opening, a heartbreaking video of sea turtles with straws stuck up their nostrils had gone viral, sparking a global debate about the environmental problems caused by plastic products. 

UnPackt has since seen its customer base grow by at least 30 per cent, estimates Ms Tay, who declined to provide specific numbers. 

Ms Jasmine Hussain with her purchases from zero-waste stores which she does not mind paying a bit more for. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

Likewise, bigger competitors such as Scoop Wholefoods – which originated from Sydney, Australia – has seen its number of outlets multiply since it set up shop here in 2019. 

“The demand has grown significantly over the last two-and-a-half years with more and more people wanting to be a part of our zero-waste mission,” said Mr Vishesh Juneja, the chief executive officer of Shopping Bag, a company under the Singapore-based lifestyle group Gill Capital which manages Scoop.

Scoop has expanded from its lone store at Tanglin Mall to six outlets now, with another two scheduled to be opened later this year.

Conversations about sustainable living in Singapore have been ongoing for some time, though it was only around 2015 that community groups started forming, according to Mr Mayur Singh, the co-founder of the Green Collective, a store located at Funan mall that curates sustainable brands.   

Meanwhile, developments around the world in recent years have given even greater impetus to such discussions. 

For instance, Swedish teenager and environmental activist Greta Thunberg first came into the global spotlight in 2018 for walking out of class on Fridays to protest in front of the Swedish parliament about her government’s inaction over climate change.

On Sep 20 the following year, Ms Thunberg led the Global Climate Strike, a worldwide movement to protest against what youths perceived as a lack of effort from their respective governments to tackle the climate crisis. 

This, in turn, led to the inaugural Singapore Climate Rally at Hong Lim Park a day later, which was held in solidarity with Ms Thunberg’s movement.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected global awareness about environmental issues, based on a 2020 survey of about 3,000 people across eight countries.  

The survey was conducted by the management consulting company Boston Consulting Group. It showed that about seven in 10 respondents were now more aware, compared with before the pandemic, that human activity threatens the climate, and that degradation of the environment, in turn, threatens humans.

It also found that 40 per cent reported that they intend to adopt more sustainable behaviour in the future, which includes reducing household energy consumption, increasing recycling and composting, and buying locally produced goods.

The Singapore Government, too, has also stepped up its efforts to promote a more liveable and sustainable future here, through initiatives such as its Zero Waste Masterplan unveiled in 2019, and the announcement of the Singapore Green Plan 2030 this year.  

Pointing to the Climate Index published last month by OCBC Bank and digital media company Eco-Business, Mr Singh said he was happy to see discussions on the environment and sustainability “becoming more mainstream”.

The index, which was based on a survey of 2,000 Singaporeans between the ages of 18 and 65, had asked the respondents, among other questions, to rank which of the five key areas unveiled under the Green Plan was the most important to them. 

It found that eight in 10 respondents ranked “sustainable living” as the most important, followed by “energy reset” (61 per cent), “city in nature” (55 per cent), “green economy” (54 per cent) and “resilient future” (49 per cent).

The index also gave Singaporeans a score of 8.3 out of 10 on sustainability awareness – that is, they were aware of almost all environmental issues.

However, it also found that Singaporeans scored only 6.5 and 5.6 when it came to adopting green practices and advocating them, respectively. This meant they only did it some of the time, and advocated some of these issues and practices to their families and friends.

While ethical consumption is growing in Singapore, it has yet to become a norm here, unlike in countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States.

Dr Jimmy Wong, a senior lecturer at the School of Business at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), said that Asian cultures “tend to be more interdependent and collectivistic”.

What this means, he said, is that Singaporean consumers tend to follow social norms, and at present, it is still not the norm for most to consider whether a product is sustainably or ethically sourced before making a purchase.

Instead, consumers here are by and large pragmatic and cost-conscious when it comes to consumption, said Assistant Professor Stephanie Lin from the business school INSEAD. 

“It is my impression that, in general, your average Singaporean is less concerned about ethical consumption than in other parts of the world, like the West,” she said.

If two products - one "green" and one not - are priced the same, which option would you pick? But what happens when buying sustainably means a 10 per cent difference in price? The Climate Conversations chats with a Nanyang Business School observer:


Still, Asst Prof Lin believes that younger consumers here are gradually becoming more ethically minded, and they want to connect more with the brands that they consume.

“This is partially due to a global trend of brands becoming more socially responsible; they are using more sustainable materials, ensuring ethical labour sourcing, connecting with social issues like racial equality, and often contributing part of their sales to other good causes,” she said.

The other factor is the role which social media plays in influencing younger shoppers, said the experts interviewed.

Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon, from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Business School, said social media has helped to amplify consumers’ views of not only brands, but also ideas and movements, as well as accelerated the role of word-of-mouth communication. 

Asst Prof Lin added that social media also gives brands a more direct connection to their consumers, and allows emotional relationships – instead of just functional ones – to be established.  

During the course of her research, Asst Prof Lin found that consumers like to share content on social media that is in line with their personal values, so that they can display their “best selves” to the world. 

“Consumers sharing about their support of ethical brands to each other further perpetuates ethical consumption as a growing norm,” she said. 

Social media also gives consumers a voice to speak out against unethical practices of organisations, allowing them to informally police brands. 

“For instance, when certain organisations in Singapore were found to be underpaying employees, people posted about it on social media, spreading the word about the brands’ unethical practices and affecting brand equity,” she said.

While Asst Prof Lin did not single out any company, media reports of homegrown bakery chain Twelve Cupcakes underpaying their employees had resulted in widespread backlash online, with some calling for a boycott of the business. 

“Firms are sensitive to optics right now. Sometimes, big campaigns backfire, with ads getting pulled for being insensitive or brands being criticised for greenwashing, causewashing or hypocritical behaviour,” said Asst Prof Lin.

She added: “It seems like a lot of firms have learned the lessons of these pitfalls. That’s why you see firms engaging in responsible behaviour, like donating to good causes, without loudly advertising and seeking recognition for it – this can lead to greater brand loyalty.”

Mr Melvin Yong, the president of the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE), pointed out that businesses which do not respond and adapt to consumer preference are likely to lose out in the long term.

Noting the “dynamic” relationship between consumers and businesses, Mr Yong, who is also the Member of Parliament for Radin Mas, said: “Consumer behaviour can be shaped by what the marketplace is offering, and consumers can collectively effect change in the marketplace by exercising their right to choose.”  

Scoop, which has a zero-waste mission, has seen its outlets multiply since setting up shop here in 2019. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)


As a show of loyalty to their preferred brands that are aligned with their ideals, some consumers vote with their wallets, said NUS’ Assoc Prof Ang, even if the benefits are sometimes not evident until further down the road – such as in the case of climate change.   

“So while it may appear not pragmatic (due to the higher pricing) in the immediate future, consumers, especially the Gen Zs, have longer-term ideals. Being younger, their actions today may well affect their life in the future,” she said. 

Indeed, such an outlook was reflected in Ms Hussain and other younger consumers who are trying to make sustainable consumption part of their lifestyle.

Ms Hussain’s friend, Ms Natalie Tan, 25, said her decision to embark on a sustainable lifestyle was partially influenced by Ms Hussain, and in part by what she had learnt while studying about global health and the environment.

“I don't want to contribute to capitalism, and also harm the environment,” said Ms Tan, who recently graduated from the Global Studies programme at NUS.  

Ms Tan said she would rather pay more for a certain product if she knows that it can fulfil her criteria. Apart from deciding whether she actually needs the product, she also researches whether a company pays its workers a living wage or if it practises greenwashing – that is, deceiving the public into believing it is helping the environment – and if the product is durable or not.

“Of course, it can’t also be exorbitantly priced because I’m not super rich,” said Ms Tan.

One example of a purchase she made with these factors in mind was a pair of durable slippers made of recycled tyres which cost her around S$60.

While she could have gotten a cheaper pair, she said this would wear out quickly and she would have ended up contributing more waste by buying another pair of slippers to replace them.

As for 26-year-old teacher Natasha Paul, she has been trying her best to reduce her meat intake due to the increasing amount of talk about ethical consumption and sustainability.

She is doing so by substituting recipes that require meat with plant-based alternatives. This has led her to think further about how else she could do her part to help the environment as a consumer.

One other way to do so would be to buy locally grown vegetable produce even though the prices might be higher than some imported ones. These local vegetables are not only fresher, but have a lower carbon footprint since they do not have to be transported over a long distance, said Ms Paul.


However, not everyone shares the same consumer philosophy. Some of those who do not said that whether an item is ethically sourced or helps the environment is never a consideration in their purchasing decisions.

“I have a young family to support, so I just go for items that are value for money, or things that are on offer,” said Mr Shaun Ho, a 35-year-old operations manager.

An accountant, who is also 35 and wanted to be known only as Mr Chan, said he had just bought a house and is preparing to start a family, so he needs to be more prudent with his expenditure.

He said that for example, he could not justify paying more for organic free-range eggs that “taste just like normal eggs and are of the same size”.

However, advocates of ethical consumption said it is a misperception that shopping ethically is expensive.

Ms Hussain said she typically buys her staple food such as fruits and vegetables from the wet market, which are not only priced affordably but come without packaging.

She said she only visits a zero-waste store every one-and-a-half months to buy packaging-free soap and shampoo, or any other specialty products which she cannot get elsewhere. Such visits only set her back between S$20 and S$50 each time, she added.

UnPackt’s Ms Tay said the idea is to buy only what one needs. As such, a customer may still end up paying less even if the price per weight for an item at a zero-waste store is more than its pre-packaged counterpart at a conventional store.

Moreover, pre-packaged items could lead to both a waste of resources and money if they are not used up entirely, she added.

Still, some consumers, such as Madam Audrey Lee, are not convinced.

Mdm Lee is an administrator of the Facebook group Taobao Addicts, where members can get help with shopping on the Chinese e-commerce platform.

As her days are busy, Mdm Lee, who is in her 50s and declined to reveal her occupation, said she “doesn’t want to waste her time window shopping”, let alone think about ethical consumption. 

To her, it is all about convenience and pricing.  

While the general perception is that younger shoppers are more aware of ethical consumption, not all from the older generation are indifferent. 

For example, Madam Lee Lay Peng, 53, said she and her friends are discerning when it comes to making purchases.  

Mdm Lee, who works in the information technology sector, said she is not against paying more for certain products if she knows for certain what the actual benefits of doing so are.

“Personally, I wouldn’t mind paying more for food if it is homemade or prepared without preservatives, instead of being mass-produced,” she said.

Mdm Lee pointed out that one reason why older consumers may be generally slower in adopting sustainable consumption habits is because many are not on social media and do not get the same amount of exposure as their younger counterparts on the importance of doing so.

“So that may be the reason why we are not part of this wave, because of the lack of awareness,” she said.

Ms Natalie Tan holding up a pair of slippers made of recycled tyres. She would rather pay more for a certain product if she knows that it can fulfil her criteria, one of which is if the product is durable or not. A cheaper pair would wear out quickly and she would have ended up contributing more waste by buying a replacement pair. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)


Several of the business owners spoken to highlighted the importance of creating awareness in order to change behaviour.

Mr Laurent Stevenart, Singapore’s country manager at Impossible Foods, said one of the biggest barriers the firm faces is the perception by meat-eaters that plant-based meat just does not taste as good, or does not taste like the “real thing”.

“In many of our product roll-outs and launches, we focus heavily on sampling, and we often say ‘tasting is believing’,” he said. 

Ms Paul, who still describes herself as a meat-eater, said one of the hurdles she initially faced in trying to cut back on meat in her diet was that the alternatives, including the mock meat that is commonly found at vegetarian stalls, were not to her liking.

She was “not drawn into the fold” until brands such as Impossible Food and Beyond Meat introduced their plant-based meat alternatives in Singapore which better suited her taste buds.  

Meanwhile, both UnPackt’s Ms Tay and the Green Collective’s Mr Singh spoke about the importance of outreach efforts to show the public that adopting sustainable practices is not out of reach or burdensome. 

“We are not working on getting people to buy a product, we are actually getting people to buy a lifestyle … and when they do, this causes a behaviour change,” said Mr Singh.

For example, Ms Tay said: “Sometimes when I'm busy, I don't have a reusable cup with me, but I still make the effort to sit down for 10 minutes to drink my coffee (from a cafe’s refillable mugs) instead of having it as a take-away order.”

Mr Singh said ultimately, these outreach efforts need to be relatable and the target audience must be made to understand why there is a need to do things in a certain way.

Unpackt co-founder, Ms Florence Tay (left), 38, and Mr Jeff Lam, 40, pose for a photo in their store at Jalan Kuras on Sep 14, 2021. The zero-waste grocery store has since seen its customer base grow by at least 30 per cent. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor)


Amid the growing awareness of responsible consumption, another facet of the issue has come to the fore recently: Will Singaporeans be willing to pay more for products or services to improve the wages of low-income workers, such as those in the retail, and food and beverage industries?

In announcing several measures to uplift such workers during his National Day Rally on Aug 29, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the cost of higher wages for them will have to be shared, not just by workers and employers, but consumers as well.  

“So all of us, as consumers, must also chip in. Pay a little bit more for some of our favourite things, like bubble tea or bak chor mee to help the shop cover higher cleaning and waste-collection costs,” he had said.

Over the years, there have also been spirited public discussions on whether hawkers should charge higher prices to improve their lot. 

Most consumers interviewed generally felt that they would only be prepared to pay more if they know for sure that the additional amount they pay goes directly to the workers.

Others said they are concerned about how it will affect their cost of living.

Among those who said they would pay more was Ms Tan, who said she has always wondered why hawkers price their food so cheaply. 

"They have to wake up early every day and put in so much effort to make that one dish," said Ms Tan, adding that they ought to be better compensated for their efforts.

Nevertheless, she acknowledged that this would raise the cost of living especially for low-income families, and suggested that those who can afford it should sponsor meals for the needy. 

SUSS’ Dr Wong said the idea of paying more to create an inclusive society is an abstract idea that will be hard for most people to connect to. “They will say, ‘You’re telling me if I pay 20 or 50 cents more for my bak chor mee, the uncle at the coffee shop downstairs will be better off?’” he said. 

To gain the acceptance of consumers, CASE’s Mr Yong said businesses not only need to show that any additional premium paid by their customers goes towards supporting the welfare of these workers. There must also be discernible improvement in the services over time, he added. 

“At CASE, my view is that businesses should not see this as an excuse to raise prices without justification. CASE will not hesitate to act against businesses who take this as an opportunity to profiteer,” said Mr Yong.

Instead of passing on the cost to consumers, Dr Wong said that a better idea would be for companies to cut costs on unnecessary areas – overly elaborate packaging for example – and channel that difference towards the workers’ salaries instead.

INSEAD’s Asst Prof Lin described Singaporean culture as very “communal”. 

“On the one hand, Singaporeans are very concerned about doing their civic duties and being responsible members of the community,” she said. “On the other hand, it may be difficult to think about low-income workers as part of their immediate community that they have a responsibility to help.” 

She added: “Humanising low-income workers and emphasising their part in a local or global community might be helpful in increasing empathy to low-income earners.”

In any case, Associate Professor Hannah Chang, from the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at the Singapore Management University, said it generally takes “a lot of time and discussion” to result in any meaningful change in consumer attitudes and behaviour.

“We can see that over the years, consumers have started caring more about the environment and social causes,” she said. 

“Similar to how the importance of sustainability and green consumption have been highlighted … if people can be shown how they can play a part in (uplifting wages) by paying just a bit more with each purchase, it's more likely that people will start showing a buy-in.”

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Source: TODAY/kg


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