The rise of the ethical woman

When consumers demand products that don't damage the planet, business jumps to attention

Most women like to buy things they don't need. Last year we spent £500m on cosmetics alone, and the fashion and beauty industries are entirely reliant on making us believe we desperately need the latest shampoo, shoes or handbag.

How do you square this compulsion to buy with leading an ethical lifestyle? Most of us know that we should be doing something to combat inequality or stand up for the oppressed, but day-to-day habits are difficult to break if you don't see an immediate effect. I doubt I'm the only woman to steal guiltily into a certain coffee-shop conglomerate every now and again in the hope that the world won't notice.

Yet women, according to research by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, are responsible for most charitable giving. A woman's average donation is well over £1 more per month than a man's.

Moreover, the modern female role model sets an example of an ethical lifestyle. We have ditched the 1980s Alexis Carrington super- bitch for a softer version who is more likely to get self-fulfilment from a yoga class than from breaking balls in the boardroom. Compare the treatment of Stella Mc- Cartney, a strict vegetarian who refuses to use leather and campaigns vocally against fur, to that meted out to her mother, Linda, 15 years ago. The latter was mocked for her vegetarianism and "right-on" views.

Yet barriers to becoming an ethical consumer still exist. The problem is that we are surrounded by beautiful things, but ethical products still smack of being a bit "craftsy". Many women still think that ethical shopping means swapping their Jimmy Choos for a pair of low-heel leather-free sandals and binning their make-up bag to help save the whale. What's more, there is an all-pervading feeling of "I can't make a difference" that prevents many women from becoming active campaigners for ethical choices, or even bothering to vote (42 per cent of us didn't at the 2001 general election). Combine all this with confus-ion over which brand is good and which is bad, and it becomes easy to shelve any intentions to buy green.

Yet ethical purchasing, it seems, does make a difference. Boycotts cost big brands £2.6bn a year, according to the Co-operative Bank's ethical purchasing index. Consumption of Fairtrade food has doubled in the past three years, and the British now drink 1.7 million cups of Fairtrade coffee, tea and cocoa every day. More than 130 brands now carry the Fairtrade mark, indicating that manufacturers recognise the kudos of having an ethical stamp on their products. And real (cloth) nappies, for which the Women's Environmental Network has been running campaigns since the mid-1990s, are rising in popularity. Ann Link, the network's co-ordinator, estimates that about 15 per cent of mothers use real instead of disposable nappies at some stage.

"You have to remember that these aren't huge companies with large marketing budgets," she says. "This is all down to word-of-mouth promotion by women championing environmentally friendly products to other women."

Could environmental concerns also affect mass-marketed cosmetics? The Aveda beauty brand was launched in 1979 with a single product - an organic clove shampoo. Eighteen years later, it was acquired by Estee Lauder for £175m, and has been one of the fastest-growing and most aspirational beauty brands in the market place. Its rise has sparked a small revolution in similar ethical beauty ranges, including Just Pure and Green People, as well as prompted more mainstream chains such as M&S to launch beauty ranges using recycled packaging and claiming to use only organically grown ingredients. "Women often don't realise their power as consumers," says Andrew Stern, who launched the ethical consumer website www. ethicaljunction.org in 1998. "If they want something, then retailers jump." His point is illustrated by the success of Breakthrough Breast Cancer's "Fashion Targets Breast Cancer" campaign: its T-shirts, sold in high-street chains, are now a popular fashion statement.

You can start ethical purchasing in other areas, too - by switching to a "green" supplier such as Ecotricity, or Eco Energy, for example, or simply by buying locally.

So you no longer have to compromise your lifestyle to tread an ethical path.

The products exist. All you have to do is support the ethical companies so their brands will move over into the mainstream, and put pressure on large retailers to start thinking ethically - or pay the consequence.