Ethics play a role in Canadians’ purchases, study says

When it comes to making a statement, Canadians are picking boycotts over protests and petitions.

TORONTO — When it comes to making a statement, Canadians are picking boycotts over protests and petitions.

More Canadians are buying or boycotting products for ethical reasons, while most other forms of civic engagement have stalled or waned, according to a new Statistics Canada report.

The study released Tuesday suggests 27 per cent of Canadians chose or rejected products based on ethical concerns in 2008, up from 20 per cent in 2003.

The change is “quite substantial,” particularly for such a short period of time, said the study’s author, Martin Turcotte, a senior analyst specializing in social trends.

“There was an increase for almost every subgroup of society,” meaning the trend isn’t due to the aging population, Turcotte said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the number of people who signed a petition, attended a public meeting or participated in a public march declined over the five years of the study. Signing a petition dropped to 24 per cent from 28 per cent, going to a meeting dropped to 19 per cent from 23 per cent and only three per cent reported protesting, down from five per cent.

There was a slight increase — no more than three percentage points — among those who joined a political party, researched a political issue or contacted a newspaper or politician.

It’s unclear exactly what’s behind the shift, since the study didn’t ask people to explain their choices.

Yves Plourde, a doctoral student at the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., thinks ethical buying is gaining popularity because it requires little effort.

“I think people realize more and more that it’s a cheap way to send a message to a company,” said the 27-year-old, who studies how large corporations operate.

Plourde has boycotted Walmart since it shut down a store in Jonquiere, Que., that had just unionized.

He also boycotts McDonald’s restaurants. “It’s my hope that it can make a difference,” he said Tuesday.

Martha Muzychka, of St. John’s, N.L., said the Internet makes it easier for people to learn about the practices of big corporations and buy or boycott accordingly.

Muzychka said she focuses on supporting companies that meet her ethical standards, such as local artisans and farmers.

While ethical shopping grew overall, some populations were more likely than others to take part.

People with higher incomes or higher levels of education were more likely to change their shopping habits for ethical reasons, as were people living in large urban areas.

Ethical consumption was less common among those 65 and older, though it nearly doubled in that group over the course of the study, rising to 15 per cent in 2008 from eight per cent in 2003. New immigrants were the least likely to make purchasing decisions based on ethical issues.

The proportion grew significantly among those who had been in Canada longer, coming close to the national average.

Roughly 30 per cent of people in British Columbia and Quebec embraced ethical shopping, closely followed by Ontario with 27 per cent.

The lowest proportions were in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, where only 14 per cent said they bought or boycotted for ethical reasons.

The study used data collected through Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey and deals with people 25 and older.