Ethical products such as those produced and marketed by organisations like the Fairtrade Foundation or the Max Havelaar Association have become increasingly widespread throughout Europe in recent years, but even though some retailers - such as the Co-op in the UK or Migros in Switzerland - stock substantial quantities of such products, the sector remains very much a niche.
But it is a niche with great potential - market analysts Leatherhead Food predicts the global market could reach $20-25 billion by 2020 - prompting more of the world's biggest food and drink producers to look into ways of taking a share of this dynamic growth.
But the increasing presence of major companies such as Nestlé in the ethical products market could in fact put the brakes on expansion, according to the results of a recent pan-European survey carried out by the France-based Ipsos market research group, as consumers appear to have an inherent mistrust of these larger corporations.
Some 60 per cent of European consumers do not believe major producers or retailers when they stress their ethical credentials, be it with regard to sustainable development, fair trade or environmental protection, the study showed. Indeed, just 4 per cent had absolute trust in such claims.
French consumers were the most trusting - 58 per cent of said they believed these claims - followed by the Belgians with 56 per cent and the Dutch with 49 per cent. Germans (32 per cent), Spanish (17 per cent) and Portuguese (15 per cent) were the most sceptical.
Earning consumers' trust is vital if major companies are to benefit from the obvious interest in ethical goods. The Ipsos study shows that while price remains the most important factor when it comes to choosing what to eat, an increasing number of European shoppers think about production conditions (77 per cent of those questioned) and the country of origin (67 per cent) of the food they buy.
Furthermore, ethical credentials are almost as important as a recognisable brand name for many European shoppers: 85 per cent of consumers shop for brands, while 77 per cent will look first and foremost at how the product was made.
That this is very much a consumer-led trend is evident from the study's findings. Just 53 per cent of European consumers said they believed that shoppers would change their habits because manufacturers or retailers emphasised their ethical credentials, but 73 per cent said that the food industry would be more likely to embrace these issues if consumers changed their purchasing habits.
Again, the French lead the way in this regard, with 87 per cent of those questioned believing that consumer power could influence the food industry, and French consumers were also the most optimistic when it came to the future of ethical products, perhaps because France has long been a nation with respect for food and farming and where demand for traditional food production processes remains high.In contrast, 67 per cent of German consumers believe that they have little or no influence over the food industry, and that this situation is unlikely to change in the future, especially if ethical trading has to come at the expense of cheaper food.