‘[T]he postmodern world is defined by consumption’
(Ritzer, 2005, p. 67)
Consumption is increasingly central to global culture. Household consumption has risen in most countries over the past half a century (World Bank, 2016) and, as of 2011, ‘nearly half (49%) of world trade in goods and services took place within global value chains’ (World Trade Organization, 2015, p. 18). This has led to the spread of material prosperity, yet as chains of production become more global, the challenges that accompany the added complexity also become of global concern. For instance, consumers in the UK have the potential to moderate human rights abuses in China or environmental destruction in Brazil. In addition, the simultaneous expansion of the internet and global digital media has facilitated widespread awareness of these issues; which has significantly transformed the way in which citizens engage in politics. Rather than relying on electoral participation, more citizens are beginning to include politics in their daily lives through their own actions and decisions (Stolle and Micheletti, 2013, pp. 31-32). Naturally, then, the way in which consumers interact with businesses now has greater political significance.
These conditions have laid the foundation for the rise of ethically motivated consumption – or, as it is more commonly known – political consumerism. The notion of political consumerism, according to Neilson and Paxton (2010), recognises that ‘individual consumption choices can be imbued with political beliefs, ethics, or principles’ (p. 5). Ethical consumers, they continue, are ‘individuals who use their marketplace behaviour . . . as a form of civic engagement and a means of stimulating social change.’ (ibid., p. 5). While political consumerism is not a new concept, acts of political consumerism have become an increasingly significant part of purchasing habits. For instance, according to a Co-operative Group survey, the percentage of UK citizens who claimed to have regularly ‘Bought primarily for ethical reasons’ rose from 27 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2012 (Co-operative Group, 2012).
The recent rise in the incidence of political consumerist behaviour is widely acknowledged, however the prevailing view in the literature seems to be that it is limited both in influence and scope. Critics claim that political consumerism, for a variety of reasons, is not and cannot be an effective strategy for bringing about global social change.
Some critics argue that political consumerism’s focus on the consumer is flawed from the outset. Vogel (2006), for example, claims that consumers are strictly selfish actors and thus cannot be trusted with the responsibility of tackling global issues. Even if some consumers do have ethical considerations, Vogel argues, political consumerism is still a predominantly selfish activity that involves purchasing products which invariably benefit consumers themselves; ‘such as organic food’ (ibid., p. 97). That political consumption might result in ‘some benefit’ to the consumer is evidence enough for Vogel that political consumerism is not an effective means of ‘advancing or expressing social goals’ (ibid., p. 97).
Other observers argue that political consumption is ‘Neoliberalism-Friendly’ (Stolle and Micheletti, 2013, p. 207). The strategy’s grounding in neo-liberal principles generates ‘choice-orientated soft-law approaches’ (ibid., p. 207) that are mostly superficial and not substantial enough to tackle global economic and political problems. In fact, in response to consumer activism, corporations might enforce soft-laws – such as ‘labeling schemes’ (idib., p. 208) – merely to improve their public perception and increase profits. Carducci (2006) makes a similar observation while contemplating the impact of ‘culture jamming’, arguing that ‘By providing an incentive for producers to respond to consumer demands for environmental sustainability and an end to labor exploitation, [political consumerism] may ironically help rehabilitate the market system it often portends to transcend’ (p. 116). Therefore, these critics suggest that, by virtually accepting the neo-liberal conditions under which its corporate targets operate, political consumerism does not and cannot change socially unethical corporate practices.
Interestingly, another criticism finds inspiration in Friedman’s (1962) assertion that corporate social responsibility is ‘fundamentally a subversive doctrine’ (p. 112) and, unlike the previous critique, claims that political consumerism cannot be effective as it is completely at odds with market capitalism and, more specifically, the capitalist’s central aim of making money. The logic here is that corporations simply must make profitability their highest priority, in order to satisfy the shareholders, and therefore consumer activism can never truly change the actions of corporations in a free-market environment.
Therefore, according to these critical accounts, the most political consumerism can conceivably achieve is to force corporations into a position where they are made to dodge scrutiny. At which point, critics would point to examples of corporations making their operations less transparent or making promises on which they would later renege (Stolle and Micheletti, 2013, p. 208). Many commentators, then, see political consumerism to be counterproductively inhibiting corporate accountability.
Although these criticisms are theoretically sound, I believe they underestimate the potential for political consumerism to affect meaningful social change – particularly given certain contemporary developments. In 1999, Friedman claimed that political consumerism ‘has been used more than any other organizational technique to promote and protect the rights of the powerless and disenfranchised segments of society’ (p. 3). Since then, participation in political consumerist activism has increased significantly. A Neilsen (2014) poll of 30,000 consumers in 60 countries found that over half of the respondents had ‘made at least one purchase in the past six months from one or more socially responsible companies’ (p. 2). That, incidentally, is a larger proportion than of those who choose to engage in many other forms of more conventional political activity (Newman and Bartels, 2011, p. 809).
Political consumerism has historically been targeted at commodities, with the objective of impacting sales revenues (Friedman, 1999, p. 66). Meanwhile, contemporary tactics are usually more media-oriented and are often aimed at specific brands, aiming to damage their reputation (Friedman, 1999, p. 216). Despite this fact, the literature has given relatively little consideration to the relationship between digital media and political consumerism. In general, research suggests that ‘digital media use is positively related to conventional political participation’ (Bimber and Copeland, 2013, p. 125), however it remains unclear what this research means for political consumerism.
In conclusion, contemporary developments have led me to question whether some of the criticisms levelled at political consumerism are outdated, or possibly unnecessarily pessimistic. Therefore, in my essay I will re-visit the critiques and examine them in greater detail. I then plan to discuss recent developments in the field of political consumerism, including newer types of ethical consumption which make use of digital media – such as ‘culture jamming’ – before making an informed prediction about the future prospects of political consumerism. I will judge the future prospects of political consumerism based on whether its practices appear able to: put the social and environmental issues associated with increasing levels of production and consumption on the public and corporate agenda; robustly challenge the ‘race-to-the-bottom’ culture, which has been characterised in recent times by corporate profit-making without concern for workers or the environment.
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