Shelf reflexive: the perplexities of food ethics

tomatoes-ketchup-sad-food-160791As the focus of my doctoral studies has been shifting increasingly towards ethical labelling and its role in the construction and maintenance of ethical food consumption practices, I have been reading a lot on these issues. I have already touched upon the topic of food ethics and ethical consumerism elsewhere in my blog, but I would now like to talk about a more general concept of reflexivity. I have come across this notion while trying to understand where growing consumer propensity towards ethical consumption comes from, what deeper social forces underlie it and what sociological theory’s take on this issues is.

Works of such prominent thinkers as Beck, Giddens and Bauman offer one potential explanation as to why in the modern social world people are increasingly driven towards subjecting virtually all spheres of their daily lives to reflexive deliberations.  The argument is that in a globalized world we currently live in not only is there less capacity for political governments to operate efficiently, but there is a tendency towards social deregulation with people becoming increasingly “liberated” from the traditional, cultural, normative prescriptions of how to live and how to behave. They become disembedded from social connections they used to be bound with and can no longer rely on familiar social circles, such as communities they were once an unalienable part of, to guide their lives.  As in the conditions of post modernity traditions, habits and routines cease to direct individuals’ actions, people are forced to make personal choices, to construct their own identities and shape their life courses.  With this, not only comes the freedom – the freedom to express ourselves in the ways we wish – but also the sense of responsibility for the choices we make and their consequences.

In food consumption too – people’s food choices and eating practices are no longer bound by the constraints of traditions, culture, or even seasonality and geographical location – the freedom of choice is the mantra of the modern consumer society. We are faced with the unprecedented variety (however illusive it may be) of product choices from which it is our responsibility to make “the right” ones.  Different forces tear a reflexive consumer apart. On the one hand, publics and governments’ throughout the world are screaming for the need to change consumption behavior in order to address urgent health challenges. On the other, there is a growing acknowledgement of adverse consequences of human activity on the ecology, environment as well as other humans, and hence a rising societal pressure to consume in more responsible ways. So for a reflexive consumer the task of making the correct food choice is not an uncomplicated one. Should we tend our bodily health or should we realize our moral concerns? And if moral concerns should prevail, then exactly which ones? Should we care about “distant others” and then fair trade chocolate and coffee are the right choices? (never mind two of the most popular fairly traded goods are far from the notion of a healthy diet). Or should we choose animal cruelty free produce? Should we eat more fish rich in omega-3 which is so good for the health or should we think about depleting fish stocks and forgo fish for the sake of biodiversity?1 Should we make sure that distant banana growers receive fair shares or should we support local farmers and reduce food miles by choosing locally grown and produced foods? These issues are at the centre of ongoing academic debates and a universal “recipe” (in a figurative and literal sense) for the “righteous” consumer behavior seems to be missing so far. Then how is an individual consumer to navigate his or her way through the overwhelming variety of products in which often contradictory political, ethical and moral meanings are embedded? How is he to strike the right balance between diverse concerns he is to address through his reflexive consumption project?

Some go as far as to argue that individual consumer’s ethical food practices do not go much further than the “feel good” factor” (Adams and Raisborough, 2010: p. 266) and are merely a way for an individual to enhance the self-image and feel better about him/herself by consuming in a presumably more responsible way.  The “clean hands” (Klein, 2001: p. 6) motivation is all the logic of ethical consumption amounts to from a perspective of an individual food shopper. It is then does not matter which concerns to address through the choice of foods as long as it makes you feel like a better, morally benign and socially responsible person. Others insist that the ethical food landscape is just too baffling for an individual to navigate which forces consumers to eventually surrender to the conventional consumer culture and sink into the comforting realm of familiar food habits.

I would say that reflexive consumption does not need to be such a complicated task.  It is a matter of deciding upon your personal values and norms and what issues are of most importance to you. And if you can through your small actions, through your everyday food decisions and choices make minuscule steps towards a better world as YOU see it, then may be others by addressing other sides of the problem will too make such steps. And so there is nothing wrong with making better choices and taking positive actions electively for as long as these elective actions are carried out collectively, we, as a society, will make progress. People going from opposite directions meet in the middle.


1. This example comes from Lang et al (2009), see references below


Adams, M., & Raisborough, J. (2010). Making a difference: ethical consumption and the everyday. The British journal of sociology61(2), 256-274.

Bauman, Z. (2001). The individualized society (p. 202). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beck, U. (1992). Risk society: Towards a new modernity (Vol. 17). Sage.

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford University Press.

Klein, J. G. (2001). Exploring motivations for participation in a consumer boycott (Doctoral dissertation, London Business School).

Tim, L., Barling, D., Caraher, M., & Lang, T. (2009). Food policy: integrating health, environment and society. oxford University press.


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