The figure of a responsible consumer is increasingly a focus of the academic literature on ethical consumption. Dominant theoretical approach conceptualizes ethical consumers as citizens and concentrates on their political and social agency, although scholars now seem to be shifting the focus toward individual consumers’ subjectivity and personal motivations for ethical purchasing. Both perspectives, however, portray consumers as agents of choice and governors of the market, and ethical shopping as consumer-created and consumer-driven phenomenon. While my own research lies within one of these strands of thinking, I have recently come across an alternative – and quite noteworthy – conceptualization of ethical consumption and consumers’ role therein.
My key source of this conceptual reconsideration of ethical buying has been a book by Barnett and colleagues (2010), who aim to reconfigure theoretical framing of responsible shopping to bring issues of politics, social justice and responsibility to the forefront of consumer choice and action. Before doing so, they lay out a number of theoretical frameworks and locate ethical consumption within the debates on governmentality, neo-liberalism and globalisation. Although each of these deserves attention, it is the theory of governmentality and its implications for the understanding of the practice of ethical consumption and the agency of ethical consumers that I found especially interesting and would like to discuss.
As Barnett et al. (2010) note, the view of ethical consumption as brought about and demanded by increasingly reflexive consumers is currently a prevalent one. This framing draws on the theories of late modernity (Giddens) and risk society (Beck) wherein individualization is presented as a key social trend which requires people to reflexively organize their lives and themselves by engaging in “life politics” – continuous reflection on and choice of “how to be and how to act” (Giddens, 1994, p. 75). In contrast, Foucault’s theory of governmentality interprets ethical consumption as constructed and governed by a variety of strategically oriented actors and organizations, ranging from NGOs, charities, campaign groups and activists (pursuing their own agenda), to the corporate sector (seeking to open up and develop profitable markets), to governments (willing to shed off responsibilities for addressing environmental and societal challenges) (Jacobsen and Dulsrud, 2007 cited in Barnett et al., 2010, p. 35). These agents engage in “the governing of the consumer” – through deliberate strategies and techniques they moralise consumption and mobilise a sense of the consumer as a citizen and “the bearer of a variety of responsibilities” (Barnett et al., 2010, p. 41). By reframing consumer subjectivities to instill concerns over societal and environmental wellbeing, strategic agents cultivate individuals as ethical consumers and orientate them towards particular consumption choices. Mobilization of ethical consumers involves not just agents but knowledge (consumer surveys and polls), strategies (environmental awareness campaigns, content marketing and other forms of dissemination of ideas of ethical responsibly) and technologies (labelling) intended to motivate and, importantly, enable consumers to act in desired ways, that is in line with principles of sustainability, ecological well-being and respect for human rights. Calculative techniques such as consumer surveys and polls are a good illustration of how knowledge can be deliberately constructed and used to campaign for ethical consumption. Statistics tracking the growth of ethical goods are presented by activist groups and organizations to help raise public awareness, exert pressure on manufacturers and suppliers and recruit support of policy makers (Barnett et al., 2010; Wheeler, 2012).
Consumer does not have a central role in this process. Instead, the governing of consumer is subdued to an overarching goal of the governing of consumption, and, crucially, the latter may well happen without resorting to the former. Thus, as Wheleer (2012) illustrates, individuals may consume ethical products just because such a choice is dictated by the system of collective provision – establishments committed to fair trade procurement now range from schools, workplaces, rail stations and churches to entire towns. Engaging consumers into ethical consumption, therefore, does not necessarily require constructing specific consumer identities, it is “acts not identities or beliefs” (Clarke et al., 2007, p. 241) that the governing of consumption is concerned with (Barnett et al., 2010; Wheeler, 2012). The significance of individual ethical purchases lies in the fact that they are “publicly observable acts” that can be “aggregated, measured, reported and represented in the public sphere” (Barnett et al., 2010, p. 59)
This view of an ethical consumer as constructed by various agents with vested interests runs contrary to the idea of a responsible shopper as an agent of conscious choice, and ethical purchases as an expression of individual values, commitments and concerns. Although my theoretical approach to ethical shopping would do anything but strip it of consumer identity investments, I found certain aspects of the governmentality theory useful and definitely worth reflecting upon.
Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., & Malpass, A. (2010). Globalizing responsibility: The political rationalities of ethical consumption. John Wiley & Sons.
Clarke, N., et al. (2007) ‘Globalising the consumer: doing politics in an ethical register’, Political Geography, vol. 26, pp. 231_249.
Giddens, A. (1994) ‘Living in a Post-traditional Society’, pp. 56–109 in U. Beck, A. Giddens and S. Lash Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Cambridge: Polity.
Wheeler, K. (2012). ‘CHANGE TODAY, CHOOSE FAIRTRADE’ Fairtrade Fortnight and the citizen-consumer. Cultural Studies, 26(4), 492-515.