Next week I am heading to Portugal, where the ESA Consumption Research Network Midterm Conference will take place. The preparation for the presentation gives me another chance to look back at my research journey and reflect on the progress achieved to date.
It’s been 4 months since I presented the theoretical framework of my study at the Foodscapes conference in Graz. Having nearly finished the fieldwork in the course of this summer, I now have a lot more to talk about than just my conceptual approach to ethical consumption. Preliminary analysis of the data from participant observations and interviews offered some exciting and promising insights into the relationships between consumer identities and their ethical food practices. There is still a lot to be examined, understood and explained, but for now I chose to concentrate on one particular thread which seems to fit very well with one of the major theoretical arguments underpinning my study – namely, Archer’s (2007) theory of reflexivity. It did indeed prove to offer a very good framework for understanding how people come to the practice of ethical consumption through the development of a particular moral character and identity. This is going to be the focus of my presentation at the Porto conference.
However, of utter importance is not just what I am going to talk about, but also what I am not going or, in fact, will not be able to mention. Ethical labelling, which originally was an important part of my research focus, has by now almost entirely disappeared from the picture. My presumptive idea of ethical labels as conveyors of products’ “ethicality” as well as my intent to offer a new, sociologically rich, perspective on labelling as a potent source of identity-enhancing meanings has drowned in an almost total neglect of them by consumers whose shopping behaviour I observed. Well, I am not actually being totally fair – labels did play a part in helping consumers to identify ethical choices. However, participants focused almost exclusively on written information (ingredient list, indication of the country of origin) and claims (organic, fair trade) rather than symbols and signs with which they were, with a few exceptions, unfamiliar. Thus, with all their communication potential, labels seemed to represent little more than a practical tool for the provision of product details and could hardly claim any role in the meaningful construction of products as ethical. Secondly, labels do not appear to be the most preferred (and certainly not the most trusted) indicator of products’ “ethicality”. For all of the participants, a visit to a farm or personal relationships with the food grower offer a lot more convincing evidence than internationally approved labelling schemes. Thirdly, labels’ relevance is almost entirely limited to supermarkets and packed foodstuffs which my research shows to be only a small part of what ethical consumption can, and often is, about. Subscribing to vegetable boxes, growing food on allotments and windowsills, visiting farmer’s markets – people’s idea of ethical food provisioning stretches far beyond supermarket aisles and shelves. Finally, individual products’ attributes are often not the major focus of attention of an ethical consumer. Considerations such as the type of the food sales outlet (supermarket vs local grocery’s or farmer’s market), its ethos and business model (corporation vs co-operative), personal connections with the grower/seller often play a larger role than any claims carried by individual products.
It is for these reasons that I set aside the idea of ethical labelling being essential for consumer perceptions of products as ethical – people use all sorts of cues to determine whether and to what extent a particular product fits their moral convictions. Similarly, manifestation of one’s ethical self seems to happen through a variety of means – more often intangible ones than readily observable marks and claims. And, in fact, I will talk about ethical labels at the conference in Porto – justifying why something is no longer in the focus of your research is just as important.
Archer, M. S. (2007). Making our way through the world: Human reflexivity and social mobility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.