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Politics in an ethical register

Updated Friday, 30th June 2006

Ethical consumption is about more than persuading people to change spending habits, say Clive Barnett, Nick Clarke, Paul Cloke & Alice Malpass

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Ethical shopping

Doing consumption

Ethical consumption is a growth sector in the UK. This can easily be interpreted as an expression of a shift away from active citizenship prompted by a broader process of individualization.

Does ethical consumption reflect a substitution of publicly oriented collective participation by identity-based, individually motivated and privatised forms of concern? Or does the growth of ethical consumption indicate one route through which new forms of global feeling are helping to reinvent political participation and civic activism?

The growth of ethical consumption is often understood in terms of the role of effective consumer demand as the medium through which the ethical preferences of consumers and the ethical records of businesses are signalled in the market place.

From this perspective, markets are perfectly capable of expressing people’s ethical, moral, or political preferences just as long as appropriate informational strategies are developed (e.g. marketing, advertising, labelling, and branding).

In government initiatives on sustainability, in campaigning around the environment, and across the range of ‘ethical’ trading initiatives, it is often supposed that the main challenge is to provide people with more information in order to raise awareness of the consequences of their everyday consumption choices: then they will magically change their behaviour.

However, people don’t necessarily lack information about fair trade, organic food, or environmental sustainability, or third world sweatshops. They actually seem very aware of these types of things, but they often don’t feel that they have the opportunities or resources to be able to engage in these sorts of activities.

The ability to be an ‘ethical consumer’ is, in short, shaped by all sorts of factors. Income level is of course a crucial factor, but this does not stand alone. It is connected to a range of other issues to do with unequal and uneven access to the material resources and opportunities necessary to be able to exercise ‘choice’ in markets for consumer products. It is also connected to differential levels of cultural capital that determine just whose notion of ‘responsibility’ gets to count as an ‘ethical’ imperative for everyone else.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that a great deal of the consumption people do is not undertaken by them as ‘consumers’ at all. Much of it is embedded in practices where they are being parents, caring partners, football fans, good friends. Some consumption is used to sustain these sorts of relationships: giving gifts, buying school lunches, getting hold of this season’s new strip.

But quite a lot of consumption is done as the background to these activities, embedded in all sorts of infrastructures over which people have little or no direct influence as ‘consumers’. What both of these points suggests is that the problematisation of consumption might require addressing people as more than just rational utility maximizers, because quite a lot of consumption is not sustained by consumers at all.

Fairtrade and ‘the politics of place beyond place’
Thinking of consumption in these terms – as embedded in practices – throws the growth of ethical consumption campaigning into a new light. For a start, it underlines the extent to which this phenomenon is the outcome of the concerted efforts of organisations and campaign groups adopting particular political strategies and repertoires of mobilisation. It also suggests that effective campaigning is likely to work not by addressing people as placeless consumers, but by acknowledging their attachments to particular communities of practice.

One example of this type of campaigning is the extension of certification by the Fairtrade Foundation beyond products to various institutional actors such as schools, churches, Universities, and even places. By Fairtrade Fortnight in 2005, 100 towns and cities in Britain had been awarded Fairtrade Town or City certification, with more than 200 others currently campaigning for Fairtrade certification.

One of the first big metropolitan authorities to gain certification was Bristol, in 2005. . There are two interesting lessons to draw from the Bristol Fairtrade City campaign. Firstly, the campaign was used by campaigners and local authority actors to enlist ordinary people in Bristol, to raise awareness about fairtrade issues and support for the city’s own bid for certification. This aspect of the campaign depended on the careful calibration of a set of local concerns – finessing Bristol’s ambivalent heritage as a trading city, for example – with the more global concerns of the fairtrade movement around global trade and the alleviation of poverty.

Arguing that the certification would be ‘good for Bristol’ was a means by which various different interests – including businesses, local government departments, local charities, community groups, trade unions, as well as ordinary people – were gathered together into support for a campaign whose primary beneficiaries are, in principle, people living a long way away, in the Caribbean, West Africa, or Central America.

Secondly, a large part of the campaign did not involve this sort of public campaigning to raise awareness and support at all. Instead, it focussed upon making the procurement practices of local authority departments consistent with principles of fair trade and sustainability.

Here the campaign involved enlisting the support of key professional actors not with the aim of addressing consumers directly, but rather to change the systems of collective provisioning of whole organisations, both public bodies like council canteens and restaurants, as well as important local businesses, like Bristol Zoo and Wessex Water.

The Bristol Fairtrade City campaign indicates that campaign organisations operate at different levels to enlist support and transform consumption practices: sometimes they deploy devices that are presented as extending choices to consumers to raise awareness amongst a broad general public and generate media attention; sometimes they engage at an institutional level to change the ways in which consumption is regulated at the level of whole systems of provisioning.

It represents an example of what Doreen Massey has called “the politics of place beyond place”, in which the political obligations of public authorities, private companies, and citizens located in this place are reframed to include a considerations of the relationships of dependence and interdependence that reach far beyond the confines of this particular city.

Rethinking ethical consumption as political action

The growth of ethical consumption is not, then, simply about spontaneous changes in consumer demand being met by more or less elastic market supply. It is an organised field of strategic mobilisation and campaigning. It embeds peoples’ existing dispositions of care, concern, and solidarity into the global politics of mobilisation, activism, lobbying and campaigning around issues of trade justice, human rights, and environmental sustainability.

Sometimes campaigns use products to make contact with ordinary people and to raise awareness of campaigns, before enrolling ordinary people in more ‘active’ forms of political engagement, like donating, joining as a member, or volunteering.

Sometimes they use the purchases of ‘ethical’ products like signatures on a petition, as evidence of support and legitimacy for their campaigns and for validation to their own constituencies.

Ethical consumption might be less significant in purely economic terms than is often claimed. But it might be more significant in political terms than is often acknowledged, in so far as it is an important aspect of new forms of organisation, campaigning, and mobilisation around issues of global trade, world poverty, and social justice.

Clive Barnett is Reader in Human Geography at the Open University; Paul Cloke is Professor of Human geography at the University of Exeter; Nick Clarke is Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Southampton; Alice Malpass is a Research Fellow in Primary Health at the University of Bristol. Since 2003 they have been collaborating on a project funded by the ESRC/AHRB Cultures of Consumption Programme entitled ‘Governing the subjects and spaces of ethical consumption’ (Grant Number RES 143250022).

This article was used to support the OU / New Economics Foundation event - Interdependence Day - held in July 2006.


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