Critical consumption is the conscious choice of buying or not buying a specific product according to ethical and political beliefs. The critical consumer recognizes the importance of considering some characteristics of the product and its realization, such as environmental sustainability and respect of workers’ rights. Indeed, critical consumers take full responsibility for the environmental, social and political effects of their choices. The critical consumer can sympathize with certain social movement goals and contributes towards them through modifying their consumption behavior.
Work on critical consumption has differed in the terms used to refer to boycotting and buycotting actions. The more prominent include ethical consumption and political consumerism, while sustainable consumption, more linked with policy, has also increased in usage.
Often consumer and citizen are considered as different because consumers only show self-interest, whereas citizens denote expanded self-interest. The general idea is that, consumers ‘buy what they want—or what they have been persuaded to want—within the limits of what they can get. Citizenship, on the other hand, carries duties or responsibilities along with various rights. Since consumers are seen also as citizens they have to behave in a community-oriented, moral and political way, rather than as a self-interested one.
Political use of consumption
A specificity of critical consumption is the political use of consumption, which is the consumers’ choice of “producers and products with the aim of changing ethically or politically objectionable institutional or market practices”. Their choices depend on different factors as non economic issues that concern personal and family well-being, issue of fairness, justice, ethical or political assessment. Main forms and tools of political use of consumption are boycotting, "buycotting" (anti-boycotting) and also culture jamming or adbusting.
Political consumerism can be considered as an alternative form of political engagement, especially for young generations. In addition, market-based political strategies of young citizens go beyond boycotting and “buycotting”; they also started to participate in internet campaigns becoming active consumers. Their individual choices become political movements able to challenge political and economic powers. Therefore, as a political actor, the consumer “is seen as directly responsible not only for him or herself but also for the world”. The phenomenon of political consumerism takes into account social transformations like globalization, the ever-increasing role of the market and individualization.
Studies from the UK (Harrison et al. 2005, Varul and Wilson-Kovacs 2008, Zaccai 2007), Germany (Baringhorst et al. 2007; Lamla and Neckel 2006), Italy (Forno 2006, Tosi 2006, Sassatelli 2010), France (Chessel and Cochoy 2004, Dubuisson-Queller 2009), North America (Johnston et al. 2011, Johnston and Bauman 2009, Johnston 2008) and Scandinavia (Micheletti et al. 2004) argued that consumes are becoming increasingly politicized according to the boycott and buycott principles. In particular, Scandinavian people seems to be more committed in political consumerism, for example Sweden increased his average of boycotting episodes from 15 percent in 1987 to 29 percent in 1997.
Nevertheless, it is important to consider that even if a growing number of citizens are turning to the market to express their political and moral concerns, it is difficult to assess whether political consumerism can also be considered as a meaningful or effective form of political participation.
The chase for a fair consumption has deep roots in consumption history, starting for example with the American Revolution. Sympathizers of the American cause, in those years, refused to buy English goods, to support colons rebellion. This act of conscious choice can be seen as the beginning of both critical and political consumption. Traces of these two concepts can be found at the turn of the nineteenth century, in the United States, where the National Consumer League promoted the so-called “Whitelists”, in which all the companies that treated fairly their employees were listed.
At the end of the century, also the first forms of political activism in consumption took place in the United States and Europe, like the “Dont Buy Jewish” boycotts. Several organizations were born in those times and in the following centuries, asking the consumers to join the mobilizations as active subjects.
A variety of discourses about the “duty” and the “responsibilities” of social actors arose after the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. People were explicitly asked to think that to shop is to vote.
Boycotting and "Buycotting"
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Boycotting and "buycotting" (Anti-boycott), as a particularly self-conscious form of consumption, are expressions of an individual’s political, ethical or environmental stance. Both boycotting and "buycotting" are discrete acts of critical consumption and they are mutually contingent. In fact, if the use-value or utility of a product is important, then it is difficult to view them as separate actions.
Boycotting refers to abstaining from buying, avoiding specific products or brands to punish companies for undesirable policies or business practices. "Buycotting" is a term coined by Friedman (1996); it refers to “positive buying” that aims to foster corporations that represent values – fair trade, environmentalism, sustainable development – that consumers choose to support.
When one boycotts a product or service, it does not mean that he abstains from consuming at all, but that he may select an alternative product or service. Equally, a choice to "buycott" could be understood as including a rejection or boycott of the non-ethical alternative. This interdependence is useful to explain the traditional pairing of boycotting and "buycotting" in much analysis of consumer politics.
One of the rising types of boycotting is the ad hoc one, which underlines the importance of consumers as political subjects. These initiatives show that critical consumption is really impacting in special occasions, gaining much more visibility than everyday boycotts. An example of this type of events is the Buy Nothing Day (BND).
The notion of sustainability has both a temporal dimension demonstrated by the trade-off between present and future generations, and a justice dimension which considers the different distribution of harm and benefit. Under the term sustainability, notions of sustainable resource consumption by recycling, environmental protection, animal welfare, social justice, and climate responsibilities are gathered.
Although the "good" purposes of critical consumerism there are some critics and pitfalls connected to this practice of consumption:
- Fair trade protocols invite to respect all the communities and their cultures, workers’ rights and so on. At the same time, however, it appears as a hegemonic tool to impose a western culture of which the right standards must be.
- It requires a huge production of green and ethical products, but it is difficult to realize in the small-scale local production.
- People live in an asymmetrical world in terms of information. They take decisions just with the use of few elements.
- “A ‘paradox of sustainability’ arises because more substantive approaches to sustainability may be too complex to effectively motivate appropriate social responses. Moreover, all human food consumption has some kind of impact—hence there will always be some kind of prioritization”.
- The idea that every person could be a potential political consumer is not true: ethical products can cost much more than traditional ones and people may not afford so expensive products (e.g. organic products).
- It is important to consider that people often buy products to express themselves. People who don’t care about ethical consumption will keep on buying products they like, not depending on political consumption.
- According to Shaw and Newholm, even though single individuals take decisions and choices, political consumption can also be seen as a mass phenomenon. Consumes depend on consumers’ social environment. Moreover, Bourdieu asserts that consumption is determined by the belonging to a specific social class which determines our habits and what we like.
There are many examples of critical consumerism:
- Montgomery boycott was a political and social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the public transit system of Montgomery, Alabama. The campaign started on December 5, 1955 - when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested for refusing to leave her seat to a white person. After that episode, boycotters organized a system of carpools, with car owners volunteering their vehicles or themselves driving people to various destinations.
- A well-known effective boycott took place against Nestlé (1977–84) for its marketing campaign of breast milk substitute or infant formula, in the third world. This boycott mobilized consumers on a global-scale and it brought Nestlè to the World Health Organization and United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) negotiating table. In 1981, the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes was adopted. However, political consumerist groups were not satisfied with the Code implementation and reinstated the boycott in 1988.
- Nike inc. has been accused for many years of exploiting children labour to produce footwear and apparel, even though the company has always denied such charge. However, the brand has been highly damaged by both political consumption activism and the publicity it has received on the media. Watchdog groups have forced Nike to raise wage levels, changing its sourcing of soccer balls to avoid child labor, raising the minimum age of its factory workers abroad, and insist that all outsourced footwear suppliers adopt US occupational safety and health standards for indoor air quality.
- There are also several examples of culture consumption association. One of the best known is the “No Sweat" movement that is a broad-based no-profit organization which fights for the protection of sweatshop labourers, fights against child labour, forced overtime, poverty wages, unsafe conditions, harassment of women workers and intimidation of trade unionist, not only in developing countries, but also in Britain and the United States.
- Nike sweatshops
- Ethical consumerism
- Culture jamming
- Guilt-Free Consumption
- Organic food culture
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