chapter  2
16 Pages

Political consumption: possibilities and challenges

BySALLY WHEELER

Anne Stewart, in her contribution to this collection (Chapter 3), makes the point that actors involved in Southern agricultural production are linked to Northern consumers through value chains. The social labelling of products as ethical or fair-trade gives consumers an opportunity to think behind the product label simplex. The focus of my contribution is on the nature of doing just that – thinking and then acting on that additional information as an intentional political statement. The chapter examines what it might mean to be a political consumer and how acts of political consumption can be identified. The paper concludes by considering whether political consumerism has the potential to mount sustained pressure for redistribution or whether its fragmentary and informal nature makes it merely a distraction from more traditional modes of political engagement. There is evidence that consumers are increasingly making product choices

based on their assessment of the ethical footprint of products. I am using the label ‘ethical’ here in a very generic sense to include fair-trade, organic, energyefficient, and employment-code-compliant products; unlike my use of ‘political’ in this paper, which I use to describe a very particular act in relation to consumption. The Ethical Consumerism Report (formerly the Ethical Purchasing Index) points to the growth of the ethical purchase market in the UK over successive years. It counts as ethical purchases the goods and services that I list above and it produces figures for each category. The Report for 2007 claims that the ethical purchase market is now worth £32.3 billion out of a total consumer market of over £600 billion (The Cooperative Bank 2007). On one level this is unremarkable; it is a relatively small figure in the face of total consumer spend and we have no idea of the robustness of the ethical market in the face of the recession in the global North (Auger et al. 2003). However on another level the speed of growth of the ethical market figure is something to take note of – between 2006 and 2007 the market increased by nine per cent and one in four consumers involved in the ethical market asserted that they had ‘campaigned’ on an environmental or social justice issue in 2007. This presents a much more positive picture than that painted by Vogel (2005: 47-49), who relies on evidence from earlier in the decade to suggest that there is a large gap between the rhetoric of ethical purchase and the actuality of ethical purchase.