Is Ethical Consumerism Powerful?

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Jeff Rindskopf of Seattle-based DOPE Magazine and I recently talked about “the power of ethical consumerism.” Jeff’s questions were based on Ela Veresiu’s and my JCR study entitled “Creating the Responsible Consumer.” This should be a worthwhile read for anyone researching and/or working in the space of ethical consumerism. Here is our entire conversation.

When individual consumers are active and aware in modern economic systems, how much power can they really have?

Recent initiatives such as #deletefacebook or the threat of some 20,000 Airbnb users to deactivate their accounts in protest over occupied West Bank listings, but also historical cases such as the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, demonstrate that people can wield significant influence over corporations as consumers. And popular concepts such as mindfulness, resilience, sustainability, and consumer empathy suggest that there is a very powerful language in circulation that we can draw on to make sense of and deal with global challenges as consumers.

But it is a double-edged sword and I’m glad you bring in power. Power matters greatly. A grassroots consumer collective somewhere in California can change some things but it simply doesn’t have the same clout as a policy initiative at the World Economic Forum in Davos. That’s why it is so important for us to understand and study power and change in differentiated ways. What power towards what change?

How do you think more active consumers – that is, those who devote more thought and effort to approaching, avoiding, or interpreting specific products – can positively or negatively influence an economy?

The idea behind ethical consumerism is that corporations will eventually adopt more sustainable practices, and the world’s most pressing issues can be solved, if and when consumers make more ethical choices. That’s why we frequently stand in front of the supermarket shelf and feel so globally connected and ripe with ethical significance as we ponder morally about the implications of our purchase decision for all these other actors. Say, the coffee farmers of Peru, the factory worker of Bangladesh, or the butterflies of the Amazon region.

What do you think are the most useful measures or shifts in perspective individual consumers can enact to create more sustainable economic systems?

Shopping locally, community supported agriculture, voluntary simplicity, and the crafts movement - these are some of watchwords that indicate notable shifts in perspective and illustrate how we have already adopted more ethical practices in a host of different domains in an effort to help improve the world.

What do you see as the biggest barriers or structural impediments towards making socially responsible economic decisions?

If we stay within the paradigm, reaping the good social and economic consequences from ethical consumerism presumes the existence of lots of ethical choice options for everyone. As the current conversation around food deserts illustrates, however, the ethical food consumption landscape is far from even. For this reason, researchers need to pay greater attention to the political sides of ethical consumerism. It is relatively easy for, say, US middle-class consumers to exercise their moral consumer duties at the local farmer’s market.

The other problem is that we are more than just consumers. Human beings are also citizens with universal rights and social beings with the capacity to express concern and organize. One problem with ethical consumerism is that these capacities only matter insofar as they can help nurture our subjectivity as consumers.

Your paper on Creating the Responsible Consumer suggests it requires managing consumers as moral subjects. Can you elaborate a little on this?

The starting point for Ela Veresiu’s and my analysis is that ethical consumerism does not happen naturally. We are not born as mindful shoppers. We are born as human beings who don’t have these skills to navigate the ethical market landscape yet. So who socializes us into this model and why? Since the early 1990s, corporations and governments have spent billions of dollars every year and gone into schools and communities to teach us that making a difference for the planet and its people is no longer about political organization and demanding binding legislation. It is about smartly choosing hybrid cars, organic food, energy efficient lightbulbs, and exercising financial literacy.

From a neoliberal economic standpoint, this large-scale responsibilization effort makes a lot of sense. The onus of responsibility for reducing capitalism’s negative footprint shifts from the plate of institutions such as companies and governments onto ours. The goal is to create a social reality in which problems such as global warming do not exist because corporations continue to produce carbon emissions. They exist because consumers didn’t adopt an ethical enough mindset.

How do our current economic systems fail to live up to that moral standard, and what are the challenges to achieving it?

Both as a trained economist and as someone who works with many corporations and powerful institutions such as the United Nations on questions of sustainability, one problem that I see is that we are just coming out of a phase during which we were very obsessed with ethics. We call this a marketplace mythology, a powerful tale that frames but also constrains our view of the world. Ethical corporations, ethical brands, ethical stores, ethical consumers, ethical coffee, ethical pet food, etc. Even the most ethical airline still burns the same amount of jet fuel than its least ethical counterpart. One way to address this problem is to demythologize market practice, debunk the ethics myth in market institutions and society, and think more about system-level approaches to creating a better world.

You’ve also written that cultural creative markets evolve through a structural tension between utilitarian and possessive ideals. What defines the difference between these ideals and their prominence in certain markets, and how do individual consumers become a part of this evolution?

Markets are fascinating to me because they are evolving compromises between two opposing principles that are both very human it seems: the desire to make profit and the desire to share. Both ideals live in every market and, from an economic standpoint, that’s a very healthy thing. But because we can never quite agree about the right blending, there is also ongoing conflict. That’s why it is important for us researchers to study power.

What are the biggest ways you think our economy is moving in a more socially responsible direction, and what are the biggest ways it’s still falling short?

One very positive trend that I observe among the organizations that we work with at the Big Design Lab is that this myopic ethics focus is ending now. For instance, we work with a lot of CEOs and CMOs who are are beginning to think and act more like sociologists. That is, they shift their focus away from territorializing to helping co-design social systems. My favorite analogy for illustrating the difference is the park. In a park, you have many different actors including joggers, kids and families, squirrels, homeless people, ice cream vendors, and so on. Rather than ask “how can we marketize the park and put our brand on everything?” they are asking “how can we make a contribution to making the park great for everyone?”

How can creative consumers, who transform and interpret existing products or ideas into something new, challenge the current linear economic model and create different forms of value?

Creative consumers can do a lot of amazing things for sure. But empirically, creative consumers don’t radically challenge the status quo. Creative people do. The most important question is how markets can serve people, not the other way around.

Markus Giesler

Markus Giesler draws on concepts from economics, technology studies, and sociology to inform his research in marketing. He determines how ideas and things (products, services, experiences, technological innovations, intellectual property, brands, etc.) are made valuable over time, with research focused on improving marketing strategy through an understanding of markets as evolving social systems. Giesler's research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the European Research Council (ERC) and published in top-tier academic journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. Giesler has an extensive entertainment industry background. He founded his own record label at age 17 and has worked in various production and marketing responsibilities for over a decade. He lives in Toronto, Canada.