Creating the Responsible Consumer: Moralistic Governance Regimes and Consumer Subjectivity


How can consumers be made to adopt a more responsible mindset?

Responsible consumption conventionally stems from an increased awareness of the impact of consumption decisions on the environment, on consumer health, and on society in general. Through an ethnographic analysis of global problem solving at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Switzerland), we show the opposite case: responsible consumption requires the active creation and management of consumers as moral subjects. 


Selected Media Mentions

Interview with the Authors

You have conducted the first long-term investigation of the World Economic Forum in Davos. What did you find in a nutshell?

Ela Veresiu (EV): We’re consumer researchers. So in this study, we were asking what’s the impact of the World Economic Forum on regular consumers? The WEF argues that it is tackling problems such as poverty, global warming, chronic illness, and debt. We found that rather than always solving those problems, the WEF has been instrumental in reframing them. More specifically, the WEF has tended to shift the focus away from traditional solutions such as binding rights to social protection to solutions that emphasize individual, responsible market actors, and in particular, four, now commonplace types of responsible consumers: the bottom-of-the-pyramid consumer, the green consumer, the health-conscious consumer, and the financially literate consumer.

Haven’t these consumers always existed?

EV: They're fairly recent phenomena. For example, the idea that ending poverty is about empowering consumers to leverage bottom-of-the-pyramid opportunities like micro credits is heavily influenced by the WEF. So is the idea that financially literate consumption is key to overcoming debt. So we can observe a broader shift from binding rights to social protection and redistribution to the level of ethical consumption, one that the WEF has heavily influenced.

How did analyzing the WEF reveal this shift?

Markus Giesler (MG): We analyzed the WEF and its influence on consumption and society on three interrelated levels. First, we conducted in-depth interviews with WEF delegates from various fields such as business, politics, and science to understand their values and self-understandings. Second, we conducted a detailed qualitative and automated content analysis of all of the WEF’s published materials ranging from annual reports and pamphlets to video materials and all published session protocols. And third, we analyzed policy documents to learn how governments and larger institutions such as the United Nations have shifted gears in response to ideas emanating from the forum.

Let’s start with the delegates themselves. What did you find?

EV: First, perhaps the most defining characteristic of Davos men and women we identified is a strong belief that society needs moral reform. Moralistic solutions based on individual ethics are viewed as more effective than political solutions such as binding rights. Accordingly, Davos delegates understand themselves as a kind of enlightened elite guided by ethical considerations and called upon to preserve the common good from populist temptations.

This moral-reform based thinking and doing at the summit ultimately focuses on the consumer and follows a four-step process that we have called consumer responsibilization. First, Davos delegates shift the issue at hand to the level of individual consumption. For example, poverty is not the result of systemic inequalities but rather stems from producers' and consumers' unethical choice-making. Next, Davos delegates promote the idea that the best way to promote ethics is greater market inclusion. Third, governments are encouraged to enable the creation of new markets to foster this inclusion. Finally, institutional and individual actors such as companies, managers, and above all, the consumer are encouraged to adopt the new problem-solving ethos.

What did the analysis of the WEF’s printed materials reveal?

MG: We found that the forum uses these materials to communicate the value of the proposed moral reform. We also found through the automated content analysis that the forum shifted its message in response to emerging issues such as chronic illness, debt, or global warming. When we began poverty was the main focus. Then the focus shifted to global warming and chronic illness. Finally, when the society focus shifted to debt and unemployment, so did the forum's. Inclusive, sharing-based capitalism (and consumption) are the most recent themes coming from Davos.

You argue these themes are not empty rhetoric but have had a concrete influence on policy making. Can you detail this?

EV: Critics often reduce the forum to a simple networking event with little impact on regular life and consumption. In sharp contrast, our findings show that the WEF's moral leadership has had a significant impact on global, national, and regional policy design and, by extension, on the lives of regular consumers. We show this by analyzing how national governments have gradually adopted ethical policies originally envisioned at and popularized by the WEF. This can be shown by tracing terms such as “consumer,” “citizen,” “responsible,” or “choices” over time in legal documents or by examining how, in the case of the UN for example, the institutional focus has shifted away from emphasizing the separation of public and private sphere to the encouragement of public-private partnerships.

What’s the impact of policies based on ethical consumption?

MG: Currently, the WEF is convinced that all problems can be solved through moral reform. Moral reform is certainly one important piece in the puzzle and the WEF has been a true innovator in this regard. But it can never be the only one. The crux is that solutions entirely based on individual morality always come at the price of perpetuating and intensifying existing economic inequalities. Our study reveals some of the WEF’s taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs. As such, it can help policy makers and managers find new ways to improve the state of the world – at the WEF and elsewhere.


Conceptual Model

See also