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Critical consumerism

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.

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.

  • 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.
  • 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 andhealth 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.
  • Bellotti, E. and Mora E., (2014) Networks of Practices in Critical Consumption, Sage
  • Sandling, J.A. (2004), Consumerism, Consumption and a Critical Consumer Education for Adults, Wiley Periodicals


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