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Ethical consumption: Consumer-driven or political phenomenon?

The most effective campaigns to encourage ethical consumption are those that take place at a collective level, such as the creation of Fairtrade cities, rather than those that target individual behaviour. These are the findings of a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The research suggests that ethical consumption is best understood as a political phenomenon rather than simply a market response to consumer demand.

"For many people, their choice to buy ethical goods or services is shaped by both personal and public commitments," says Dr Clive Barnett of the ESRC's Cultures of Consumption programme. People bring a wide range of ethical concerns to their everyday consumption practices, from the personal responsibilities of family life to more public commitments like membership of a faith community or political affiliation.

The research team found that campaigns aimed at getting people to change what they buy often worked on the assumption that individuals lack the necessary information to make educated decisions about the consequences of what they buy and where they buy it from. However the findings from the study suggest that people don't necessarily lack the information about Fairtrade, organic food, environmental sustainability, or third world sweatshops. They do, however, often lack effective pathways to acting on their concerns over these issues.

By holding a series of 12 focus-groups in different areas of Bristol, the team were able to access a wide range of participants differentiated by class, gender, ethnicity, race, age, income and education. The results from the focus-groups found that individual's ability to adopt ethical consumption practices are affected by different levels of material resources in terms of their income and access to shops that sell ethically sourced goods.

Dr Barnett said: "People actually seem very aware of these types of things, but often don't feel that they have the opportunities or resources to be able to buy Fairtrade products or ethically sourced goods. And it's not as simple as the consumer making a choice to buy an item that is ethically sound."

A great deal of the consumption people do they don’t do as ‘consumers’ exercising ‘choice’. Lots of consumption is embedded in relationships of obligation where people are acting as parents, caring partners, football fans or good friends. Some consumption is used to sustain these sorts of relationships: giving gifts, buying school lunches, getting hold of this season’s new strip. And quite a lot of consumption is done as the background to these activities, embedded in all sorts of infrastructures (eg transport, energy, water) over which people have little or no direct influence as individual ‘consumers’.

In order to successfully encourage people to adopt ethical consumption activities, it is important to call on their specific identities, as for example a member of the local community or faith group, rather than just targeting them as 'faceless' and ‘placeless’ consumers. The most successful initiatives are those that find ways of making changes to the practical routines of consumption. For example, by changing how and what people buy and from where through establishing initiatives such as Fairtrade networks or achieving the status of a Fairtrade town or city.

In order to become a Fairtrade town, the local council must pass a resolution supporting Fairtrade, a range of Fairtrade products must be readily available in the area’s shops and served in local cafés and catering establishments and Fairtrade products must be used by a number of local workplaces and community organisations. Fairtrade town and Fairtrade city initiatives are a means of raising awareness around issues of global inequality and trade justice, as well as transforming collective infrastructures of provisioning so that everyone, irrespective of their ‘choice’, becomes an ‘ethical consumer’.

The research findings present a clear message says Dr Barnett: "If ethical consumption campaigns are to succeed they need to transform the infrastructures of every day consumption rather than focusing on changing individual consumer behaviour".

Annika Howard | alfa
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