Globalising the consumer: doing politics in an ethical register

Clarke, Nick; Barnett, Clive; Cloke, Paul and Malpass, Alice (2007). Globalising the consumer: doing politics in an ethical register. Political Geography, 26(3) pp. 231–249.



Consumerism is often held to be inimical to collective deliberation and decision-making of the sort required to address pressing environmental, humanitarian and global justice issues. Policy interventions and academic discourse alike often assume that transforming consumption practices requires interventions that address people as consumers. This paper questions the assumption that the politics of consumption naturally implies a problematisation of consumer identities; it argues that this connection between consumption and consumers is a contingent achievement of strategically motivated actors with specific objectives in the public realm. This argument is developed through a case study of ethical consumption campaigning in the UK. Existing work in geography on alternative food networks, commodity chains and fair trade acknowledges the political intentions of such initiatives but also expresses unease about the registers of 'consumption', 'ethics' and 'responsibility' in which they are embedded. Focussing on the discursive interventions used in ethical consumption campaigns, we argue that these are not primarily aimed at encouraging generic consumers to recognise themselves for the first time as 'ethical' consumers. Rather, they aim to provide information to people already disposed to support or sympathise with certain causes; information that enables them to extend their concerns and commitments into everyday consumption practices. These acts of consumption are in turn counted, reported, surveyed and represented in the public realm by organisations that speak for the 'ethical consumer'. These campaigns also provide supporters and sympathisers with narrative storylines. We focus on one of these storylines, which re-inscribes popular discourses of globalisation into a narrative in which people are ascribed various responsibilities by virtue of their activities as consumers but also empowered to act ethically and politically in and through these activities. We conclude that ethical consumption campaigning is a political phenomenon in which everyday consumption practices are reconstituted as the sites for citizenly acts that reach beyond the realm of consumption per se.

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