Ethical consumption: Identities, practices and potential to bring about social change
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In recent decades, individuals as well as businesses – mainly those living and operating within advanced capitalist systems – have become increasingly aware of the social context of production and, thus, of the impact consumption has on the environment, animals and other fellow humans. Such reflexivity is echoed both in spheres of production (e.g. corporate social responsibility policies) and consumption (e.g. labelling schemes such as fair-trade and organic). Under these conditions the ‘ethical consumer’ was born. While, however, the concepts of ethical and political consumption have been around for some time now, our understanding of what it really means to be ‘ethical’ as a consumer today is still very fuzzy. In contrast with previous studies which ascribe a priori certain meanings and criteria to the ethical consumer concept, this study follows a bottom-up approach that provides space for individuals to express their own views on ethical consumption. To cater for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon under investigation, the research is designed as a case study within a specific geographical location; Partick, Glasgow. This study makes use of primary data generated through 20 in-depth interviews with self-identified ethical consumers, 10 interviews and 15 questionnaires with managers of grocery shops operating in the area, as well as 112 questionnaires completed by the public in a street survey. The findings challenge our conventional understanding of ‘ethics’ in the context of consumption; being ethical as a consumer extends beyond simply purchasing ethically marketed products and services, to include various lifestyle choices. Consumers raised concerns about the degree and nature of change that conventional ethical consumption can achieve. Utilising insights from this research, the study draws a conceptual distinction between the “ethical Shopper” (representing the side of ethical consumption that is hegemonically market-driven) and the “ethical Consumer” (representing its creative, pro-active, agency-driven counterpart). It is suggested that the latter allows consumption as a tool for social change to reach its full potential, since it escapes the fabricated ‘ethics’ of the market. Feeding back to the theoretical frameworks of ethical and political consumption, this study highlights the class and taste bias built into the (very expensive) idealized model of ethical lifestyle and, thus, calls for the inclusion of different types of consumer action such as downshifting, file-sharing, or even collective shoplifting, which have been –until now – neglected.