Benefits and Limits of Political Consumerism
Political consumerism is becoming an increasingly popular form of political participation as its impacts of causing positive global changes are becoming more significant outside of conventional political methods such as voting (Breivik et al. 2007).
Defining political consumption is key to understanding its aims. As argued by Follesdal et al. (2004, pp. xiv) political consumption is:
Consumer choice of producers and products with the goal of changing objectionable institutional or market practices. It is based on attitudes and values regarding issues of justice, fairness, or noneconomic issues that concern personal and family well-being and ethical or political assessment of business and government practice.
This definition emphasises how consumers are taking political responsibility as argued by Crépault (2013, pp. 95-96) into their own hands by using market actions to portray their political concerns. The overall aim is to cause positive changes to institutional and market practices (Breivik et al. 2007; Follesdal et al. 2004).
The most significant cause which drives political consumerism is the process of globalization (Harrison 2005, pp.55-70 ; Beck 2000). Footloose enterprises take increasing control of markets which causes citizens to loose the power they conventionally had through voting- they therefore turn to political consumerism to publicly target transnationals and regain their power.
Moreover, there are many motivators for people to join the social movement of political consumerism (Bossy 2011). Ranging from; ethical reasons which are most common such as concern about workers and animal rights to social reasons such as wanting to construct a positive, healthy social identity (Dulsrud and Jacobsen 2007).
This essay aims to critically assess the effectiveness of political consumerism by using methods such as boycotts and buycotts to beneficially change the practices of governments and co-operations. It therefore also evaluates the limitations such as; the dependence of class, income and education which, along with examples will be discussed in this essay.
The substantial increase in the engagement of political consumerism as shown by the activity of boycotting quadrupled over the last three decades (Hooghe et al. 2005) shows its increased popularity which has caused its many benefits globally.
There are two main types of boycotting which aim to cause positive change. The first being boycotting products to criticise the role of governments (Linton 2003). Historical examples of this include; American citizens avoiding British goods which led to the shaping of the American revolution (Breen 2004), as well as boycotts being used as a worldwide tool to further the civil rights movement against the apartheid regime in South Africa (Seidman 2003). The success of these schemes has led to boycotts still being used in the current day. An example of this can be seen how American citizens used their purchasing power to show their political annoyance over the French government opposing the approval of the “ UN security council resolution” to allow US military force against Iraq. They acted by restaurants dropping French wines and foods from their menus which aimed to hurt French exports and hence economy (Hooghe et al. 2005, pp. 245-246).
The second most common use of political consumerism actions is to change the practices of corporations by raising awareness of issues that aims to damage stocks and shareholders’ values forcing companies to take action (Dulsrud and Jacobsen 2007).
One of the largest methods to target business practices is the action of boycotting which is carried out in many forms such as through the creation of labeling schemes. Labeling schemes aim to provide simple information on food, ecosystems such as forests and clothing to encourage consumers to buy products which have been certified as ethical and therefore to boycott others (Micheletti and Stolle 2013).
Firstly, labeling schemes are used on food products- the largest example being Fairtrade. The influence of Fairtrade can be seen as it is trusted by 83% of UK shoppers when deciding if a product is ethical (Fairtrade Foundation 2019) and has been argued by Max Havelaar in Reed (2009, p.5 ) as an “Immediate success”. It aims to promote food products that have met high ethical standards of working conditions of farmers and to advertise the values of green political consumerists who are following the ‘organic movement’ away from genetically modified food. The success can be seen how global brands such as Nestle, Heinz and Mcdonald’s eliminated certain GM foods from their lines and how some companies even made their own private GM labels to attract ethical customers such as Tesco (Micheletti and Stolle 2013, pp. 141-142).
Secondly, another use of labeling schemes is forest and marine stewardship, which aim to promote products which sustainably use natural resources and discourage products which do not. Impacts of this can be seen how Ikea furniture was boycotted due to it not being certified with a label because of its extensive forest degradation (Micheletti and Stolle 2013, pp. 149-159).
Thirdly, labeling schemes can be used in clothing such as the “White label campaign” which was an anti-sweatshop labelling scheme to encourage American women to only buy underwear certified ‘sweatshop free’ and to boycott others (Sklar 1998, pp. 17-36).
The overall aim is to decrease sales of non-ethical goods to pressure companies to change their ways in order to increase sales.
Another method political consumers use to advocate their views is the direct boycotting of products without the use of labelling schemes. An example of this is the international boycott of Nestle against the inappropriate marketing of infant formulae in developing countries. This boycott caused extreme changes as it forced the production of the ‘International code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes’ which Nestle, and companies had to adhere to in the future( Bar-Yam 1995).
Moreover, Globalisation has played a significant role in extending the reach that political consumerism campaigns such as boycotts can occur. A good example is Paretti’s famous email exchange with Nike which reached 11.4 million people in which he requested ‘sweatshop’ to be personalised on his trainers. This made many people aware of Nikes poor working conditions giving them a bad reputation, causing people to boycott which decreased Nikes sales (Micheletti and Paretti 2004). The success of this campaign can be seen how Nike were forced to change their practices in order to follow Indonesian law, to raise wages and avoid child labour (Hooghe M et al. 2005)
Another advantage is that globalization has given NGO’s new power which allow their campaigns to reach more people. For example, the Amnesty International’s “Human rights Principles for companies” urged companies to look at their care of employees (Amnesty International 1999). Overall the increased publicity aims to influence other consumers to get involved in political consumerism as well as to cause companies to change their practices due to the large-scale impact of negative attention decreasing their sales (Tobaisen 2004).
Another action of political consumerism is Socially Responsible Investing in which consumers invest in companies that follow ethical practices, this acts as an incentive for companies to portray a positive political image to gain investment (Micheletti and Stolle 2013, pp. 159-164). Moreover, the increase in ethical businesses opening such as Bodyshop and Patagonia clothing demonstrates that political consumerism must be having significant consequences if businesses are opening with ethics at their core (Mirvis 1994).
However, despite the changes caused by political consumerism, there are a lot of limitations to this form of political participation.
From a theoretical perspective, one of the main issues as argued by Smith (1776) is that it is directly harmful to mix politics which is seen as a public matter, with economics which is seen as a private matter. However, this is exactly what occurs when portraying public political thoughts in the private market arena and therefore Smith opposes political consumerism.
A hugely significant limitation of political consumerism is that it depends on many linked factors such as; location, education, class and income.
The location of countries even within continents plays a role in the popularity of political consumerism. According to Crépault (2013, pp. 96-99) the top 5 political consumer countries are located In Northern Europe such as Sweden and Denmark and the bottom 5 are located in Southern and Eastern Europe such as Greece. This could be due to factors such as northern European countries having consolidated democracies with higher incomes.
This introduces that the choice to portray political opinions through actions is largely limited by the income that an individual possesses which is dependent on their social class (Bourdieu 1979; Hechter1994).
As argued by Koos (2012, pp. 42) the ‘Low Cost Hypothesis’ shows how value-orientated decisions are not made when the costs of ethical products are too high and therefore political consumerism is unreliable as individuals will stop participating when they can no longer afford the ethical goods (Follesdal 2004).
As well as this, those in higher classes who can afford education will learn the complexities underlying the issues of production of goods and therefore are more likely to engage in political consumerism (Goul Andersen and Tobiasen 2004; Ferrer and Fraile 2006).
In summary, political consumerism is only available to higher classes who have the education to understand political consumerism and the disposable income to afford the more expensive ethical goods.
Moreover, another limitation is argued by Simon (2011) that political consumerism has caused the decline of other traditional forms of political participation such as voting and union membership- referred to by Rössel and Schenk (2017) as the “Crowding Out Thesis’. This is significant because other political actions such as voting for a party whose policies portray your personal political concerns, means that changes are more likely to be carried out at a national level rather than the personal level political consumerism often acts upon.
However, other academics such as Rössel and Schenk (2017) do not believe that it affects other political actions which shows the conflicting opinions involved with political participation.
Furthermore, political consumerism can cause damage to those it aims to protect. For example, the Boycotts which forced Nike to follow Indonesian laws meant that child laborers along with adults were left unemployed and some were forced towards prostitution. The severe effects of this can be seen how the Swedish Save The Children NGO even advertise against boycotting (Follesdal et al. 2004, pp. 4-14).
Moreover, a limitation of political consumerism is that it contradicts with the basic capitalist principle of making profit as ethical practices are more expensive such as higher workers’ wages and therefore businesses will make less profit. Hence, it cannot be sustainable in the market driven economy as business will become bankrupt which is a major disincentive to use ethical practices pushed by political consumers (Friedman 1963). Therefore, corporations tend to only change production processes if instructed to by law which shows that political consumerism isn’t always successful unless it causes laws to be changed (Kordos and Vojtovic 2016).
In conclusion, critically evaluating political consumerism as a social movement has shown that despite its limitations, it is globally increasing in force.
This can be seen how 55% of Swedes (MEDC) stated in a survey that they had deliberately bought a product for political, ethical or environmental reasons in the last 12 months (European Social Survey 2002). Moreover, in a study taken with university students in Brazil (LEDC) 40.6% said that they occasionally buy organic products to voice their political opinions (De Barcellos et al. 2014, pp. 210-212). The global representation of this movement is significant because the greater the public awareness and actions such as boycotts and labelling schemes, then greater the chance to cause changes such as implement laws to force ethical practices which therefore makes political consumerism a success.
Despite this, political consumerism is limited by significant factors such as; it only being available to a niche market of individuals with high disposable incomes due to the increased price of ethical goods such as organic food or non-sweatshop clothing. In addition, as argued by Simon (2011, p.162) political consumerism “doesn’t solve things; more often, it covers them up with a band aid” and therefore doesn’t provide a permanent solution.
After critically assessing political consumerism it is evident that it is a social movement with potential but would be most significant alongside other forms of political participation.
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