con la colaboración de
Pablo Tosco (Oxfam Intermón)

Political consumerism as a 'bridge' to welfare policies

Deborah Kalte

19 de Mayo de 2022, 12:10

Throughout Western societies, a growing share of citizens buy fair trade coffee, boycott certain  food companies, or become vegan (Gundelach and Kalte 2019; Lorenzini 2019). These are just a few examples of the many innovative ways where citizens use their role as consumers to challenge current social, institutional, and market practices. For them, the market has become a political arena where they vote with their dollar (Johnston 2008; Micheletti 2003).

These politically motivated consumers use thus their purchasing power, and, in some cases their whole personal lifestyle (by going vegan for example), to express their ethical, political, environmental, and social concerns, or in short, to do politics (Micheletti 2003; Stolle and Micheletti 2013). Together with online activism, politically motivated consumer actions are currently the most popular means of so-called non-institutionalized political participation (Boström, Micheletti, and Oosterveer 2019). 

Non-institutionalized means that these actions do not take place within the traditional, institutional political structures, such as voting, signing petitions, or being active in a political committee, but that they are carried out individually, in the supermarket or at home (van Deth 2014). What marks them as political participation is their underlying motivation, that is, their pursuit of the well-being of people, animals, or the environment (Stolle, Hooghe, and Micheletti 2005; van Deth 2014). That means that buying organic apples because they simply taste better than conventional ones is not politically motivated consumer behavior.

Interestingly, these non-institutionalized forms of political participation, particularly political consumer actions, are increasingly popular means for citizens to engage politically (Boström, Micheletti, and Oosterveer 2019). On the other hand, the engagement in traditional forms of participation, particularly becoming active in a political party or committee, is observed to steadily decline (Theocharis and Deth 2019). Some describe this trend as a "reinvention of political activism" or "revitalization of the political community" (Norris 2002; Micheletti 2003). What it shows is that political activity is not limited to electing a representative, which occurs only once in a few years, when political parties artificially heighten interest in politics and community issues (Parry, Moyser, and Day 1992). People who are interested in politics, in social and environmental issues, do thus not wait for the next election to take place but seek various ways to express and engage themselves.

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This trend also indicates that citizens are still politically interested, but that their values and attitudes have shifted and their trust in state institutions has changed. Political scientists who aim to understand why citizens turn to political consumer activities find that their values have evolved from being ‘materialist’ to ‘postmaterialist’. As Western societies became modern, industrialized and globalized, they also became more financially secure, more highly educated and more endowed with civic skills. People have reached thus a higher standard of living and therefore have satisfied their basic, ‘materialist’ needs, such as having housing and food security. This allowed people to become interested in ‘postmaterialist’ issues such as health care, environmental regulations and social responsibilities of corporations (Bennett 1998; Inglehart 1997).

These values are also found to strengthen the desire for self-expression, political action, and choice among products and services, or more simply, to engage in new forms of political participation, which include the various acts of political consumerism (Copeland 2014; Stolle, Hooghe, and Micheletti 2005). There are indeed studies that found evidence that those who boycott and buycott products strongly possess post-materialist values (Stolle et al., 2005).

The processes of industrialization, modernization and globalization gave however also rise to a number of economic, social and environmental challenges. The internationalization of supply chains, flows of goods and relocation of people across borders has created hitherto unknown problems and risks like environmental damages, poverty and massive migration (Beck 1992; Koos 2012). In the light of these developments, the autonomy and control of national governments are decreasing. Citizens are increasingly growing awareness of these environmental and social risks, and that governments are limited in their capability and oftentimes willingness to respond to these risks. They lose trust in governmental institutions and traditional means of political participation (Beck 1992; Stolle and Micheletti 2013). As a result, these citizens choose to target directly those who appear responsible for the political, social or ecological problems by means of consumer choices (Copeland 2014; Gundelach 2020). 

An interesting observation is that both people with leftist political attitudes and right-leaning, conservative attitudes engage in political consumer activities. On the one hand, people who are more liberal and left-leaning tend to see fair trade as an important corrective to unjust economic structures, and are therefore more likely to buy goods that were produced under humane labor standards and from producers that were fairly remunerated (Hudson et al., 2013; Stolle and Micheletti, 2013; Watkins et al., 2016). In general, people who consume politically also tend to have left-leaning attitudes (Forno and Ceccarini 2006; Micheletti and Stolle 2012; Sandovici and Davis 2010).

However, there are also people who are driven by right-winged, traditional or nationalist political attitudes to engage in political consumer actions. This can be the case when people generally associate more trust and reliability with nationally manufactured or 'home-grown' products, or in some cases, when products from specific countries are boycotted in response to certain policies or positions. This was the case, for example, when the French government spoke out against U.S. military intervention in Iraq in 2003, whereupon French wine and cheese were boycotted in the U.S. and French fries were being renamed freedom fries (Stolle, Hooghe, and Micheletti 2005). 

This example shows that politically motivated consumer activities can take on far-reaching, creative, and even bizarre features. Thus, the question arises as to the democratic value of non-institutionalized political participation, such as political consumer action. There is strong support for the argument that such low-threshold actions serve as a training ground for traditional forms of participation (Pateman 1970). This means that through these forms citizens may acquire knowledge about how the political institutions and traditional forms of participation, such as launching a petition, works. It has been observed that the engagement in non-institutionalized forms of participation, such as political consumerism, leads to a gateway effect, meaning that through the knowledge and grown commitment, citizens engage more frequently and in more diverse forms of participation, so for example participating in a demonstration or joining a party (de Moor and Verhaegen 2020). 

Another encouraging finding is that certain inequalities that persist in traditional forms of political participation, for example with respect to gender and age, are reduced or even reversed in unconventional forms of political participation such as political consumerism (Coffé and Bolzendahl 2010; Stolle and Hooghe 2011). Whereas, for instance, more men than women become member of a political party, political consumerism is clearly conducted more by women and by younger people (Gundelach and Kalte 2019; Baek 2010). Particularly those who decide more lifestyle-based forms of consumer behavior, such as veganism, tend to be younger (Kalte 2021). 

Political consumer actions illustrate that citizens engage beyond their predefined role as voters and resort to imaginative and resourceful ways to voice their concerns and actively address them (Norris 2002; Theocharis and Deth 2019). These activities are thus not only meaningful for those who conduct them, but they enable those who are generally less politically active in traditional forms to express themselves and act on the issues they care about. Furthermore, political consumer activities pave the way for becoming politically active in other forms. They illustrate how political participation can be creative, carried out on a daily basis and far from the ballot box - and that they are an important element for a thriving, modern democratic society.
(Here, the Spanish version)
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