People buy organic, fair trade, energy saving products – me included. Over the last decades, organic supermarkets are popping up, restaurants advertise their use of regional ingredients, and green energy booms. In short: sustainability sells. But why actually? Of course, some products contain immediate beneficial properties for the customer, linked to health or financial savings. But that cannot be all there is to the story. When asked, many people report that they buy sustainable products because it makes them feel good about themselves, that they want to make a statement and that they have a responsibility.
Political scientists are very pleased about this phenomenon as they consider such shopping behaviour a new form of political participation. Through their choice of fair trade coffee or their refusal to buy Nestlé joghurts, people engage in „political consumerism.“ Citizens can use their marketpower to influence society on a global scale.
Political scientists are especially pleased about political consumerism because it means that people are maybe not so desinterested and ignorant about politics as the declining vote turnout numbers or party entries suggest. Possibly the action areas of political participation are simply changing. New forms of political engagement are less organized and formal than joining a protest group, and can take place in our normal, everyday lives. Also, by consuming politically, one does not per se address the national government, but rather global production practices of supranational companies. By buying a muesli bar we shape the world we want to live in.
From the perspective of a political scientist, who is concerned about the state of our democracies, that sounds just wonderful. Yet, naturally the question arises: Do people really aim at political and social change when buying a muesli bar? Where do we draw the line between political and non-political consumption?
One could say, consumption is only political if it is motivated by political reasons. Following this, buying fair-trade coffee for reasons of taste is not political consumerism, whereas buying coca cola to support the American food industry is. Probably, you agree that this sounds a bit strange. To further illustrate the problem in the context of traditional forms of political participation: Is a vote cast by a person not political if the person has non-political reasons to vote, such as habit?
If motivations are not a functional aspect to decide whether an act is political or not, we could say, it is the consequence of the engagement that counts. Yet, French protesters against nuclear energy (who obviously have not yet reached their goal) are not acting politically – that is also absurd.
Lastly, one can say that some types of engagement are just political in itself. This approach works well for forms of action that are directly situated in the political realm like voting. But then we exclude those engagement forms like political consumerism because they are not “officially” political.
Eventually, we end up with a rather philosophical question: What is “political” actually? The challenge for political scientists is to find a definition that includes new forms such as political consumerism; but, at the same time, does not become a “theory of everything.” Only then can we discuss the political nature of sustainable consumption.
What do you think about this discussion? Do you think sustainable consumption is per se political? Please give us your opinion in our “poll of the week” question - right next to the post!
About the author:
Hannah Werner is a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Amsterdam and at Centre for Political Research at the KU Leuven. Her research interests are political trust and political participation at the periphery of the political sphere.