Anti-consumerism is a diverse field of social analysis and global political action that critiques and opposes excessive levels of consumption, especially the consumer excess characteristic of affluent economies. This critique focuses on both the environmental and social/cultural ramifications of a perceived ‘consumerisation’ of life, warns of the global reach and consequences of an unconstrained consumer marketplace, and is closely aligned with advocacy of ethical forms of exchange and of sustainable lifestyles. Anti-consumerism is not new, nor is it in many respects a politics in its own right.
Contemporary anti-consumerist commentary to a large extent reiterates earlier social theoretical, environmentalist, public intellectual, religious and spiritual arguments in relation to consumer modernity. Nevertheless, the context and perceived urgency of debate and action in relation to high levels of consumption has changed, not least because of a bolstered concern for environmental issues. This explains the renewed salience of anti-consumerism, especially since the 1990s (and despite the Global Financial Crisis). It should also be observed that a rubric term such as anti-consumerism makes sense – and remains useful – only as a convenient descriptor of a critical sensibility and a focus of political argument.
In practice, anti-consumerist perspectives are part of a broad set of social movements and constantly look to a set of political values and hopes – ecological balance, social justice, global equity, democratic rights – that move beyond consumption as the problem to be confronted. (Kim Humphery, Excess: Anti-consumerism in the West, Polity, Cambridge, 2010; Jo Littler, Radical Consumption: Shopping for Change in Contemporary Culture, Open University Press, Maidenhead, 2009).
Consumer-driven activism enacted by way of choice at the checkout. Consumers actively avoid purchasing products with the aim of putting pressure on companies to change their business practices. Famous examples of widespread withholding of custom include the boycott of Nestle (to protest against that company’s marketing of baby formula in developing companies) and Nike (to protest against poor working conditions in their factories in developing countries). Can also include state-driven sanctions, such as those made by many governments against trade with South Africa as a protest against its Apartheid regime. (Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Picador, New York, 2000)
‘Positive’ or ‘affirmative’ purchasing by consumers to support the practices of companies deemed to be maintaining certain ethical or production standard priorities. Often aligned with accreditation schemes (e.g., fair trade, no sweatshop, organic).
This term is a close cousin of many listed in this glossary, though it is used far less than terms such as ethical consumption or sustainable consumption. It has, however, gained currency in the USA since the early 2000s and is often associated with advocacy of ‘voluntary simplicity’. The term points to individual consumption decisions – and ways of consuming – that are governed by a concern for the environmental, global and social impact of commodities.
The term consumerism tends to be used in two different senses. In North America in particular (though internationally as well), consumerism has been used to refer to a movement for consumer rights exemplified by the activities of consumer organisations. These activities have largely involved providing ‘consumer choice’ information and advocating for consumer protection standards. This sense of consumerism as a movement focused on consumption issues has more recently been extended through the use of terms such ‘ethical consumerism’ or ‘political consumerism’.
However, there is a much broader usage of the term consumerism; one routinely adopted by the media, the public and by academic and social commentators alike. Here, consumerism is most often used to refer to a ‘culture of consumption’ where individuals (usually in affluent nations) are impelled to consume more and more ‘stuff’ in pursuit of personal identity, social conformity, status, happiness or simply through greed. More sophisticated approaches, however, question the notion that we are simply duped into such addicted consumerism; suggesting instead that the nature of consumption economies and contemporary material life is much more complex.
Here, the process of consumption is variously connected to the logic of capitalist economies, to social practices and conventions, to infrastructures of provision, and to the everyday modes in which we interact with and derive meaning from material things.
This remains a controversial notion, not least because of the political implications of (at least partially) defining citizenship through consumption. Many radical critics have assumed a division between consumption and citizenship; viewing genuine civic engagement and political activity as taking place only outside the market and beyond what we buy. This is a division between purchasing and politics (or at least politics of any comprehensive and activist sort).
Moreover, the notion of the citizen-consumer – an individual who abides by and expresses civic virtues, political positions and moral values through their day-to-day consumer behaviour – seems to ‘buy in’ to conservative and neo-liberal notions of the importance of capitalist markets (and to conflate personal choice and consuming pleasures with the altruism of committed politics). A similar critique can be made of the very notion of ‘ethical consumption’. In contrast, recent scholarly and political commentary on consumption has directly challenged this assumed division between citizen and consumer advocating for a fundamentally revised understanding of the relationship between consumption and political action.
A person who aims to live a frugal lifestyle and eschew excess, with particular attention on reducing waste in all its forms, and consuming ethically and sustainably on a budget. This approach often involves returning to ‘lost’ cooking traditions and rediscovering household thrift. Recently popularised by Melbourne-based Arabella Forge in her 2010 book of the same name (see Arabella Forge, Frugavore: How to Grow Your Own, Buy Local, Waste Nothing, and Eat Well, Black Inc Books, Melbourne, 2010)
A person who aims to consume food sourced from her/his local region. Sometimes referred to as being on a ‘100 mile diet’, locavores aim to exclude things from their diets that cannot be grown in their local region in order to reduce the carbon footprint of their food. Local food activists see this approach as a way of reconnecting eaters with the source of their food, promoting local producers, building community, and as a way of ensuring food security (see for example the work of The Locavore Edition http://www.locavored.com/). However, very strict locavorism has been critiqued for its broad claims to be a fix-all for a globalised food chain and its unsustainable practices (see for example Pierre Desrochers & Hiroko Shimizu, The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet, Public Affairs, New York, 2012).
Overconsumption has been variously conceptualised but refers essentially to a tendency to consume goods and services at a level over an above that which is necessary to maintain a reasonable standard of living and at a rate that is greater than can be environmentally sustained in terms of resource provision and the handling of waste.
This term has become closely associate with the work of the Scandinavian scholar Michelle Micheletti. Micheletti and her colleagues have theorised that consumption has, in contemporary late-modern globalized societies, become a vehicle of political action in the sense of being able to actively express civic responsibilities and moral values. As Micheletti argues, ‘Political consumers choose products, producers and services more on the basis of the politics of the product than the product as material object per se. Their choices are informed by political values, virtues and ethics’ (Micheletti, 2003, .x).
The notion is thus very similar to ethical consumption, consumer-citizenship, and responsible consumption. However, Micheletti places particular emphasis on the way in which political consumerism represents the changed nature of political action in contemporary globalised economies, arguing that it expresses a new mode of ‘individualised collective action’. This challenges a view of consumption and citizenship as antithetical; a position that continues to be the subject of critique. (See Michelle Micheletti, Political Virtue and Shopping: Individuals, Consumerism and Collective Action, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2003; and for a useful, critical discussion of Micheletti’s work, Clive Barnett et.al, Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption, Wiley-Blackwell, London, Chichester, 2011)
Once again, this term is a close cousin of many listed in this glossary, though it is used far less than terms such as ethical consumption or sustainable consumption. It is a deliberately ‘general’ term that relates closely to notions of consumer citizenship. It thus points to consumption choices that take into account, at one and the same time, the local, national and global impact of purchasing decisions in terms of environmental sustainability, economic justice, social equity and cohesion, and other ethical considerations.
The term ‘sustainable consumption’ refers to a diverse field of analysis, policy and activism focused on transforming consumption practices, especially in affluent economies. It refers also to the activity of consuming goods and services sustainably; most often understood as minimising the impact of consumption on the environment. A politics of sustainable consumption is thus driven primarily by a concern for the depletion of unrenewable resources and the production waste. Wider conceptualisations attend also to issues of global equity, social cohesion, and community and individual wellbeing in challenging overconsumption. There is vigorous debate about how to achieve such change. Mainstream policy approaches emphasise informed consumer choice and improved production processes as vehicles for altering consumption patterns.
Alternative approaches seek to change not only the patterns but the levels of consumption characteristic of affluent economies; variously emphasising lifestyle change, collective and local forms of production and consumption, and/or transformations in infrastructures of provision and distribution. (See Kim Humphery, ‘Sustainable Consumption’ in The Wiley-Blackwell Enyclopedia of Consumption & Consumer Studies, Cook & Ryan (eds), forthcoming 2014; Tim Jackson (ed) The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption, Earthscan, London, 2006).