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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

Governing the Subjects and Spaces of Ethical Consumption

In debates about climate change, human rights, sustainability, and public health, patterns of everyday consumption are identified as a problem requiring consumers to change their behaviour through the exercise of responsible choice.

This project has explored the contemporary problematization of consumption and consumer choice.We investigated the institutional, organisational and social dynamics behind the growth in ethical consumption practices in the UK, focussing in particular on a series of initiatives around fair trade and global trade justice.

Ethical consumption is best understood as a political phenomenon rather than simply a market response to changes in consumer demand. It reflects strategies and organisational forms amongst a diverse range of governmental and non-governmental actors. It is indicative of distinctive forms of political mobilisation and representation. And it provides ordinary people with pathways into wider networks of collective action, ones which seek to link the mundane spaces of everyday life into campaigns for global justice.

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Project team:
Award Holder:
Clive Barnett (Open University)

Paul Cloke
Nick Clarke
Alice Malpass

Dr Clive Barnett
Faculty of Social Sciences
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes

+44 (0)1908 659 700

Publications include:
Barnett C., Cafaro P. and Newholm T. ‘Philosophy and Ethical Consumption’, in Harrison R., Newholm T. and Shaw D.(eds.) The Ethical Consumer (London: Sage, 2005).

Barnett C., Clarke N., Cloke P. and Malpass A. ‘The Political Ethics of Consumerism’, Consumer Policy Review 15(2) (2005), pp. 45–51.
Barnett C., Cloke P., Clarke N. and Malpass A. ‘Consuming Ethics: Articulating the Subjects and Spaces of Ethical Consumption’, Antipode 37(1) (2005), pp. 23–45.

Clarke N., Barnett C., Cloke P and Malpass A. ‘Globalising the Consumer: Doing Politics in an Ethical Register’, Political Geography 26 (3) (2007), pp. 231–249.

Malpass A., Barnett C., Clarke N. and Cloke P. ‘Governance, Consumers, and Citizens: Agency and Resistance in Contemporary Politics’, in Bevir M. and Trentmann F. (eds.).(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, in press 2007).

Malpass A., Cloke P., Barnett C. and Clarke N. ‘Fairtrade Urbanism: The Politics of Place Beyond Place in the Bristol Fairtrade City Campaign’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research(Forthcoming, 2008).


Project outline

The following is the text of the original project proposal


This research project examines the pragmatics of getting people to adopt 'ethical' consumption behaviour. Empirical research will examine how the ethical dispositions already implicit in routine consumption become the object of explicit policies and campaigns of ethical consumption; and how the adoption of ethical consumption practices transform the patterns of self-cultivation practised by ordinary people in everyday life.

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The role of ethical considerations in shaping consumer behaviour has become increasingly significant. The economic importance of the rise of ethical purchasing for corporate strategy, retailing, and policy makers is well established and likely to grow. In terms of consumption research, a variety of issues are often defined as ethical concerns, including environmental sustainability, health and safety risks, animal welfare, fair trade, labour conditions, and human rights. Philosophically informed research into the motivations of ethical consumption is relatively scarce. We are concerned with two issues, both explicitly addressing the question of what are the ethics of ethical consumption. Firstly, how do academics, policy-makers, and organisations understand ethical decision-making? Secondly, what sorts of emergent ethical conduct does ethical consumption behaviour actually encourage?

Existing consumption research depends on relatively narrow conceptualisations of ethical decision-making by consumers, companies, and public organisations. Research in sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and human geography has demonstrated that everyday commodity consumption is a realm for the actualisation of capacities for autonomous action, reflexive monitoring of conduct, and the self-fashioning of relationships between selves and others. However, the strong emphasis of critical consumption research upon the active role of consumers leaves open a set of normative issues concerning the meaning of autonomy, choice, and agency. Related to this field, work on commodification has emphasised the variable historical-geographical 'careers' of commodities as they pass through production, distribution, and consumption. Critical accounts of the politics of commodification rest on an analytics of mis-recognition, according to which ethically informed political action requires the development of geographical imaginations or cognitive maps that connect spatially and temporally distanciated actions and consequences through the provision of explanatory knowledge. This is likewise a strong undercurrent in work on the ethical dimensions of global commodity-chains, in which ethical trade initiatives are understood to rest on changing the patterns of knowledge-relations within distanciated networks of interaction. Recent work on caring-at-a-distance also privileges the rational-cognitive dimensions of distanciated communicative action as they basis of individual ethical action. Beyond the academy, consumer-based political activism (e.g. fair trade campaigns, ethical trade audits) also works on the assumption that providing information to consumers regarding the conditions of production and distribution of commodities is central to changing consumer behaviour, and that knowledge is also the key to putting pressure on corporations and governments. Another area of academic research where ethics and consumption are connected is in the burgeoning literature on business ethics and corporate social responsibility in economics and management studies. It understands ethical consumption in terms of the role of information as the medium through which ethical preferences of consumers and the ethical records of businesses is signalled in the market place. From this perspective, the development of appropriate informational strategies (marketing, advertising, labelling, and branding) will assist in overcoming market failure.

Both critical-cultural research and business and management theory tend to share unacknowledged assumptions about consumer sovereignty, individual autonomy, information, and utility maximisation in their approach to ethical analysis of consumption practices. Academic, policy, and activist discourses of ethical consumption all assume that ethical decision-making works through the rational calculation of individual obligations to others, for which the provision of knowledge, advice, and information is an essential prerequisite. Contemporary discourses of ethical consumption can therefore be characterised as implicitly consequentialist in their understanding of ethical action, in so far as they assume that the burden of responsible individual action depends on having the epistemological capacity to know the likely consequences of actions and the competency to adjust actions accordingly. It is our contention that, both empirically and normatively, this set of assumptions fails to register the full complexity of the practices, motivations, and mechanisms through which ethical consumption works. The research starts from the assumption that there are multiple rationalities of ethical action which campaigns and practices of ethical consumption actualise in different combinations.

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We conceptualise consumption neither as the individualised expression of consumer preference aggregated into a demand function, nor as a series of contingent acts of symbolic identification. This research starts out from a 'thicker', philosophically informed conceptualisation of the relationships between consumption, commodification, and the dynamics of ethical action. Rather than assuming that ethical consumption is a self-reflexively conscious practice set off against non-ethical consumption, we assume that everyday consumption practices are always shaped by and help shape certain sorts of ethical dispositions. We therefore understand everyday consumption to be ordinarily ethical, where 'ethical' refers to the activity of constructing a life by negotiating practical choices about personal conduct. Consumption is also ordinarily ethical in so far as it is a set of institutionally and technologically mediated activities that practically implicate selves and others in ethical relations prior to any conscious decision. From this starting point, we move on to ask how the ordinary ethical practices of everyday consumption are re-articulated by policy-makers, campaigning organisations, and ordinary people in efforts to promote overtly ethical consumption practices, where this refers to practices in which consumption is understood to be the means of explicitly registering an obligation towards distant or absent others.

We draw on ideas and insights from governmentality studies, actor-network theory, and social theories of reflexive modernity, to develop a pragmatically orientated, institutionally situated analysis of consumption practices which focuses upon the development of practical competencies for acting ethically. This set of theoretical ideas suggests an understanding of consumption as a complex of practices of "acting-at-a-distance". The ethics of consumption can be conceptualised in terms of action-at-a-distant in two related senses. Firstly, modern consumption is a set of practices premised on the exercise of choice by free subjects. The power relations constitutive of consumption involve distinctively cultural forms of conduct, such as the cultivation of moral consciousness, self-control, and self-display. Consumption can be understood as one of the key sites of ethical self-formation in the contemporary period of 'advanced liberalism'. Secondly, action-at-a-distance can be thought of in explicitly spatial terms. The sites of commodity consumption are multiple and dispersed. They are not therefore subject to tight, detailed forms of social regulation. The spatialities of consumption therefore imply that the power relations constitutive of consumption are indeterminate. As a result, attempting to influence the consumption habits of myriad consumers depends on a series of mediated practices for governing complex assemblages of individual conduct, collective action, technologies, spaces, and discourses.

In turn, this understanding of ordinary consumption in terms of various forms of action-at-a-distance suggests that ethical consumption practices can be understood to involve the governing of selves and others along two related dimensions of action. Firstly, it involves Governing Consumption, where this refers to an array of strategies that aim to regulate the informational and spatial contexts of consumer 'choice'. These include market research and marketing, advertising, regulating access to credit, architectural design and spatial planning, and the growth of social and ethical audits. Secondly, it involves Governing the Consuming Self. This refers not to attempts by collective actors to govern the conduct of others, but to the various practices of the governing oneself in and through consumption. In particular, ethical consumption practices can be understood as a means of cultivating particular forms of social distinction by overtly displaying one's ethical credentials. Herein lies a fundamental ambivalence in the politics of ethical consumption, which can be understood to be a means of establishing networks of solidarity at the global scale, while at the same time it potentially reinforces patterns of socio-cultural differentiation at more localised scales.

These two dimensions (governing consumption, and governing the consuming self) inform the two main strands of this research project. Empirical research will examine the roles of collective actors in shaping the repertoires of ethical conduct available to consumers, and analyse the performance of ethical consumption as a practice for the reproduction of differential cultures of taste, distinction, and discernment.

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The research will examine two main questions:

  • how do the ethical dispositions already implicit in routine consumption become the object of explicit policies and campaigns of 'ethical consumption'?
  • how does the adoption of ethical consumption practices transform the patterns of self-cultivation practised through engagement with commodities?

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Research will use qualitative research methodologies to examine the two related dimensions of ethical consumption practices. The methodological strategy is the most appropriate means of investigating the practical modes of ethical reasoning embedded in the routine actions of institutions, organisations and citizens involved in consumption processes. Existing research on both business ethics and ethical consumption tends to assume that ethical commitments of consumers and businesses can be gleaned by direct inquiry into preferences and actions, and therefore lacks interpretative depth. Our research is designed to address what individual and collective actors actually do, rather than simply recording what they say and believe.

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  1. This research project will develop a conceptually informed understanding of the pragmatics of ethical decision making in consumption practices. It will address the ways in which policy makers, organisations, individuals make sense of the ethical dimensions of consumption, and how consumption is transformed into an arena for the cultivation of distinctive ethical competencies and commitments. The research will move understandings of the ethical dimensions of consumption beyond narrow understandings of moralism, consequentialism, and autonomy, by examining the multiple motivations involved in the development and adoption of explicitly ethical patterns of commodity consumption.
  2. The research aims to develop a detailed understanding of the practical strategies used to facilitate the adoption of ethical consumption by organisations and campaign groups. It will explore the design, monitoring, and evaluation of ethical consumption campaigns. This will include examination of the advertising, marketing, and retailing strategies adopted; and of the dynamic nature of the knowledge about consumers used in the evaluation of campaigns. The focus of the research is to critically examine the role of intermediaries (organisations, discourses, technologies) in transforming abstract ethical demands into actionable commitments.
  3. The research will develop a conceptually informed understanding of the performance of ethical identity through the situated engagement of commodities in everyday life. This will involve a focus on the practices through which ethical consumption is reproduced, such as shopping, talking, display, and enrolment of friends and colleagues. The emphasis of the research will be upon understanding identity-formation as a recursive, practical achievement, rather than a narrowly symbolic process of signification.
  4. The project will map the ways in which ethical consumption practices are socially differentiated according to axes of class, ethnicity, gender, location, etc. The ways in which engagement in different ethical consumption practices is determined by differential access to space and to material and symbolic resources will be explored. The ways in which ethical consumption is implicated in processes of social and cultural distinction will be critically examined. The forms of power and knowledge involved in being a dedicated ethical consumer will be investigated. Taken together, these strands of investigation will enable a critical understanding of the practical politics of ethical consumption, that will be of relevance to attempts to move ethical consumption practices beyond a narrow band of social groups.
  5. The research will contribute to a critical, conceptually robust understanding of the potential of consumption practice as a medium for geographically expanded citizenship mobilisation. It will elaborate on the ways in which ethical consuming re-articulates the relationships between the self, commodities, and others.



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