EASA, 2008: EASA08: Experiencing diversity and mutuality

Ljubljana, 26/08/2008 – 29/08/2008


Ethical consumption: consumers and producers, markets and ethics

Location 532
Date and Start Time 27 Aug, 2008 at 09:00


James G Carrier (Max Planck Institute) email
Peter Luetchford (University of Sussex) email
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Short Abstract

Ethical consumption is expanding rapidly, and deserves attention from anthropologists. This panel considers ethical consumers and ethical consumption in terms of consumer values, the efficacy of ethical consumption and the relationship between markets, ethics and politics.

Long Abstract

Ethical consumers prefer objects that are produced and traded in ways that fit the purchaser's values. While this can be a way that people define themselves through consumption, commonly ethical consumers seek to bring about a more ethical world. It is associated with Fair Trade, organic and free-range foods, farmers' markets and the like. It is expanding rapidly as a growing number of people seek to use their purchasing decisions to bring about changes in commercial practices and relationships, often in distant parts of the world. However, it has attracted little anthropological attention.

This panel approaches this social-activist aspect of ethical consumption in a variety of ways. First, who are ethical consumers? What are their values and why have they become ethical consumers? Second, how effective is ethical consumption in affecting commercial practices? How much do ethical consumers know about the practices that they seek to affect through their purchasing? What do producers know of the values of these consumers? Third, what are the political consequences of ethical consumption? Does it signal an abandoning of conventional political activity and its goal, state action? Finally, what is its relationship with the market? Is the market a way people can reliably and effectively express their values, or does it have an influence of its own that can militate against at least some of those values? This exploratory panel will consider these questions through both analytical and ethnographic presentations on producers, merchants and consumers, and the overall processes and issues of ethical consumption.

Chair: James G. Carrier



Author: James G Carrier (Max Planck Institute)  email
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Long Abstract

This presentation will sketch some of the important aspects of ethical consumption and the issues raised by this panel.

Consuming producers, producing consumers: Costa Rican households and the ethic of self-provisioning

Author: Peter Luetchford (University of Sussex)  email
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Long Abstract

The marketing of ethical consumption under fair trade operates through and reinforces the categories of 'consumer' and 'producer'. Typically, the consumer is asked to help the producer who is disadvantaged under current trade relations. One consequence of this is that it removes agency from producers and allows them to be constructed as objects of consumer largesse. The emphasis on consumer power follows a trend in the social sciences towards the study of consumers and consumption and away from producers and production.

This paper uses ethnography of Costa Rican households engaged in coffee production to show how these 'producers' are also 'consumers', and have a strong ethic in their consumption activities. The premise of the paper is that the symbolic importance of self-provisioning through production for consumption in these rural households is based upon shortening the distance between production and consumption, and a politics of avoiding intermediaries. These two ideas are then mirrored in the mission statements of the fair trade movement.

The paper engages with two sets of questions with respect to the relation between production and consumption. The first concerns the distinction between producers and consumers as categories of people and the repercussions of separating out their activities. The second interrogates contradictions in a fair trade movement that seeks to bring consumers and producers closer together, while emphasising the distinction between them.

Re-inventing food: ethics and politics of tradition

Author: Cristina Grasseni (Utrecht University)  email
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Long Abstract

This paper considers consumers and consumption in terms of the dialectics between the "values" of traditional production and the relationship between market and politics.

How effective is a focus on traditional recipes and local products in affecting commercial food provision and its social effects on regional economies?

The relationship between markets, ethics and politics comes to the fore if one tries to evaluate the many possible relationships between tradition, ecology, local and global distribution, tacit knowledge and technification. My ethnographic work on traditional mountain cheese in the Italian Alps, and how it is being "reinvented" (La reinvenzione del cibo, Verona, Qui Edit, 2007, www.quiedit.it ) is relevant to the issue of ethical consumption in different ways:

- for its many links with the Slow Food movement and its sometimes controversial impact on local economies;

- for the ways in which local recipes of "niche products", such as "alpage" cheese, are being recontextualised within projects for sustainable development and eco-tourism;

- for the particular visual strategies with which it is being marketed and "reinvented";

- for the political struggle and conflicts that the reinvention of traditional foods bring about in local communities and regional economies.

Debate around the preservation of local and traditional foods is heated, whether it focuses on authenticity or economic viability, and the two aspects are often entwined. The dimension of local development and the real economic interests lying behind the rediscovery of traditional recipes is an interesting lens through which "ethical consumption" can be read.

"Trade not aid": cleansing relationships

Author: Lill Margrethe Vramo (National Institute for Consumer Research)  email
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Long Abstract

Based on empirical data collected along the value-chain of textiles designed in Norway, produced in Bangladesh and sold in a fair trade shop in Norway, this paper examines the ideal and normative division drawn between trade and aid found in present fair trade attempts. The material is drawn from a study of a trading relationship, where an expressed aim of the business is to support people in the south. This objective is challenged by western notions of market and trade, which differentiate fundamentally between gifts (aid) and commodities (trade). Fair trade has its roots in philanthropy and political solidarity. In both cases the south has entered into the relationship in the role of beneficiary, a furthering of the role held as a beneficiary of aid. Still for many northern actors involved in ethical trade the aim of the business is to equalize and cleanse the relationship between North and South through doing trade. In the slogan: 'trade not aid', a belief in trade as a positive force and scepticism to traditional aid is expressed. In this paper I relate the turn from aid to trade to a 'relational discomfort' that over time have been established between North and South by the way gifts (aid) from the north have been perceived, presented and distributed. Through empirical examples I show how the 'relational discomfort' frames the running of the fair trade business, and examine what consequences, challenges and possibilities this underlying premise has for actors (and products) in the value-chain.

One supersize does not fit all: flap versus Mac in the ethics of personal consumption

Authors: Deborah Gewertz (Amherst College)  email
Frederick Errington (Trinity College)  email
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Long Abstract

In writing about the trade of lamb/mutton flaps (sheep bellies -- about 50% fat) from New Zealand and Australia to (the likes of) Papua New Guinea and Tonga, we have encountered debates about how to counter the problem of obesity in the Pacific Islands (and, indeed, throughout the world). One response against state intervention was recently expressed by New Zealand's National Party (which favors free trade and opposes "political correctness"): "the emphasis should be on the practical approaches that change attitudes to food and exercise." Similarly, the U.S.-based Center for Consumer Freedom expressed commitment to the "right of adults and parents to choose what they eat, drink, and how they enjoy themselves." In such views, information should preclude regulation: informed consumers will make appropriate food choices without the demeaning supervision of the "nanny state." Interestingly, we find the same perspective expressed by food writers who appear to have a very different politics than the National Party and the CCF. Thus, Michael Pollan, in his "eater's manifesto," offers the advice necessary to make (really) good choices: food should not be provided by multinational corporations; should be eaten in moderation; should be mostly vegetables. In this paper, we discuss this politics of personal choice. In particular, we compare the choices (apparently) made by the late King of Tonga, once the world’s heaviest monarch at 462 pounds, and those made by Morgan Spurlock, once the icon of fast-food diets having gained 24.5 pounds on a 30-day regimen of McDonald’s meals.

Narratives of concern: beyond the 'official' discourse of ethical consumption

Author: Tamas Dombos (Central European University)  email
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Long Abstract

If one looked at the 'official' ethical consumption discourse in Hungary objectified in information brochures, awareness raising campaigns and marketing materials for ethically loaded products, one would find a more or less coherent narrative about a yet-to-come new consumerism built on the conscious consumer and his/her growing awareness of the ethical aspects of everyday purchases. This narrative is centered around such key notions as rationality, solidarity, social progress and the widely used, but vaguely defined notion of Westernness with which this yet-to-come new consumerism is identified.

But when moving beyond this 'official' discourse propagated by a relatively small circle of civil society activists and entrepreneurs involved in the production, distribution and marketing of ethically loaded products, one finds a much more diverse world of consumer orientations even among those who identify themselves as ethical consumers. Building on a series of interviews with self-proclaimed ethical consumers, the paper tries to show the heterogeneity of ethical and political concerns that motivate 'everyday ethical consumers', the diverse ways in which ethical consumption is incorporated into varying life strategies. This ethnographic study located in a particular socio-historic setting - that of post-socialist Hungary - contributes to the general anthropological understanding of ethical consumption by showing that the recent boom in ethical consumption discourses and practices can be partly explained by the relative openness of the term, and its ability to mobilize on a wide array of consumer orientations.

How can one eat or farm organic without "living organic"? Ethnography of values and practices of Belgian organic producers and consumers

Author: Audrey Vankeerberghen (Université de Liège)  email
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Long Abstract

Through the analysis of Belgian organic producers and consumers' life stories, we will highlight the motivations and values that have brought them to adopt organic practices as well as the evolutions or transformations that these values have undergone over time. We will show how producers and consumers have built their « organic » identity by defining themselves as different from other organic producers or consumers. One of the main criterias of this differentiation is « to have - or not - an organic mentality/philosophy », which is defined by some as having - or not - an « ethical commitment ».

To understand how, « today, one can eat or farm organic without «living organic », as highlighted by one of the producers interviewed, we must consider the historical development of the organic movement. On one hand, the organic market has expanded over the last decades, creating new products and opportunities. On the other hand, organic farming has transformed over time, becoming increasingly institutional and regulated. It has developed into a production method which is, today, defined by European regulations and subsidized by States. This paper will analyze how the legal and administrative framework has influenced the organic movement and the definition of its values.

Today, the act of producing or buying organic does not necessarily involve an « ethical commitment». This paper will therefore seek to describe what constitutes a supposedly ethical commitment for organic producers or consumers and under which conditions this commitment can still exist.

On the challenges of signaling ethics without stuff: stories of sustainable and conspicuous non-consumption

Author: Cynthia Isenhour (University of Kentucky)  email
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Long Abstract

This paper takes an ethnographic look at Swedish consumers who have actively modified their lifestyles in an attempt to live more sustainably. Some buy ecolabeled, fair trade, and organic goods while taking care to recycle packaging and reduce waste. These families do all this without much social difficulty. Other individuals and families believe that shopping for environmental efficiencies and social justice will not be enough to avoid environmental and social risks if consumption levels continue to increase and the status quo is reproduced. These households try to buy green and fair, but also to buy less. Yet social problems arise when these low consumers try to signal their ethics, values, social positions, and capital without all the stuff. Consumers use different strategies to get around these predicaments. Some signal cultural capital with a few expensive and scarce goods while condemning the consumption practices of those who buy cheap or too much. Still others prefer goods that are conspicuously ethical and green. Yet many alternative consumers tire of trying to communicate alternative values to friends and family immersed in and content with normative consumerism. Some give up and others seek alternative social networks and new systems of symbolic meaning. This paper, drawing on ethnographic research with sixty sustainable consumers and interviews with twenty governmental and non-governmental agencies in Sweden, details some of these quandaries as well as the motivations, values, and discourses (popular, state-sponsored and movement-based) that inspire alternative consumer behavior.

The challenges of chocolate: an examination of the ethics of consuming and producing chocolate

Author: Amanda Berlan  email
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Long Abstract

Cocoa is a key ingredient in chocolate as well as many chocolate-based products such as biscuits, cakes, snack bars, spreads and hot drinks. Following reports of child and slave labour in the production of cocoa in recent years many consumers have become concerned about buying such products and possibly fuelling abusive labour practices. As a result, many consumers engage in long-standing boycotts of chocolate manufacturers that do not have the Fair Trade mark on their products. However, this paper will argue that perceptions of issues such as Third World poverty and child labour in cocoa are highly malleable as they are linked with the broader meanings consumers attach to different brands of chocolate. For example, consumers are more likely to perceive a company as 'guilty' of child labour abuses if the company is a large multinational, even if it sources cocoa from the same cocoa farms as smaller chocolate companies.

By examining how two different chocolate companies engage with the challenge of being responsible companies in a complex global world, this paper argues that classifying companies as 'ethical' or 'bad' is problematic. It will discuss Cadbury's long-standing commitment to ethical values and some of their recent initiatives such as the 'Cadbury Cocoa Partnership' which was announced in January 2008 and aims to promote economic, social and environmental sustainability. The paper will contrast this approach to business ethics with that of Divine, the chocolate company which is part-owned by cocoa farmers in Ghana and operates on Fair Trade principles.