A new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) says that ethical consumption is most likely to happen when it is approached as a political or societal goal rather than encouraging individual changes in lifestyle.
Efforts like Live Earth to "raise awareness" may be doing it all wrong, they say.
The research team found that campaigns aimed at getting people to change what they buy often worked on the assumption that individuals lack the necessary information to make educated decisions about the consequences of what they buy and where they buy it from. However the findings from the study suggest that people don't lack information about organic food, environmental sustainability, or third world sweatshops. They lack realistic alternatives.
A great deal of the consumption people do is not ‘consumers’ exercising ‘choice’. Lots of consumption is embedded in relationships of obligation where people are acting as parents, caring partners, football fans or good friends. Some consumption is used to sustain these sorts of relationships: giving gifts, buying school lunches, getting hold of this season’s new strip. And quite a lot of consumption is done as the background to these activities, embedded in all sorts of infrastructures (eg transport, energy, water) over which people have little or no direct influence as individual ‘consumers’.
In order to successfully encourage people to adopt ethical consumption activities, it is important to call on their specific identities, as for example a member of the local community or faith group, rather than just targeting them as 'faceless' and ‘placeless’ consumers. The most successful initiatives are those that find ways of making changes to the practical routines of consumption. For example, by changing how and what people buy and from where through establishing initiatives such as Fairtrade networks or achieving the status of a Fairtrade town or city.
In order to become a Fairtrade town, the local council must pass a resolution supporting Fairtrade, a range of Fairtrade products must be readily available in the area’s shops and served in local cafés and catering establishments and Fairtrade products must be used by a number of local workplaces and community organisations. Fairtrade town and Fairtrade city initiatives are a means of raising awareness around issues of global inequality and trade justice, as well as transforming collective infrastructures of provisioning so that everyone, irrespective of their ‘choice’, becomes an ‘ethical consumer’.
The research findings present a clear message says Dr Barnett: "If ethical consumption campaigns are to succeed they need to transform the infrastructures of every day consumption rather than focusing on changing individual consumer behaviour."
Source: Economic & Social Research Council