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The green political food consumer

a critical analysis of the research and policies
Le consommateur politique vert – une analyse critique de la recherché et des politiques en cours
Magnus Boström and Mikael Klintman


This paper reviews the current literature on political and ethical consumers, and relates it to the topic of sustainable food consumption. A first aim is to problematise a somewhat simplistic view of the political and ethical consumer found in the literature. The paper sheds light on some of the dilemmas that confront green political consumers. We indicate that most existing studies say very little about consumers’ thoughts, assumptions, and reflections about green consumerism in general, and about green consumerist tools, such as green labels, more specifically. Based on a literature review, we draw a picture of the typical concerned consumer as reflective, uncertain and ambivalent. This is connected to a second aim of the paper: to discuss a gap or mismatch between the production side and consumption side of green (food) labels. We conclude the paper by suggesting that green and ethical information schemes could become much more in line with the reflective nature of green, political consumers. We relate this discussion to concepts such as sub-politics and meta-politics.

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1Political consumerism refers to the idea that many late-modern consumers express non-economic values (for example, concerning human rights, animal rights, global solidarity, and environmental responsibility) through the market arena. Political consumerism may, for instance, be conducted either through boycotting products or through buycotting; that is, buying products that a consumer perceives as corresponding with her values. From previous studies of political, ethical, and green consumerism one may learn about demographic characteristics of the concerned consumers. However, in this paper we will problematise somewhat such notions of the concerned consumer. We refer to some current social thinkers (e.g. Beck, Giddens, and Bauman) as well as to empirical research in the field of political and ethical consumption, particularly in relation to sustainable food.

2We have a twofold aim with this paper. First, we want to problematise a somewhat simplistic view of the political and ethical consumer found in the literature. Although one should expect the broad trend towards political and ethical consumption to be positive for a development towards sustainable (food) consumption, such a relation is certainly not straightforward. In the paper, we wish to shed light on some of the dilemmas that confront political, ethical or green consumers. We indicate that most existing studies on green consumption say very little about consumers’ thoughts, assumptions, and reflections about green consumerism in general, and about green consumerist tools, such as green labels, more specifically. Yet, based on some initial research, we can draw a picture of the typical, concerned consumer as reflective, uncertain and ambivalent.

3A second aim with the paper is to discuss a gap or mismatch between the production side and consumption side of green (food) labels. Based on the image that we develop of the ‘typical’, reflective, ambivalent, and uncertain consumer we ask: Is it really possible to reach people with simple and unambiguous tools, and by claims of scientific neutrality?

4This paper is to be seen as a synthesizing discussion around previous literature on both the demand and supply side of political consumerism and sustainable food consumption (see e.g. Boström & Klintman 2008 on the supply side of green labels). The paper focuses on a few variables that appear to covary strongly with political consumerism: gender (where women typically score much higher than men), politically active (where those who are interested in traditional politics score high) and education (where those with high formal education score particularly high). Thereafter we discuss how the well-educated political consumer simultaneously may be the most ambivalent one, which in turn leads to a discussion about two topics that add to the uncertainties and dilemmas involved in political consumption (principle vs consequence reasoning and domestic vs foreign). The final part of the paper discusses the mismatch between the production and consumption side of green food labels. Here we introduce concepts such as sub-politics and meta-politics for discussing possible empowerment of political consumers.

Who and how many?

  • 1  see e.g. Gilg et al., 2005; Micheletti et al., 2004, Micheletti & Stolle 2005; Goul Andersen & Tob (...)

5There are a number of quantitative studies that have investigated what types of people are most likely to use the market arena – consumers mainly using boycotting or buycotting strategies – for expressing political and ethical concerns. Such studies usually conclude that the typical concerned consumer belongs to the middle or upper-middle class, has a good income, is white, often a woman in her lower middle age or middle age, has children, and lives in Northern Europe or North America1. These and other studies also show that ‘concerned consumers’ may be a quite heterogeneous group in terms of motives and thoughts about alternative products. Some provide typologies of various consumers. Halkier (2004) distinguishes between worried, irritated, and pragmatic types of risk-handling. Several studies suggest that green consumers constitute a (small) segment (Nordic Council of Ministers, 2001; Dickson, 2005; Worcester & Dawkins, 2005). For example, the Nordic Council of Ministers found in their report ‘Food Labelling: Nordic Consumers’ Proposals for Improvements’ (2001:573) that 19 % of the consumers could be categorised as ‘green’. Other categories, with approximately the same proportions, were ‘Bargain-Hunters’, ‘Traditionalists’, ‘Carefree Consumers’ and ‘the Alarmed’. We do not want to question the claim that there may be differences among consumers, differences which also may relate to socio-demographic variables. However, there is a risk of overemphasising differences (Clavin & Lewis 2005). It is fair to believe that all above-mentioned segments exist in all persons, and that these segments are expressed in contradictory shopping behavior within each person’s daily life.

6Based on several studies, we claim that much more than a fifth of all consumers are in various ways engaged in green consumer power, although more or less sporadic or routinised. Other extensive surveys indicate that most people reflect upon product quality during shopping, which may relate to toxins and health aspects, whereas almost half of the population (Swedes) also reflects upon production quality during shopping, which may relate to ecological conditions during production (see also Klintman et al. 2008 for an in-depth discussion on this). Although it is very difficult to generalize exactly how many, how often, and how much customers consider such aspects in the supermarket, it is clear, at least in the Nordic countries, that the potential of conscious consumption is widespread (ibid.). Increasingly, people connect many societal problems and political issues with their own consumption patterns (Tobiasen 2005), and they have an increasingly reflective capacity to do so (Beck 2000). Moreover, what is sometimes forgotten in surveys on political consumptions is when consumer groups avoid entire product categories for political reasons. This is what many vegetarians or vegans do (see Klintman et al. 2008); a topic that should not be forgotten in discussions about sustainable food consumption.

7Accordingly, the potential for political, ethical, or green consumerism appears to be significant, at least if we speak of certain countries in the rich part of the world (lots of the studies mentioned above refer to the Nordic context). Yet, the above mentioned surveys tell very little about consumers’ reflections and concerns. Nevertheless, certain results from these studies indicate something interesting for the aims of this paper. These results concern the demographic composition of political and ethical consumers, results that appear to be coherent across studies. We will below refer to the issue of gender, political action, and education.

Only women?

8We are not aware of any study that contends that men are more willing than women to use consumption as a tool for expressing political or ethical convictions. Instead, study after study confirms that women –to a much larger extent than men– are environmentally and ethically engaged in relation to everyday life and consumption, not the least concerning using eco- or fairtrade labels (e.g. Micheletti, 2004; Michelletti & Stolle, 2005). What are the explanations? It is common to explain that women more than men commit to post-material values, and that women are more worried about environmental and health-related risks (Davidson & Freudenburg, 1996), or that women more than men, because of pregnancy and motherhood, commit to values of re-production (cf. Hunter et al., 2004). Micheletti (2004) discusses three theoretical models that might be used for explaining the gender gap in political consumerism. Each of them focus on what is special with woman: the socialisation model of women’s political participation (including traditional gender roles such as family shopping; see also Lindén 1994); the situational model of women’s political participation (women are special because of their responsibilites as wives and mothers); and the structural model of women’s political participation (e.g. exclusion of women in traditional political institutions; the market arena is an option). Micheletti also discusses characteristics of the market arena itself, and how it may affect women’s involvement in political consumerism. A related aspect is the ‘low-cost political involvement’ in the sense that people do not have to invest many material, social or human capital resources to participate in politics in the market arena (at least not in boycotting); and this may fit marginalized groups.

  • 2  Further research should systematically compare the shopping behaviour (and reflections) of men and (...)

9Some of these explanatory models are more convincing than others, but it is beyond this paper’s scope to elaborate on this in detail. It is very reasonable to believe the observation is correct that women to a greater extent than men consider non-economic values in consumption, at least food consumption. Yet, it is worth discussing whether this difference is due to a pronounced ethical conviction or ideology, or whether it is based on something else. And it is also worth discussing whether research runs the risk of exaggerating the gender gap due to a biased study focus. Research on green and political consumerism typically focuses on such daily products that are still largely the responsibility of women (Berg & Teigen, 2009). Thus, it remains to be seen in future studies whether a larger focus on painting, construction tools, and chemicals used in automobile maintenance can give a more nuanced view of male consumer patterns. Maybe we –both as researchers and as consumers participating in consumer surveys– are not used to interpret purchase of such ‘male’ products as a ‘politically’ or ‘ethically’ conscious act, while we are used to making this association regarding organically labelled bananas or fairtrade labelled coffee.2

Politically active

10Those who are politically concerned consumers on the market –that is, consumers who are boy- or buycutting products for non-economical reasons– are they more or less interested in other forms of politics than are less politically concerned consumers? Do the political consumers disregard traditional political forums? We argue the answer to this question has important implications for the relation between the production and consumption side of consumer tools.

11The answer is no, according to recent surveys. Political consumers tend to be more politically active than non-political consumers in relation to traditional political arenas as well; thus these groups do not disregard other ways of performing politics (Tobiasen, 2005; Micheletti & Stolle, 2005; Strømsnes, 2005). People that are categorised as political consumers are more interested in politics in general than people categorised as non-political consumers. Accordingly, it is not mainly people who are very pessimistic and blasé about traditional political institutions that are engaged in political consumerism, which has sometimes been claimed (cf. Harrison et al., 2005). Instead, the relationship is cumulative. People with an interest in politics are also interested in politics through the market arena. They have a more positive attitude than non-political consumers regarding the effectiveness of both traditional political participation and political consumerism.

12Political consumerism is seen as a supplement among these people. Qualitative research reveals that traditional political channels may still be perceived as important to many people, but also as clogged up and boring; moreover, it is difficult for citizens to identify themselves with the political parties (Sörbom 2002). Politically concerned citizens are sceptical of political authorities; but they are not apathetic, do not feel powerlessness, and they do not despise politicians. Politically apathetic and disdainful people do not normally engage in politics at all, neither on traditional arenas nor on market arenas.

13Another observation from the above mentioned surveys is that political consumers are somewhat more oriented towards the left, although the connection is statistically weak; they vote for all parties. Hence, political consumers are neither merely neo-liberals with an unconditional trust in global market transactions, nor just representing a radical ‘anti-globalisation’ and ‘anti-capitalist’ movement. The general group of political consumers trusts certain mainstream political institutions (WTO, EU, World Bank) less than do non-political consumers. On the other hand, political consumers trust consumer organisations (e.g., Swedish Consumer Agency, International Consumer Organizations) more than do non-political consumers (Micheletti & Stolle 2005:154-156). The strongest difference is in their view of global protest movements. Whereas non-political consumers clearly see these protest movements as a negative societal force, political consumers are positively inclined towards them. Non-political consumers are fairly indifferent towards multinational corporations whereas political consumers have a negative attitude. Micheletti and Stolle (2005) conclude that political consumers are critical in orientation and take a critical –albeit active–stance on mainstream, established domestic political institutions: “The analysis also shows that political consumers are more trusting of institutions that have the issues of transparency and accountability of consumer goods and the corporate world on the agenda” (p. 156). Tobiasen (2005) reports similar results. “[P]olitical consumers are slightly less inclined to accept authority”, but what really distinguishes political consumers is not that they are more critical and sceptical towards the institutionalised political system and its capacities, but rather their “governance-understanding of politics, and that they perceive of themselves as sub-politicians, that is, as playing an active role in (global) politics where they assume a responsibility to attempt to deal with risks” (Tobiasen 2005:137).

14The implications of these observations are that we have to think of concerned consumers not as merely passive recipients at the end of either the production or information chain. The studies indicate that concerned consumers are, in relative terms, politically active, and at least to some extent reflectively trusting authorities and expert systems. We will later in the paper get back to these points, as they have important implications for the design, marketing and politics of green labelling and green consumerism.

Well educated …

15For the same reason, it is interesting to elaborate on the positive correlation that above mentioned and other studies indicate between high formal education and political consumerism (e.g., Goul Andersen & Tobiasen 2003; Tobiasen, 2005; Micheletti & Stolle, 2005; Workester & Dawkins, 2005; De Pelsmacker et al., 2007; see Dickson 2005 for opposite result). Level of education is in these studies even seen as the independent variable that also explains the positive correlation between income and political consumerism. Elsewhere, we often see the argument that differences in economic resources explain individuals’ willingness to pay more for, for example, eco-labelled products. Yet, differences in shopping behaviour may not merely be due to the size of one’s pocketbook; people with fairly good income may at the same time have higher education (and on the contrary, many rich people may be very modestly concerned with social inequalities and environmental degradation). However, at least from a global perspective it would be absurd to claim that material resources do not matter at all in green consumption behaviour, including sustainable food consumption.

16The results regarding the important role of education may not be surprising, yet important to reflect upon. Our interpretation is that well educated people are trained and stimulated to follow the flow of information, codes, and symbols that are disseminated from media and experts, and communicated in official debates (see also Boström & Klintman 2008; Klintman et al. 2008). Their higher education may make them better prepared to become aware of information on product packages. We incessantly hear that we have entered a ‘knowledge society,’ ‘information society’  (e.g. Nowotny et al. 2001); and if it is some degree of truth in such narratives, it is likely that it becomes increasingly important for individuals to be able to handle –and select among– an enormous amount of information, codes, and signs (Howell & Laska, 1992).

17To be able to see and define one’s own practices as political and ethical may require some familiarity with political discourses, such as feminist theory and green thinking. Not everybody may be able to translate slogans such as ‘the private realm is political’ and ‘think globally, act locally’ into everyday practices. Having a sense that one can contribute to social change through consumer choice presupposes a sense of imagined global community (cf., Halkier 2004; Holzer 2006). People with less of formal education may perhaps be less inclined to define ‘trivial’ consumer choices as political and ethical. To think in terms of politics, ethics and societal responsibility when buying carrots, coffee and candy may be obvious for some. For others, the word politics only associates with party-related fussing without much substance. On the other hand, we cannot ignore that there may be many people in the latter category that consume with wider social and environmental considerations in mind, without necessarily having knowledge or willingness to reflect in terms of politics and ethical theory.

… but ambivalent

18Political consumers may be well educated. Yet, the well educated political consumers are much likely also the most ambivalent ones (Boström & Klintman 2008; Klintman et al. 2008). People shopping eco- or fairtrade-labelled products are seldom completely sure that their actions actually are superior in their environmental or social consequences. Qualitative research on green consumption and everyday politics reveals some of the uncertainties and ambivalence of individuals’ reasoning (Sörbom, 2002, 2004; Halkier 2001, 2004). Adrienne Sörbom has found that a broad group of people (Swedish teachers and workers within trade) from different generations see oportunities and feel responsibility to do something for the environment, even though they are very uncertain about the consequences of their own actions. Their own consumption in everyday life is seen as an important channel to express responsibility and political opinions. The informants in her study tell how difficult it is to know what the problems are, what is true and false in various descriptions of environmental problems, and what measures are relevant in order to tackle the problems.

19Through focus group research with parents with small children, Bente Halkier has investigated how people conceive environmental risks in food consumption. Her study shows that one and the same individual can express, somewhat paradoxically, trust in existing tools and simultaneously genuine uncertainty: « All right, you can choose organic goods and then … say a quiet prayer that it’s okey’ (women, quotation from Halkier 2004:231). Halkier draws the conclusion that « [a]mbivalence is the pervasive feature of consumers’ constructions of their own roles as risk-handlers » (Halkier 2004:240).

20The results from Halkier’s and Sörbom’s studies correspond with the sociological literature describing late modern people as uncertain and ambivalent (Bauman 1991). There are two sides of the coin here (Boström & Klintman 2008). The one side of the coin tells that broad historical trends strengthen the capacity of the individual; such trends include de-traditionalisation, secularisation, spread of (higher) education among broad layers of the population, technological development, globalisation, increased gender equality, and political modernisation (Giddens, 1990, 1991; Beck, 1992; Nowotny et al., 2001). This individualisation makes people become more reflective. Furthermore, individualisation helps people learn to think critically about their own practices, and to question authorities. The other side of the coin reveals that society becomes more complex, risky, and differentiated, entailing that people become more dependent on expert systems (Giddens, 1990, 1991). People need more and more advice about how to live their lives in order to make better choices, but face dilemmas as they get contradictory advice from different experts (Höijer et al., 2005). Contradictory advice in turn leads to a demand for –and thus supply of– further advice; and so the spiral goes on (Bauman 1991).

21Eco- and fairtrade labels may be seen as an expert system that environmentally and ethically conscious people can choose to trust or not to trust. However, what is categorised merely as ’trust’ or ’confidence’ in extensive surveys may in qualitative research be revealed as deep uncertainty and ambivalence. Consider respondents in a survey that can choose between ‘high trust,’ ‘do not know,’ or ‘mistrust’. How can subtle variations in people’s senses of uncertainty and ambivalence be detected in such studies? Actually, political consumers perhaps choose eco- or fairtrade labels because they do not know what else to choose in order to ‘do the right thing’. Perhaps they do not know whom to trust on the market other than the actors responsible for labelling and certification: « Then I probably buy KRAV-labelled [Swedish organic food label] and Green Keyhole [a Swedish health label] although they might not really be trustworthy, but I mean, what should one trust? » (Quotation of retired woman, from Sörbom 2004:38; our translation).

22In official discussions about labelling and other consumer tools, this side of consumer power is ignored. Policy makers tend to see one side of the coin –that environmental consciousness and individual responsibility are strengthened– but ignore the other side –people’s uncertainties and ambivalence. Consider that it is exactly among green concerned consumers we may find people who are particularly sceptical towards exaggeratedly simple and clearcut consumer information and advertising. Indeed, it is among green consumers that it is most likely to find people with particularly reluctant attitudes towards green advertising (Zinkhan & Carlson 1995; see also Crane 2000).

23A topic that adds to the complexity, uncertainty –and probably ambivalence– of political consumption concerns how to balance principles and consequences.

Principles or consequences?

24Depending on how ‘political’, ‘ethical’ or ‘green’ consumers are defined –as those who consciously follow green ‘principles’ or as those who have a low negative environmental impact– two distinctly different consumer groups are found (Klintman & Boström, 2006). To be sure, as it may be extremely difficult (actually impossible) for a consumer to know and assess exactly the environmental impact of buying an organic banana rather than a conventional one, (s)he may have to stick with ‘principles’ (such as ‘I always choose the organic label’).

25When interpreting the research on political, ethical, or green consumption it is relevant to ask: What is required to be categorised as a political, ethical, or green consumer? And in surveys one may ask consumers: From what ground can you –or do you– identify yourself as a political, ethical, or green consumer? Do you consider yourself a green consumer (merely) because you pick the organically labelled banana?

  • 3  Another philosophical topic is whether it is possible to categorise a consumption act as political (...)

26Research may draw on moral philosophy by using the well known distinction between deontological ethics and teleological ethics.3 Whereas the former refers to the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves (i.e., based on the purpose of the actions), the latter claims that the rightness of an action is determined by its consequences. It is clear that studies on ethical and political consumers often are done with a strong focus on individuals’ purposes, hence reflecting a deontological ethics. Many would argue –and we would agree– that a political act, if we should see a consumption choice as ‘political’ requires a political purpose. If someone says that a particular consumer choice was politically, ethically, or environmentally motivated, then we could code this act as a political consumerist act. Otherwise it would –per definition– not be political consumption. However, the analysis does not need to stop at this point.

  • 4  The chief purpose is to make demographic comparisons between ‘political consumers’ and ‘non-politi (...)

27First, researchers miss something important in the general debate if they categorise political and ethical consumption in this way, without further reflection. Typically, surveys have –for good methodological reasons4­ a very inclusive definition when operationalising political and ethical consumption among individuals; the respondent clearly does not have to change her lifestyle in any fundamental way to be categorised as a political or ethical consumer. Yet, changing lifestyles is perhaps what is required if the planet is to become a better place. What is here categorised as political consumption could indeed be very different from what should be defined as sustainable consumption. If we would use a teleological reasoning when categorising ethical consumption (such as within ecological footprint analysis), poor people from Africa would obviously score better than people would in the North. And within industrialised countries such as Sweden, older generations that have grown up under much harsher economic conditions would also probably score better (cf. Mårtensson & Pettersson, 2002; Lindén, 2001; Theien, 2009-in this volume). Choice of consumption should be seen in relation to households’ entire lifestyles. The choice of eco- or fairtrade-labelled cacao may be conterweighted by resourceful buyers long distance travelling by car or air or by their everyday meet consumption. Certain consumers might associate purchases of expensive fresh, organic food with high social and economic status entirely in line with lifestyles where people most of the time, in other sectors of consumption, completely ignore negative social and environmental impacts. With this in mind, one may ask whether lifestyles of many green political consumers in the North should rather be seen as a manifestation of their aesthetics rather than of ethics (cf. Heidegren, 2004).

28Second, the analysis does not have to stop at the individual’s intentional level. One could, of course, investigate empirically how people deal with both principles and consequences. This relates to roles, identities and reflections of consumers. People can certainly not asses all consequenses, but they can reflect on possible consequences, including the uncertainties and precautionary measures involved. They could reflect on green marketing and all information that various private and public authorities, including labellers, disseminate. They can reflect on the necessity, but at the same time insufficiency, of principled reasoning. The empricial questions are whether or not they do so, and what they reflect upon. To be sure, complexity and uncertainty makes it necessary to rely on some principles (such as seeking household detergents with fewer dangerous chemicals), that is, to rely on the belief and hope that good consequences will follow such principle-based (or rule-based) action. Green labels are there on the shelves on the product packages, since we cannot know what is in the products and what happened during their production. They are substitutes to our senses and knowledge. Yet it migt not be sufficient to rely on such abstract principles and codes. There is arguably a need for reflectivity around abstract principles, and reflection on possible consequences has to be part of such reflectivity. Thus, it is empirically interesting to learn more about how consumers reflect on their own roles, identities, and reflections. Again, we may ask consumers on what ground they identify themselves and act as political, ethical, or green consumers –based on principle or consequence reasoning, or a combination of both. To what extent is reflection and self-reflexivity part of the identity and consciuosness of ‘political’ and ‘ethical’ consumers?  

Universal, domestic or foreign?

29To complicate the picture further, one may pose the question if there is a universal standard from which one could define something as ethical or political. To be sure, agents of political or ethical consumption refer to global, highly legitimate standards such as the Human Rights regime or Carbon Footprints when they design consumer tools or mobilizing for consumer action. Yet, what is seen as ‘political’ and ’green’ consumer choices is largely based on differences in culture across countries. Eco-labelling and fair trade labelling are currently highly relevant in Northern Europe, whereas labelling is less common in several other regions, for instance Southern Europe. However, in these latter countries, local and domestic production is often intertwined with green and political consumption in a particularly strong way (see Kjaernes et al., 2007). The very term ‘politics’ probably rings very differently in different contexts.

30South European consumers are knowledgable regarding in which region or local area different food products have been produced. And they often have strong preferences regarding where and how chosen food have been produced (Cicia m.fl. 2002). Does this reflect political consciousness? If the boycotting of products from a particular country is to be categorised as political (non-)consumption, then strong preferences for domestic food should be seen as politically conscious as well, at least if the consumption goal also has a collective side, that is, to affect the market or to affect the norms and regulation, in turn aimed at maintaining this production and stimulating its growth. Consumer engagement for domestic food is indeed an interesting societal phenomenon, seen in many countries in many studies (see e.g. Torjusen, 2004), which relates both to trust (e.g., fear of the foreign and trust in domestic institutions) as well as to identity (national, regional, local). Indeed, buying food labelled ‘domestic’ is a strong preference for people of many nationalities, associated with high quality, safe to eat, good for the environment, local production and minimizing transportation (see Klintman et al. 2008 for further discussion and references to empirical studies), and is arguably part of the ‘ethical’ consumption behaviour among numbers of consumers. However, using the principle ‘domestic’ (cf. discussion of principles vs consequences above) without deeper reflection about above-mentioned characteristics (for instance minimizing transportation in such a streched country as Sweden), may be very naive from a teleological viewpoint.

31The cultural and subjective values behind our consumption choice can also point in another direction, away from the domestic and locally produced food to the foreign and exotic. Many consumers see it as a politically and socially moral act to choose food produced in developing countries by poor farmers. Fairtrade-labelled products often suit this category of consumers; it may fit them very well, since buying fair trade implies placing trust in an established system of standardisation and inspection. These consumers are ensured the bad guys in the middle of the production chain do not take all revenues.  

32Hence, consumers can choose the domestic and local or the foreign and fair, and both consumer groups may legitimize their shopping behaviour by ‘political’, ‘ethical’ and/or ‘green‘ principles.

A mismatch between the concerned consumer and green food labels – towards a meta-politics of the labeling?

33The analysis above points at an intricate situation. It does not appear easy to be a conscious consumer with a political mind. Some existing social theory as well as quantitative and qualitative research on political consumerism help us develop a model of the typical political consumer, who is:

34reflective and self-reflexive: He or she is well educated, interested in politics, sceptical – but not disdainful – towards authorities.

35ambivalent and uncertain: He or she has the capacity to choose on various bases, is educated in abstract thinking, used to make rational choices, and receptive to new information; but the consumer cannot know – at least not in the fundamental and absolute sense – if her or his choices really are a step in the right direction.

36capable of developing reflective trust: He or she may consciously choose whom to trust; The political consumer admits that some authorities have to do the standardisation, although these can very well be non-state authorities. The typical political consumer seldom trusts anyone without reservation. It is not a blind trust. On the one hand, the political consumer does not have the time, motivation, energy or knowledge to scrutinize incessantly the state and non-state authorities that he or she has chosen to trust. On the other hand, this consumer may revise her or his trust, based on new information, and she or he is aware of that possibility (Boström & Klintman 2008:38).

37On this background, the following question should be raised: Do green and ethical labelling schemes adequately correspond to the hopes, thoughts, uncertainties, ambivalence, and reflective capacity of the ‘typical’ concerned consumer? In their investigation of green labelling processes, Boström and Klintman (2008) argue that the insistence on objectivity, simplicity, and neutrality generally seen among advocates of green labels does not adequately support the development of ‘reflective trust’ among green consumers. Social and environmental complexities are in green labelling schemes typically translated into a simple and categorical ‘green claim’. In one sense it has to be so. Labels are simple and categorical per definition. However, it is critically important to bear in mind that it is among those who are engaged that we find people with a broader interest in politics and ethical thinking, as well as the most well educated and ambivalent citizens. Furthermore, it is precisely among ‘green consumers’ that one is most likely to find people with particularly reluctant attitudes towards green advertising (Zinkhan & Carlson 1995; see also Crane 2000).

38Indeed, green and ethical information schemes could become much more in line with the reflective nature of green, political consumers. It is a common argument within environmental sociology and policy-making that a broad inclusion of claim-makers is generally beneficial for a process (e.g. Lafferty & Meadowcroft, 1996). Through constructive dialogue, reflection, negotiation, and compromise, groups with different concerns, knowledge, and experiences may be able to shed light on different aspects of the problem and stimulate reflection, and may take responsible measures based on these processes. Applied to green consumerism, there is nothing in principle that should prevent consumers (or a broader range of consumer advocates and organisations) from being invited to deliberate about challenges and choices concerning the translation of complexity into simplicity. Actually, green labelling should arguably be acknowledged as an inherently political activity. The political nature of labelling appears on the levels of political consumption, sub-politics, and meta-politics (Boström & Klintman 2008). Ulrich Beck (1992) understands sub-politics as the opening up of economic and technological decision-making in the closed corporate world to broader stakeholder influence. Labelling fits this description perfectly, because the setting of standard principles and criteria within labelling touch on such topics and involves struggle, negotiation, and communication among a broad group of organised actors: environmental organisations, corporate actors and a number of other actors (cf. Boström & Klintman 2008).

39These actors that are involved in the negotiation and setting of labelling criteria are well aware of the political nature of labelling. As they participate in communication and compromises they develop a reflective understanding of the process, which includes the indispensable strategic and political input. This reflectivity also nourishes an understanding of the uncertainties involved: that science is necessary but insufficient, and that the translation of social and environmental complexities into a simple categorical label necessarily includes pragmatic compromises and a degree of arbitrariness. However, the labelling initiators tend to fail in two respects relating to inclusiveness and reflectivity. They fail to develop novel ways of representing political and ethical consumer concerns; such concerns are merely seen as being represented by other organisations, including environmental organisations and retailers. Furthermore, they fail to disseminate their reflective and pragmatic understanding of the co-production of politics and knowledge to a wider audience, including consumers. Although the labelling process itself is characterised  by sub-politics, this political dimension remains largely hidden. The sub-political nature of the labelling is concealed behind the label, behind an expert-oriented rhetoric, behind talks of objectivity, neutral information, and scientific evidence. We assume that the concerned consumer would be better equipped to comprehend the inherent knowledge fallibility, the ideological diversities, and the political priorities of labelling policies should the sub-political nature of labeling be more transparent and publicly discussed.

40Boström and Klintman (2008) argue that labeling is empowered or obstructed by politics and policymaking that takes place ‘above’ labelling processes; which they call the ‘meta-politics’ of labelling. Whereas sub-politics concerns debate and negotiation over labelling principles, procedures, and criteria, meta-politics concerns debate and discussion about labelling and its relationship to eco-standard setting and to green consumerism in general, as well as about frames, driving forces and organisational structures underlying various labelling programs.

41For instance, in the case of organic food labelling, what largely remains out of sight is the strong impact of strong retailers and the food provisioning system for the design of labelling schemes (on the emergence of a retail-led food governance; see Marsden et al. 2000). The labelling principles and criteria that are set and how they are formulated are closely connected to the demand and requirements expressed by retailers. Food retailers typically speak warmly in favour of free trade, of avoiding trade barriers in labelling criteria such as limits for transportation. Moreover, they do not want to alter their existing centralized distribution channels, a lack of flexibility which often entails lengthy and seemingly irrational transportations of goods, such as production in one place, packaging in another place, and consumption back at the first place. A further issue is that food retailers stress that food products must look ‘normal’; which is a framing that sometimes come in conflict with other values of naturalness often expressed by organic advocates (Klintman & Boström 2004). Whereas we note differences in countries (Torjusen et al., 2004), organic products have generally been integrated into the conventional retailing system, in which most people buy most of their food. This integration helps to normalise organic consumption as such, and it is a critical factor for increasing both supply and demand. However, normalisation may occur at the expense of visible alternatives. As also noted by Terragni, Torjusen and Vittersø (2009-in this volume), consumer emphases on local food (e.g., keeping the ‘food miles’ low), quality aspects related to ‘handicraft’, small scale processing (e.g., sparse packaging), or personal trust relations, might be harder to meet inside a standardised food system (Torjusen et al., 2004). It is precisely such aspects that could be visualised in a meta-politics of labelling, thus revealing possible alternatives.

42Hence, in relation to the reflections, hopes and ambivalence among potential political consumers, various forms of meta-politics – which would include roles of public and civic education institutions, media, and social movement campaigning – could make fruitful contributions. Meta-politics of labelling could play an important role in the cognitive, emotional, and material empowerment of individual political consumers as well as for the unmasking of the sub-political nature of labelling processes (Klintman & Boström, 2008).

43In line with this unmasking called for in this paper is the acknowledgement of the potentials of competing green consumer instruments. A common fear among debaters of green political consumerism is that the existence of many, partly competing labels is confusing to consumers. However, this fear is, in our view, largely based on a simplistic view of consumers. The fear of competing labels disregards the insight and influence of green political consumers. In the area of traditional politics, one seldom observes a corresponding fear that there are several political views, parties, or interest organisations. On the contrary, such plurality is seen as beneficial for democracy as they correspond to the differing visions and hopes among citizens. Similarly, environmental problems related to consumption are complex and uncertain –even more so when they are placed in social contexts. The solution must necessarily account for a breadth of vision and priorities. In the long run, the reflectivity and ambivalence of consumers could very well undermine the potential of labelling if its proponents maintain an over-simplistic notion of the consumer.

44As to future research, there is a need for much more qualitative empirical studies that focus on green consumers’ thoughts, reflections, ambivalence, and assessments regarding the tools on which their shopping behavior is dependent. There is a need for studies that take into account the views of various consumer categories –both men and women. All types of tools are relevant to consider (labels, content declarations, trademarks, consumer advice, etc). One may ask how the aura of science and neutrality that surrounds many of such tools affects consumers, and how consumers reflect upon the often dramatised risk communication surrounding food and its production. Intriguing questions regarding how to design, frame, organise, and market such instruments in a way that strengthen learning, reflection and communication around the multiple dimensions and values of food, values related to environment, health, animal welfare, safety, taste, justice, as well as other everyday products. In this light, the green political consumerist might turn out to exist in all of us to some extent, and in no one completely. This probable outcome will make it necessary for researchers to provide a much more nuanced picture of the green political consumer, not least by indicating patterns of practices and reasoning among a broad range of groups.

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1  see e.g. Gilg et al., 2005; Micheletti et al., 2004, Micheletti & Stolle 2005; Goul Andersen & Tobiasen, 2004; Tobiasen, 2005; Strømsnes, 2005; Workester & Dawkins, 2005; cf. Lindén & Carlsson-Canyama, 2007.

2  Further research should systematically compare the shopping behaviour (and reflections) of men and women by strategically selecting both traditionally ‘female’ food products and ‘male’ products (despite the ambiguities of such distinctions). A plausible thesis would be that if women and men take joint responsibility for the household’s different consumer areas, they are likely to develop more similar shopping behaviour (and reflections) (cf. Micheletti, 2004), incorporating green and ethical aspects into their shopping decisions to a less dissimilar degree. Hence, strategically focusing on households with shared responsibilities would also be an interesting research topic.

3  Another philosophical topic is whether it is possible to categorise a consumption act as political or ethical if the consumer is merely driven by self-interest. Does s(he) have to focus on the common good in order for the consumer act to be labelled as political? There is no easy answer to this question, and we will not discuss it here (But see e.g. Micheletti 2003 or Klintman et al. 2008 for discussion on this). Yet, a shortcut pragmatic answer would be that selfish and altruistic motives are often blurred and impossible to separate; even unimportant to separate. If something can be seen as good for the individual (organic food is healthy) and simultaneously for a community (organic food is environmentally and animal friendly), then there simply is a win-win situation for political consumption as such. This is a good enough perspective, although the topic clearly is a bit more delicate than such.

4  The chief purpose is to make demographic comparisons between ‘political consumers’ and ‘non-political consumers’. The main thing is to allow for sufficient variation on the dependent variable.

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Electronic reference

Magnus Boström and Mikael Klintman, “The green political food consumer”Anthropology of food [Online], S5 | September 2009, Online since 10 September 2009, connection on 20 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Magnus Boström

School of Life sciences, Södertörn University College,

By this author

Mikael Klintman

Research Policy Institute, Lund University,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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