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Politicizing Consumer Choice

Ethical Dimensions of Consumerism in the United States

Christian Gunkel

This book investigates various forms of political and ethical consumerism in the United States and delivers a comprehensive conceptualization of the consumer’s role in the marketplace. Both aspects, the potential impact of market-based activism on corporations in America and the socio-structural dynamics that may prevent the possibility of far-reaching social change through forms of alternative consumerism, are equally important in this regard. The historical ties between politics and consumption in America, and the diminishing role of the government as a regulatory force in the market since the end of Fordism, has spawned a unique form of consumer politics directed at the corporate world. The underlying question to be answered is whether the consumer is truly a force to be reckoned with.
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2. Theorizing the Consumer

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2.1 A Theoretical Outline of Alternative Consumption

Delivering an irrefutable definition of alternative consumption, ethical and political consumption that is, turns out to be a rather intricate undertaking. Furthermore, the fact that both terms are sometimes used conterminously does not seem to facilitate a solution to this problem. Generally speaking, ethical consumption can be described as consumer decisions based on the simple distinction between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, or, in other words, actions made in accordance with a belief in doing the right thing. Political consumption, on the other hand, may also be based on similar ethical considerations, but also aims at more wide-ranging ends that reach into the public realm and might even have an impact on the collective. In contrast, ethical consumption, although not exclusively, may be seen as an individual form of consumption which is also very likely to take place in the private realm. Thus, despite the commonalities, it is helpful to differentiate between political and ethical consumption, as well as political and ethical consumerism. Hence, in this work, political consumerism is regarded as an extension of ethical consumerism.

Whether it be the anti-sweatshop movement, the fair trade movement, green consumerism, or campaigns for organic food, despite the profound differences in purpose, each movement carries a specific ethical meaning and more often than not a political meaning as well. Regardless of the etymological implications of these terms, namely that political consumerism – not just etymologically but also historically – implies some form of...

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