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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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4. Mobilizing Consumers

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4.1 Alternative Consumption in the Age of the Superbrand

Decisions like whether to choose a paper bag or plastic one at the register in the supermarket or a Toyota Prius over a gas-guzzling SUV are two of the simplest ethical choices to be made in ordinary consumption decisions. In fact, considerable portions of ethical and political consumption take place within the scope of everyday consumption. But alternative consumerism and consumer activism is more extensive than that by far. It ranges from reform to subversion, and Robert Kozinets and Jay Handelman even speak of a radicalization of consumption.1

After the Cold War ended, neoliberalism and globalization gave rise to an era which Naomi Klein labels “The Age of the Superbrand.” These Superbrands are by definition large, multinational corporations whose core business is not manufacturing, but “brand building.” As these corporations have outsourced their production, brand builders have become “the new primary producers.”2 In other words, these companies sell, but they do not produce. And this development has made its impact on the social organization, because, in the postmodern definition of consumerism, considerable parts of society and social relations are organized around consumption. Even more specifically, Albert Muniz and Thomas O’Guinn argue that not only most social interaction, but also the entire society pivots around brands. Hence they develop their concept of “brand community,” which describes communities that center on “a branded good or service.” And this new form of “imagined community,”3 brand loyalty,...

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