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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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By Astrid Franke

Boycotting Starbucks, buying Fair Trade products, being involved in the No Logo movement – are these genuinely political activities or rather private ethical consumer choices? Can they threaten a capitalist organization of the market or are they always already part of the market – perhaps even a new type of economic engine? Beyond the hopes and fears one may have vis-à-vis general developments of the political economy, there are important historical experiences and theoretical traditions behind these two possible stances towards consumerism. On the one hand, there is the American cultural memory of a boycott of British consumer products, most notably tea, as part of a political move towards independence: The so-called Boston Tea Party, just like Gandhi’s boycott of British clothes or the Montgomery Bus Boycott are cases where the refusal to buy certain services or products can undoubtedly regarded as genuine political action. On the other hand, the decisions to buy ‘organic’ has sparked off new brands and product lines, new supermarkets, and new food chains – it is just as undoubtedly a decision that has led to a diversification of the market. While these consumer choices might be ethically motivated they might also satisfy a desire for distinction amongst consumers that can easily be exploited by marketing strategies. Here, the descendants of theoretical traditions in which the consumer is regarded as a victim of manipulation and/or deprived of choices – notably the Frankfurt School – would come to the fore and claim that consumption...

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