Historically, attention has focussd on perceived consumer concerns about food price, quality (usually defined by cosmetic appearance), convenience and safety. Now there is increasing evidence that consumer interests are more diverse and complex, challenging the traditional way in which companies have both informed consumers and merchandised food products.
For years, the food industry has publicly explained its behaviour in the market place by claiming it was responding to what consumers wanted. Mass produced and inexpensive food, convenience, packaging and extensive product variety have been explained as responses to market signals. Surveys of consumer attitudes have reinforced this view.
But the consumer market place is less homogeneous than earlier times. Consumers have been rebelling against mass produced foods for some time. Smart processors and retailers have diversified their product offerings, in the hope of capturing these new market segments. To do so, they have changed promotional strategies, and have invested in sophisticated market survey instruments. Some consumers, once offered new kinds of choices, have responded and changed their purchasing patterns. All these developments confirm the interactive and dynamic interconnections between product availability, consumer information and desires. It is increasingly clear that consumer demand is a product of individual and collective wants and needs, access and availability, and the type and manner of information provided.
Welsh and MacRae (1998) suggested that if the population is to be engaged in food buying that supports sustainability and food security, and not just traditional conceptions of price, quality, convenience and safety, then the concept of “consumer” is far too limited because it focuses primarily on the ability to buy (or reject) products and services. In contrast, the language of “citizen” implies membership in a society, with both rights and responsibilities beyond those of consuming goods and services. Similarly, society is more than simply a marketplace.
It may now be that many “consumers” are moving into what Gabriel and Lang (2005) have called the fourth wave of consumer activism. In their analysis, they separate the emergence of consumer movements into four waves. The first wave of “co-operative consumers” was sparked by the Co-operative Movement, which began in England in 1844 and which was based on the principle of “self-help by the people” without any distinctions between consumers and producers (Gabriel and Lang, 2005:41). The second wave consists of the “value for money” movement, which came into its own during the 1930s in the United States (Gabriel and Lang, 2005:44). Consumer activists in the second wave were concerned about “the threat posed to consumers by increasing concentration and monopoly capital” and their aim was to “make the marketplace more efficient and to champion the interests of the consumer within it” through education and advocacy efforts (Gabriel and Lang, 2005:44-45). The third wave, “Naderism,” also emerged in the United States. This movement originated with the publication of American lawyer, author and activist Ralph Nader’s 1965 exposé of the American car industry, Unsafe at Any Speed. Gabriel and Lang (2005: 47) argue that Naderism “brought a new punch to consumer politics” by tapping “a deep well of public unease about the power of large corporations vis-à-vis the individual customer”. Naderism places a lot of emphasis on “debunking” misinformation from large corporations and demanding that the state protect its citizens. The fourth wave of consumer activism consists of what Gabriel and Lang (2005) term “alternative consumerism”, what others have called “ethical consumerism” (Harrison et al., 2005) and what Micheletti (2003) refers to as “political consumerism”. Political consumerism emerged in the 1970s and gained “coherence” as a movement in the 1990s (Gabriel and Lang, 2005). The emergence of political consumerism coincides with the rise of the environmental movement in North America and Europe and one of the first streams of alternative consumerism was the “green consumer” movement which advocated for reduced consumption and/or the consumption of products that were more “environmentally friendly”. Gabriel and Lang (2005) note that by the early twenty-first century, the green consumer movement had gone mainstream, and the “reformist” stream of green consumerism (which advocated consuming not less, but differently) had spawned “a whole new category” of green products and businesses.
A prominent feature of this fourth wave is what Micheletti (2003) calls “buycotting”, a form of “positive political consumerism” that involves buying particular goods and brand names over others based on claims made about the product. Buycotting is in contrast to “negative political consumerism,” or boycotting, which involves refusing to buy specific products or brand names. Buycotting is generally dependent on labeling schemes set up by governmental or extra-governmental regulating bodies. Labeling schemes are important because they legitimize and govern the claims made about products marketed to political consumers. For consumers interested in the “politics of products,” labeling schemes help them to identify products that are (or at least claim to be) in line with their political values and concerns.
Out of these dynamics emerges the concept of the “citizen-consumer” (Micheletti, 2003, Johnston, 2008, Lockie, 2009), those actors who “combine the public role of citizens with the private role of consumers” (Micheletti, 2003:16). Unlike consumers whose motivations are based on purely private concerns, citizen-consumers are motivated (at least in part) by public concerns related to their identity as citizens.
Arguments regarding the effectiveness and viability of political consumerism are generally based on the concept of consumer sovereignty, which Dickinson and Carsky (2005: 29) define as “the power of consumers to determine, from among the offerings of producers of goods and services, what goods and services are and will be offered (produced) and/or created in the economic sphere of society” . Although the concept of consumer sovereignty is not new, dating back at least as far as Adam Smith, contemporary forms of “voting with your dollar” rose to prominence in the late twentieth century alongside neo-liberal governance models that “actively promoted the idea of consumer choice in the market as a worthy complement to, and even substitute for the citizenship ideal of democratic participation” (Johnston, 2008:246). Although contentious and with only piecemeal empirical data on the effectiveness of political consumerism (Micheletti, 2004), some of the contemporary advocates of political consumerism borrow from the logic of “trickle down” economics (Frank, 2007) to argue that, in theory, the more people shop for products labeled as more ecologically friendly or socially just, the greater will be the market share of these products, and in turn, the more these products will be available and affordable to the general population (Stolle and Hooghe, 2004).
However, Jacobsen and Dulsrud (2007) found that consumers do not often have enough information about the politics beyond products to make informed political consumerist choices. Gjerris et al. (2016) argue that without regulatory interventions to shape what is available, ethical consumers will be faced with incomplete information. How must consumer food information systems be redesigned to leverage the citizen – consumer phenomenon and advance government objectives around health and sustainability? Given that health and sustainability are collective good objectives, we follow Johnston’s interpretation that draws a clear distinction between consumerism’s “maximization of individual self-interest through commodity choice,” and citizenship based on the prioritization of “the collective good,” which “emphasizes responsibility to ensure the survival and wellbeing of others – human and non-human” (Johnston, 2008:243). This is an important distinction because a significant assumption of the current system is that individual self-optimization generates wider societal value. While some actions may benefit both the individual and society (Soper, 2007), the view expressed here is that the state must facilitate collective good undertakings and must shape how individuals behave to achieve public objectives. Individual self-optimization is not sufficient to create the necessary aggregate effects.