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Governing the subjects and spaces of ethical consumption

Project Team: Dr Clive Barnett, Prof Paul Cloke, Dr Nick Clarke and Dr Alice Malpass

Governing the subjects and spaces of ethical consumption

This three year research project (2003-2006) was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of the Cultures of Consumption Programme. It is a collaborative project involving researchers based at the Open University, the University of Bristol, the University of Exeter, and the University of Southampton.

The project examined the pragmatics of getting people to adopt 'ethical' consumption behaviour. It developed a theoretically informed understanding of the pragmatics of ethical action in consumption processes by investigating the organizational and discursive processes involved in the regulation of ethical consumption. It examined the practical strategies used by campaigning organizations and policy makers to encourage the adoption of ethical consumption behaviour by ordinary consumers, and investigated the forms of subjectivity that ethical consumption practices enable people to develop in their everyday lives.

A new book, Globalizing Responsibility: the political rationalities of ethical consumption, reporting on the project's findings, was published in 2010. The book analyses various ethical consumption practices from a political perspective, not in the sense of evaluating them from a pre-established position of what counts as politics or what makes politics more or less progressive, but in terms of trying to understand how these sorts of activities are indicative of changes in the way politics gets done now - by examining ethical consumption practices as forms of political mobilisation, campaigning, lobbying. Theoretically, the book works through various approaches to understanding this sort of activity, including accounts of neoliberalization, governmentality theory, theories of practice, social movement theory, and theories of consumerism.

Key questions

The research project examined two main questions:

  • How do the ethical dispositions already implicit in routine consumption become the object of explicit policies and campaigns of 'ethical consumption'?
  • How does the adoption of ethical consumption practices transform the patterns of self-cultivation practiced through engagement with commodities?

The project uses qualitative research methodologies to examine the two related dimensions of ethical consumption practices. The methodological strategy is the most appropriate means of investigating the practical modes of ethical reasoning embedded in the routine actions of institutions, organizations and citizens involved in consumption processes. Existing research on both business ethics and ethical consumption tends to assume that ethical commitments of consumers and businesses can be gleaned by direct inquiry into preferences, and therefore lacks interpretative depth. Our research was designed to address what individual and collective actors actually do.

Key Findings

Please download the PDF document with a full overview of the project findings.

  • People bring a range of ethical concerns and competencies to their everyday consumption practices. These range from the relatively personal responsibilities of family life to more public commitments such as membership of particular faith communities, political affiliations, and professional communities.
  • Ethical consumption campaigns seek to problematize everyday practices of consumption by shaping the terms of public debate and by getting people to talk reflexively about their habits and routines. The rhetoric of 'choice' and 'responsibility' is a key aspect of this discursive problematization of everyday consumption.
  • People engage critically and skeptically, and in the registers of citizenship, with demands that they should take personal responsibility for various 'global' problems through changing their everyday consumption practices.
  • The capacity of citizens to actively contribute to concerted action to transform consumption practices is differentiated by both material resources and cultural capital: by income levels, residential location, and personal mobility; and by involvement in social networks and associational practices.
  • Ethical consumption campaigning is most effective in transforming policies and infrastructures of collective provision, rather than changing individual behaviour through the provision of information.
  • Ethical consumption campaigns do not seek to engage 'consumers', understood as abstract, self-interested utility maximizers. They engage members of communities of practice, for example, members of faith groups, schoolchildren, or residents of distinctive localities.
  • There is little evidence that people adopt ethical consumerism as an alternative to other forms of civic involvement or public participation. Ethical consumerism can provide pathways for mobilization in broader political campaigns.


Globalising the Consumer

Consumerism is often held to be inimical to collective deliberation and decision-making of the sort required to address pressing environmental, humanitarian and global justice issues. Policy interventions and academic discourse alike often assume that transforming consumption practices requires interventions that address people as consumers. This research project shows that this connection between consumption and consumers is a contingent achievement of strategically motivated actors with specific objectives in the public realm. Focusing on the discursive interventions used in ethical consumption campaigns, the research found that that these are not primarily aimed at encouraging generic consumers to recognize themselves for the first time as 'ethical' consumers. Rather, they aim to provide information to people already disposed to support or sympathize with certain causes; information that enables them to extend their concerns and commitments into everyday consumption practices. These acts of consumption are in turn counted, reported, surveyed and represented in the public realm by organizations who speak for the 'ethical consumer'. These campaigns also provide supporters and sympathizers with storylines. The predominant storyline re-inscribes popular discourses of globalization into a narrative in which people are ascribed various responsibilities by virtue of their activities as consumers but also empowered to act ethically and politically in and through these activities.

Problematizing Choice

Far from 'choice' being straightforwardly championed and promoted, it is increasingly circulated as a term in policy discourse and public debate by being problematized. How to ensure that the choices of putatively free individuals are exercised responsibly – in terms both of those individuals' own good and the good of broader communities – has become a recurrent theme of concern. For example, 'choice' is problematized in terms of the potential of increased individual choice to conflict with public interest goals of sustainability and conservation; in terms of increased choice leading to greater anxiety and reduced quality of life, even reduced levels of happiness; or in terms of the limitations of choice to increase or maintain equity in social provision and access to public services. Ethical consumption campaigns are actively contributing to this process whereby 'choice' circulates as a term of public debate only in and through this register of responsibility for the self and for others. These campaigns seek to problematize the consequences of everyday consumption by encouraging people to reflect, deliberate, and discuss the 'ethical' dilemmas of their routine practices. In turn, people negotiate these demands for them to take personal responsibility by deploying the vocabularies of citizenship to delineate the scope of their own actions they consider it possible and legitimate to change.

Fairtrade Urbanism

Understandings of ethical consumption often assume a relationship between placeless Western consumers and with place-specific producers in the Third World. Using an ethnographic study of the Bristol Fairtrade City Campaign in 2004-2005, this research project shows how fairtrade consumption is aligned with place-based interests and identities. The Fairtrade City Campaign became a vehicle for enlisting the ordinary people of Bristol into awareness of and identification with fairtrade issues. Citizens of Bristol were enrolled into re-imagining the expansive scope of the city's responsibilities. Through the introduction of fairtrade procurement practices in public organizations and private companies alike, employees, residents and visitors became fairtrade consumers, knowingly or unknowingly, when visiting the canteens and restaurants of the local authority and other significant organizations in the city.

Please download a copy of the End of Award Report for this project.


2010. Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., and Malpass, A. Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption. Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers Book Series. Wiley-Blackwell.

2010. Barnett, C. Fair trade. In B. Bevir (ed.), Encyclopedia of Political Theory. Sage.

2010. Pykett, J., Cloke, P., Barnett, C., Clarke, N., and Malpass, A. Learning to be Global Citizens: the rationalities of fair-trade education. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28, 487-508.

2008. Barnett, C, Cloke, P, Clarke, N, and Malpass, A. The elusive subjects of neoliberalism: beyond the analytics of governmentality. Cultural Studies 22, 624-653.

2008. Clarke, N., Cloke, P., Barnett, C., and Malpass, A. The spaces and ethics of organic food. Journal of Rural Studies, 24, 219-230. ISSN: 0743-0167.

2008 Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., and Malpass, A. The elusive subjects of neoliberalism: beyond the analytics of governmentality. Cultural Studies. In Press.

2008 Clarke, N., Barnett, C., Cloke, P., and Malpass, A. The political rationalities of fair trade consumption in the United Kingdom. Politics and Society, 35, 583-607.

2007 Clarke, N., Barnett, C., Cloke, P., and Malpass, A. Globalising the consumer: Ethical consumerism and new repertoires of public action. Political Geography. 26, 231-249.

2007 Malpass, A., Barnett, C., Clarke, N., Cloke, P. Problematizing choice: Responsible consumers, sceptical citizens. In M. Bevir and F. Trentmann (eds.), Governance and Consumptionpp. 231-256. . London, Palgrave.

2007 Malpass, A., Cloke, P., Barnett, C., and Clarke, N. Fairtrade urbanism: the politics of place beyond place in the Bristol Fairtrade City campaign. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 31, 633-645.

2006 Barnett, C., Clarke, N., Cloke, P., and Malpass, A. Politics in an ethical register

2005 Littler, J., Barnett, C. and Soper, K. 'Consumers: Agents of Change?' Soundings, 31, 147-160.

2005 Barnett, C., Cafaro, P., & Newholm, T. 'Philosophy and Ethical Consumption', in R. Harrison, T. Newholm, and D. Shaw (eds.) The Ethical Consumer. Sage, pp. 11-24.

2005 Barnett, C., Clarke, N., Cloke, P., and Malpass, A. 'The political ethics of consumerism', Consumer Policy Review 15:2, 45-51.

2005 Barnett, C., Clarke, N., Cloke, P., and Malpass, A. 'Articulating ethics and consumption'. In M. Boström, A. Føllesden, M. Klintman, M. Michelleti, M. Sørensen (eds.) Political Consumerism: Its Motivations, Power, and Conditions in the Nordic Countries and Elsewhere (TemaNord 2005:517). Nordic Council of Minister, Copenhagen, pp. 99-112.

2005 Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., & Malpass, A. 'Consuming ethics: Articulating the subjects and spaces of ethical consumption', Antipode, 37, 23-45.

2004 Barnett, C., Clarke, N., Cloke, P., and Malpass, A. 'Articulating ethics and consumption'. Working Paper No. 17, ESRC/AHRB Cultures of Consumption Programme.

Details of availability of these research outputs can be found at The Open University's Open Research Online.

Further information and contacts

For further information, please contact:

Dr Clive Barnett

Department of Geography
Faculty of Social Sciences
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
United Kingdom

Dr Nick Clarke

School of Geography
University of Southampton

Prof Paul Cloke

Department of Geography
University of Exeter
United Kingdom

Dr Alice Malpass

Academic Unit of Primary Health Care
University of Bristol
The Grange
No 1 Woodland Road
United Kingdom







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