Faculty of Social Sciences
Project Team: Dr Clive Barnett, Prof Paul Cloke, Dr Nick Clarke and Dr Alice Malpass
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 .
The research project examined two main questions:
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.
Please download the PDF document with a full overview of the project findings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For further information, please contact:
Dr Clive Barnett
Department of Geography
The Open University
Dr Nick Clarke
School of Geography
University of Southampton
Prof Paul Cloke
Department of Geography
University of Exeter
Dr Alice Malpass
Academic Unit of Primary Health Care
University of Bristol
No 1 Woodland Road