Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More thoughts on political consumption

At our monthly Graham Fellows meeting today, we further discussed Ethan's dissertation research on political consumption. What Ethan defines as "political consumption" is any consumption that is done with not only yourself or your immediate friends and family in mind, but also people outside of your immediate circle. Examples of political consumption include buying sweat-free clothing to support workers rights, buying organically grown bananas so that labourers don't go sterile by using dibromochloropropane to spray the crop, or going out to eat at a restaurant that is locally owned and run rather than a Denny's. In all of these cases, although the individual consuming their good of choice might as well have done so without taking others into account, the act of thinking beyond themselves is a political choice.

There were several threads of thought that were raised in today's discussion, and all are pertinent to social change, environmental justice, trash and sustainability. I would like to pose these threads as food for thought, not only for myself and for future blog posts, but also for you to think about and send me your thoughts on.
  • Many people consume politically because of the perceived benefits of doing so. These benefits may range from social to environmental and economic, and many times, people will make the same choice for different reasons. For example, some people may choose to buy food from the local farmer's market because they would like to keep their money within a certain locale, while others may go to the farmer's market because the other large grocery chain doesn't have a big selection of organic products. What are motivating factors for political consumption?
  • It is interesting to see how far people are willing to go to act politically. The most explicit example of this is the price of consumption. Say the organic apple costs $1 more than the conventionally grown apple, would you buy it? Some would say yes. How about if it was $2 more expensive? Would you buy it now? How about $5 more expensive? I think this plays a lot into people's need for convenience for doing anything environmentally related ("The recycling bin was too far away, so I just decided to throw away this aluminium can in the garbage."). How much are you willing to spend to do the right thing?
  • People's emotions play a significant role in political consumption. Their choices depend on whether or not they think their choice can make a difference. What communities are people capable of benefiting through their choices?
  • One of the most interesting points that came up today was the effect of consuming politically vs. not consuming at all. I would argue that not consuming at all is a political choice, too. But what is the effectiveness of not consuming vs. consuming politically? Maybe political consumption will drive people, companies and governments to adopt new standards that you think should be the norm. Also, money plays no role in not consuming. It doesn't matter whether you are rich or you are poor, you can choose not to buy. What about boycotts? How effective are they in making political statements?
  • How much does people's disposable income affect whether or not they consume politically? Preliminary results from Ethan's work show that the emotional mechanisms behind political consumption are the same for those with and those without money. 
  • Somewhat tangentially, how does a company's reputation change if they are found to violate social and environmental norms and standards? Apparently, GAP has been in a lot of trouble over the years because many of their suppliers had terrible working conditions. But always, their reputation bounces back...

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