Conscientious Consumerism: Tim Bartley on Looking Behind the Label

Recently, an article appeared in The Huffington Post about how we shouldn’t rely solely on ethical consumption to change unfair labor practices globally. Our own Framing the Global Fellow Tim Bartley has been researching conscientious consumption with Sebastian Koos, Hiram Samel, Gustavo Setrini, and Nik Summers in an effort to understand the interplay of rules and regulations in global capitalism–from governments to businesses to labor to consumers.

What does it mean when consumers “shop with a conscience” and choose products labeled as fair or sustainable? Does this translate into meaningful changes in global production processes? To what extent are voluntary standards implemented and enforced, and can they really govern global industries?

Looking Behind the Label includes case studies of several types of products—wood and paper, food, apparel and footwear, and electronics—that are used to reveal what lies behind voluntary rules and to critique predominant assumptions about ethical consumption as a form of political expression.

The volume is part of the Framing the Global publication produced by Indiana University Press. It was published on May 21, 2015.

Today, Tim Bartley joins us for a discussion. In addition to being a Fellow of the Framing the Global project, Tim is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Ohio State University. His research interests include globalization, labor, social movements, and political sociology.

Zach Vaughn: A core theme in Looking Behind the Label is the tension between consumption and production dynamics. How do you see these logics interacting in a global market?

Tim Bartley: Global supply chains have risen to prominence in part because they connect consumer demand and production process very quickly and tightly. When the barcode is swiped at the register in Indiana, an order for the replacement arrives at a factory in Indonesia.

That’s oversimplified, but it’s essentially the inventory system that Wal-Mart popularized, and it’s what allows supply chains for food, clothing, and electronics to move very quickly.

On the other hand, the global character of many supply chains means that the consumer and producer of a product will not see each other face to face–and they may live in dramatically different worlds. (This disconnection is not unique to global industries, but it is certainly pronounced in global industries.)

In a sense, the trend toward conscientious consumerism is an attempt to bridge that gap by giving consumers assurances that the people and places on the other end of the supply chain are not being terribly exploited. As our book tries to show, this seductively simple logic is actually fraught with problems.

ZV: It seems apparent that many companies might not change their business and supply chain practices without pressure to do so. In this regard, you highlight the importance of transnational social movements and governments. How and why are these vital to the ethical foundations of global capitalism?

TB: It is clear from the history of capitalism that companies can survive–and even thrive–doing things that they once claimed were impossible. But for a variety of reasons, profit motives often aren’t enough to spur bold new moves.

Companies may face collective action problems, wherein they will balk at making changes that might put them at a competitive disadvantage, even though the change could be benign or beneficial if adopted by all.

They may be locked into tightly intertwined systems of production, in which changing one piece would require a compete overhaul. They may need to prioritize short-term stock returns over long-term strategy. Managers and owners may be wary of losing their grip on power, or they may simply be wedded to “the way things are done” in an industry.

Social movements can push companies to some degree, by threatening valuable corporate reputations and brand images, by disrupting the everyday flow of business, and by mobilizing workers, consumers, and sometimes investors.

In fact, none of the standards examined in our book would exist if not for social movement pressure. But social movements struggle to really resolve companies’ collective action problems and the lock-ins that keep dominant practices in place.

This is why governments have always been important for re-directing capitalist economies. Among other things, governments can enforce binding rules for companies to operate or access the market within a given territory. Though not always effective, government policy can resolve collective action problems, re-calibrate power dynamics, and move new practices from the margins to the mainstream.

The current challenge is that both governments and social movements have mostly pushed companies within particular nation-states. This is insufficient for a global economy.

Some have responded to this mismatch between national governments and a global economy by endorsing conscientious consumerism as a way to enforce rules without relying on governments. Our book shows some of the reasons why this is a bad idea.

In various ways, our case studies show that government regulation and domestic social movements are essential, and conscientious consumers are poor substitutes. The key challenges are to figure out how government policy can be effectively implemented in the current era and how the concerns of conscientious consumers can support this.

Grocery aisles Image via Lyza (Flickr)

View from inside a Fred Meyer grocery store. (Photo by Lyza. Flickr Creative Commons.)

ZV: What do you hope conscientious consumers get from this book? What about consumers who aren’t particularly conscientious of their purchases?

TB: I suppose we’ve written the book largely to help conscientious consumers make sense of the contexts of their action and the global standards they are supporting.

I think there are two big takeaway points for conscientious consumers.

One is that it’s dangerous to get carried away with the idea that you’re somehow saving the world through your purchases.

To be sure, it makes sense to be thoughtful about what you buy–and how often you buy it, since quick changes in electronics and clothing styles can lead to a lot of problems for workers, not to mention the problem of waste.

But a change in your shopping habits just isn’t enough to deal with massive and complex problems of exploitation and environmental degradation. I think our industry case studies illustrate some of the reasons why. Plus, if consumers are too enamored with “shopping for social change,” they may overlook the need for more broad-based democratic governance of global industries.

In chapter two of the book, we talk about how conscientious consumerism can crowd out other forms of political expression and reproduce inequality; after all, conscientious consumerism fundamentally rests on the idea of “one dollar, one vote,” rather than “one person, one vote.”

Ultimately, we’re hopeful that consumers can be engaged and thoughtful without being self-absorbed and feeling superior, and we hope our book shows why that’s important.

The second takeaway point for conscientious consumers is closely related. Our purchases do connect us to people and places around the world, and we think that they can be a point of entry into local and global political engagement.

As we say toward the end of the book, we hope that when individuals realize how a particular purchase is contributing to exploitation they won’t just look for an alternative in the marketplace. Instead, we hope they will use the opportunity to think about the underlying problems–of inequality, insecure rights, and ineffective governance–and search for policy solutions.

Stronger, more effective government policy is an essential ingredient in solving nearly all of the problems that concern conscientious consumers, and collective social movements remain a crucial pathway to better policy.

For consumers who aren’t especially conscientious, we hope the book illustrates some of the ways in which their purchases are making a difference even if they don’t realize it–usually for the worse.

At several points in the book, we talk about how fast-paced, high-volume, un-reflective consumerism can produce huge challenges on the other end of the supply chain. For example, as we quickly churn through one model of smartphone to the next, we’re not only producing lots of hazardous e-waste, we’re fueling an industry that demands extreme flexibility from production workers.

To manage demand, factories have to be able to scale-up and scale-down production very quickly, and this means they prefer workers who are desperate enough to accept long hours and safety hazards, as well as countries where workers have few rights. Conscientious consumerism is not a full solution, but unconscious consumerism is certainly a problem.

ZV: How can a consumer best navigate the world of commodities considering the wealth of different labeling and organizations fighting for things like fair trade?

TB: This is a big challenge, since there are always new labels emerging and old ones changing. Even the Fair Trade label, which is one of the better labels for coffee, chocolate, and agricultural products, has changed a bit.

In the U.S., you’ll now see two different Fair Trade labels. The label portraying a person holding a container is issued by Fair Trade USA, which has recently split with the international network in order to certify coffee grown on large plantations, not just cooperatives of small farmers.

The more abstract label that looks like a person with one arm raised is issued by Fairtrade International, which remains focused on cooperatives (at least for coffee and to a lesser degree other products).

We see the endorsement of cooperatives as an important part of the fair trade model, which would make the more abstract label preferable. But this just illustrates how elusive the world of ecolabels can be.

Our book provides information on a few of the more and less credible labels, but there are hundreds of others out there. A devoted person can dig into the websites of the ISEAL Alliance, Goodguide, or Ecolabel Index, but there’s simply no perfect way of judging the credibility and impact of labels.

Our research shows that even the best initiatives often fall short of their stated principles. This is another reason it is important to keep the limits of conscientious consumerism in mind.

I’m not sure that anyone has come up with something pithy like Michael Pollan’s food rules (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) for eco- and social-labels yet, and it may be impossible to do.

ZV: You spend some time talking about the “puzzle of rules” and how rules can lead to unruliness and unruliness can lead to rules. How is the “puzzle of rules” intertwined with conscientious consumerism?

TB: The “puzzle of rules” is the observation that the globalization of economic activity seems to generate both “unruliness” and the proliferation of rules at the same time.

In my chapter on this puzzle in the Framing the Global volume, I considered several possible solutions to the puzzle.

One is what I called the “compensatory account.” Put simply, unruliness (and destructive forms of instability) generates demand for new rules. This is a common account, inspired in large part by Karl Polanyi’s account of the “double movement” of capitalism.LookBehindLabel

I think this is only part of the story, since it’s a pretty crude account of where rule-making projects come from and since what we tend to see is not a swing from unruliness to “ruliness” but the persistence of both unruliness and “ruliness” in the same space.

To deal with this, I think we need to pay attention to neoliberalism and the shape of rules. In particular, while some see neoliberalism as eliminating rules for markets, I think neoliberalism has brought an increase in the number of rules but a change in their character, such that they are less likely to enforce collective social control of markets and more likely to grease the wheels of markets in various ways.

On the other hand, neoliberalism is not entirely monolithic and settled, so market-restricting rules, even those that protect collective rights, sometimes get incorporated into market-making projects.

For example, rules protecting the collective land rights of indigenous communities have become incorporated in fascinating ways into projects intended to rationalize global markets for land and forest products.

This is a bit abstract, so let me bring it back to Looking Behind the Label.  

Conscientious consumerism is in most ways a market-making project.

The idea is to create markets that allow consumer preferences to support alternative production methods. On the other hand, building this market often involves creating rules that restrict what companies can do.

So when you look at labeling initiatives, you see market-making and market-restriction happening at the same time. But the market-making dynamics seem to be more powerful in most cases.

ZV: In many ways the book explores how resources, both labor and materials, are mined from countries in the Global South and exported to the Global North via products. Yet, commodities are directly marketed globally. How might consumers in the Global South navigate conscientious consumption?

TB: There are two reasons for our book’s focus on conscientious consumers in the Global North.

One is that the existing survey data on conscientious consumer behavior is largely focused on Europe and North America. Hopefully that will change soon and others can broaden this area of study.

The second is that NGOs and companies have made conscientious consumption in the Global North the foundation of rule-making projects for production in the Global South.

These are the projects that we’re trying to understand. We noticed some ways in which these projects’ tendency to focus on consumer markets in affluent Northern countries can be a problem.

For instance, as we discuss in our chapter on food, the growing importance of the Chinese market for many food products has undermined the effectiveness of some sustainability standards supported by Northern activists, companies, and consumers.

No matter where you’re looking, “conscientious consumption” can take a variety of forms.

If you asked people if they would pay more for products certified as fair or sustainable, I suspect you’d find more interest among consumers in the Global North than in the Global South.

On the other hand, if you ask people if they have participated in a boycott in solidarity with striking workers or if their political or religious affiliations have shaped their purchases, then you will find much more evidence of conscientious consumption in the Global South.

Perhaps more importantly, the issues that our book discusses–such as deforestation, land grabs and control of natural resources, the rights of workers–are major political issues in many countries in the Global South, so citizens are already engaged in those debates.

My hope is that global industries could become more accepting of solutions that are being democratically forged at the domestic level, rather than fleeing to another country. Coalitions between local social movements and middle class consumers–near and far from the point of production–may be helpful for that kind of reform.

ZV: Is there anything I haven’t mentioned that you would like to add?

TB: There a number of articles, documentary films, and media commentary that would make good complements to our book. We’ve started compiling a few of them here and will be adding more in the future.

If you’re intrigued by the material in the book or using it for a class, I would recommend exploring these materials.

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