Taking politics to the supermarket

16 Jun 2013

Marian Sawer

More than 1,100 workers died in April when the Rana Plaza building housing garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh. Online activists on Change.org have since been calling for consumer action to pressure retailers such as Big W, Woolworths and Kmart to sign up to an international agreement to improve fire and building safety in their factories in Bangladesh.

In recent decades an increasing number of Australians have taken their political and ethical values with them to the supermarket, particularly values relating to the environment and the treatment of animals (think free-range eggs). More controversial have been the BDI (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns directed against Israeli companies such as Max Brenner Chocolate,

This kind of consumer action is not new. In the late eighteenth century and again in the early nineteenth century very successful boycotts of slave-grown sugar were organised in the United Kingdom. In the 1820s British Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick inspired women to distribute leaflets door-to-door urging householders not to buy West Indian (‘blood-stained’) sugar.

Women have proved to have a particular affinity with this form of political participation, whether the boycott of Nestlé over its marketing of infant formula (replacing breastfeeding) in developing countries or the pressuring of advertisers to withdraw from Alan Jones’ 2UE radio program over his misogynist behaviour towards the Prime Minister.

The existence of the Internet and social media networks has helped promote political consumerism and by 2005 general surveys such as the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes were finding that political consumerism had been engaged in by over a third of Australians in the preceding year, the most popular form of political participation apart from signing petitions.

Political science, however, was slow to investigate this form of political participation. The fact that political consumerism was identified with women and the ‘politics of everyday life’ made it less likely to be taken seriously than male-identified activities such as participating in a demonstration. A further justification for neglect was that it targeted businesses and only targeted the state indirectly

The first international survey of political consumerism was reported on in the International Political Science Review in 2005. The article, ‘Politics in the Supermarket: Political Consumerism as a Form of Political Participation’ has just become available on Open Access. The authors are Dietlind Stolle, Marc Hooghe and Michele Micheletti, who surveyed undergraduate social science students in Belgium, Canada and Sweden. The findings confirm the increased significance of political consumerism as a form of political participation – 72 per cent of those surveyed had chosen products based on ethical consideration over the past year (‘buycotted’), while 63 per cent had boycotted a product. The survey also confirmed the gender gap in preference for this form of political participation, despite male and female students reporting the same frequency of shopping.

The findings provide fascinating insight into cross-national differences in political consumerism and this has become the most highly cited article in International Political Science Review in the past decade. While a majority of participants in all three countries engaged in political consumerism when grocery shopping, it was Swedes who were much more likely to apply ethical considerations to buying soap or detergents. There are high-profile eco-labeling systems in Sweden. Perhaps the equivalent in Australia is choosing Earth Choice products or joining the boycott of products containing palm oil due to the destruction of orangutan habitat by palmoil plantations.

Canadians, by contrast, were more likely to apply political consumerism to the purchase of clothing, something attributed to ‘no sweat’ campaigns, which have a long history in North America. Already in the early 1900s Florence Kelley of the US National Consumers’ League was using a White Label system for employers that did not use sweated labour.

The Belgians had yet another focus, being more likely than Swedes or Canadians to apply ethical considerations to banking choices, perhaps because of the visibility of a Dutch-based ethical bank in Belgium. They were however generally less engaged in political consumerism than their Canadian and Swedish counterparts.

Detailed Australian evidence about political consumerism is only just emerging from the as yet unpublished 2013 Civic Network survey conducted for Ariadne Vromen, Michael Xenos and Brian Loader. It differs from the Stolle et al. survey because although it is also covers three countries it is based on a representative sample of young people (1418 in Australia) rather than on university students. Among the Australian findings are that, in the year prior to the survey, 36 per cent had boycotted and 34 per cent had buycotted products. In Australia political consumerism tends to be more oriented to animal rights and environmentalism and has a narrower fair trade’ focus (mainly tea, coffee and chocolate) than found in Europe.

Political consumerism has become an increasingly significant form of political engagement and not only for young people. It is one of the forms of political participation that is continuing to increase, like signing petitions and other online activism and unlike party membership. Political science is catching up with it and developing new understandings of political participation to match the new forms of engagement.

Marian Sawer is an Emeritus Professor at ANU and the ANU Director of the Democratic Audit of Australia.

Photo: Brian Pamphilon/iStockphoto

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