Celebrity chefs exhorting us to eat less and buy local; mobile phone apps promoting ‘swopping not shopping’; supermarkets selling ‘guilt free’, Fair Trade products—wealthy capitalist societies around the world appear to be re thinking consumption as usual. The rise of ethical or socially responsible consumption is an issue of major social significance, emerging as it does out of a broader range of concerns about the ongoing economic and environmental sustainability of unfettered consumer capitalism. Variously referred to as ‘affirmative purchasing’ or ‘conscience consumption’, ethical consumption is an umbrella term that covers a range of consumer practices and concerns from animal welfare, labor standards and human rights to questions of health and wellbeing and environmental sustainability. Such concerns are linked to fundamental questions about the ethical capacities of market-driven societies and whether it is possible to develop a sustainable consumer culture.
This talk traces the ‘ethical turn’ in consumer culture in the Global North, examining a range of transitions in the sphere of media and popular culture, from the rise of pop docs in the 2000s to the growing influence of celebrity chefs and the recent proliferation of digital tools and platforms targeted at the ethical consumer. I argue that these shifts speak to a larger transformation of the relations between household practices and the world of formal politics, and between states, markets and citizens. But what are the implications of these developments? Does the growing mainstreaming of ethical consumption merely mark capitalism’s colonization of environmental and ethical concerns and practices? Or does the space of contested consumption suggest new forms of sub-political engagement and lifestyle ‘activism’?
Tania Lewis is Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT. She is the author of Smart Living: Lifestyle Media and Popular Expertise (2008), editor of TV Transformations (2009), and co-editor of Ethical Consumption: A Critical Introduction (2011). She is currently completing a book (with Fran Martin and Wanning Sun) entitled Telemodernities: Television and Transforming Lives in Asia and is co-editing two collections, Green Asia and Lifestyling Asia.
Image: “Chickens” by Matt Beckwith