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date: 21 January 2019

Boycotting and Buycotting in Consumer Cultures: Political Consumerism in North America

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a historical overview of political consumerism in the United States and Canada, highlighting how societal and cultural shifts have influenced participation over time. The chapter begins by discussing the debatable origins of political consumerism in the Boston Tea Party to present-day examples, including fair trade and ecoconsumption. Throughout the chapter, there is an emphasis on the heterogeneity of political consumers, with particular attention to how marginalized groups, particularly women and African Americans, have used political consumerism to bring about social change. The chapter also argues that producer-consumer solidarity campaigns, including the antisweatshop movement and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Campaign for Fair Food, are preferable to consumer-led campaigns. Finally, this chapter concludes with methodological considerations for studying political consumerism in North America and suggestions for future research.

Keywords: political consumerism, citizen-consumer, boycott, consumer culture, consumer campaigns

Consumer activism has been the norm, not the exception, in North America (Glickman, 2009). In the United States and Canada, where there is a “perceived right to consume” (Humphrey, 2010, p. x), it is worth examining how Canadian and U.S. consumers have used their purchasing power throughout history to bring about desired social and political changes. This chapter is organized in a chronological fashion, interweaving historical and contemporary examples of political consumerism from both countries. The chapter has two aims: the first is to emphasize the diverse demographics of political consumers through examples, illustrating how this is not exclusively a privileged form of political engagement; and the second is to highlight how political consumer campaigns based upon producer-consumer alliances are preferable to those that are not based on such alliances.

Political consumerism, “the use of market choices by individuals, groups, and institutions who want to take responsibility for political, economic, and societal developments” (Micheletti, Follesdal, & Stolle, 2004, p. v), or “voting with your dollar,” has a long tradition in the United States and Canada. However, scholars remain divided on how to define and conceptualize political consumerism. Some argue political consumerism cannot be considered “political” in the conventional sense of the word, because individuals direct their efforts towards the market rather than the government (Micheletti, 2010; Schudson, 2007). Others, however, note that political consumerism participation rates are only second to voting rates in Western democracies, involving the production of public goods, located under the broad domain of politics and therefore considered political (Copeland, 2014a; Van Deth, 2012). Still, others argue the mere idea of “voting with your dollar” has its limits and aligns with a neoliberal ideology that shifts responsibility from the state to individuals to eradicate systemic injustices (Eaton, 2017). With this shift, individuals are viewed first as consumers, not as citizens (Clarke & Newman, 2007; Eaton, 2017; Slocum, 2004). This chapter discusses how cultural and ideological shifts may lead some scholars to claim that political participation is in decline (Putnam, 2001), while others assert that, rather than declining, forms of engagement have shifted (Dalton, 2013; Zukin et al., 2006).

It is also important to mention from the outset that there is more research on political consumerism in the United States than in Canada and, consequently, more examples from the United States are offered in this chapter. There are several factors that may have contributed to this disparity, including the scale and history of consumption in each country, the role of government regulation in consumer affairs, and cultural factors associated with consumption. As a point of comparison, in August 2017 food and retail sales in the United States totaled USD$476.5 billion for over 325 million residents (US Bureau of the Census, 2017), while in Canada it was CAD$68.88 billion for 36 million Canadians (Statistics Canada, 2017).1 In 2015, the annual gross adjusted disposable income in the United States was USD$46,600, while in Canada it was CAD$31,100 (OECD, 2017). The larger consumer base and rate of consumer spending may explain why more research has been conducted on consumerism broadly, and political consumerism specifically, in the United States.

This chapter provides a comparative history of political consumerism in the United States and Canada. After discussing the emergence and evolvement of political consumerism, the latter part of this chapter focuses on impacts on participation from the rise of postmaterialist values, lifestyle politics, and the internet. Finally, the chapter concludes with suggestions for future research.

The Emergence of Political Consumerism in North America

While consumer activism has a longstanding tradition in North America, experts differ on the exact date of its origin. Frequently, the American Revolution (1765–1783) is cited as the first example of consumer activism in North America (Glickman, 2009; Shah et al., 2007). However, other scholars contend the origins of the consumer movement preceded the American Revolution. Most notably, historian Timothy H. Breen (2005) identifies the origins of American consumer society prior to the American Revolution, arguing that shopping (and boycotting) aided in establishing colonialists as citizen-consumers.

While no agreement exists on the exact date of origin, the American Revolution, and more specifically the Boston Tea Party of 1773, played a significant role in the history of consumer activism in North America. The Boston Tea Party was important for two primary reasons: first, it introduced the concept of the boycott to the masses; and second, it shifted the definition of consumption from “use” to “purchase.” This shift highlights a paradox that consumer activism has dealt with ever since: consumer activists both abhor and rely upon consumer society for their work (Glickman, 2009).

Between the 1820s and 1860s, politically divergent consumer advocacy groups also emerged in the United States. While Quaker-led free produce advocates encouraged consumers to boycott slave-made goods and buycott, the “free labor” of nonenslaved workers, on the other end of the spectrum, were nonintercourse advocates or “rebel consumers,” mainly white southerners. The latter group also wanted consumers to boycott and buycott, but for the opposite reason: to maintain slave labor in the South and weaken the power of northern free labor. While ultimately the free produce movement did not become a widespread alternative to southern slave-made goods, it did succeed in laying the foundation for future political consumer campaigns including fair trade, organic, green, and cruelty-free (McDonald, 2017). This development is also a reminder that political consumerism is not an inherently progressive, politically left enterprise (Glickman, 2009; see also Affeldt, this volume; Lekakis, this volume; Park, this volume).

During the following Progressive Era (1890s–1920s), or what Lizabeth Cohen (2003) terms the “first wave” of consumer politics, similar consumer-based organizations formed in the United States and Canada. In the United States, the National Consumers League (NCL), founded in 1899, and the Consumers’ Association of Canada, later renamed the Canadian Association of Consumers (CAC), founded in 1947, both grappled with what is still an ongoing discussion about the relationship between consumption and citizenship: Does fulfilling the role of consumer impede individuals from fulfilling their roles and responsibilities as citizens (Cohen, 2003; Schudson, 2007)?

The female-led NCL and CAC did not believe the roles of citizens and consumers were antithetical. In fact, these organizations strove to make women’s often private acts of consumption public (Wiedenhoft, 2008). A key aspect of the NCL’s strategy, later used by other consumer activist organizations in the United States, including the antisweatshop and fair trade movements, was mobilizing consumers at the point of consumption in order to mitigate injustices at the point of production. At a time when women were unable to vote in the United States, the NCL organized women to exercise influence in the public sphere through their consumption choices (Wiedenhoft, 2008).

The NCL had two main goals: urging female customers to be ethical shoppers and encouraging the state to protect female workers (Glickman, 2009). For example, in 1889, the Working Women’s Society (later the NCL) was concerned with the working conditions of female clerks in New York City department stores, and the organization conducted an inquiry into the matter in 1889. The investigation revealed that employees endured unsanitary and unsafe conditions and long working hours. The advocacy association presented these findings at its next annual meeting. Appalled by these revelations, and inspired by similar actions in England, a group of attendees created a “white list” of employers who treated female workers fairly, in contrast with the “black list” of those who did not. The intention was to encourage buyers to purchase, or buycott, from the former rather than from the latter. In 1891, these women formed the Consumers League, an organization dedicated to informing consumers about working conditions and advocating for higher labor standards. A few years later, in 1899, the Consumers League of New York joined with other consumer-based organizations in the United States and became the National Consumers League (Glickman, 1999; Wiedenhoft, 2008).

To initiate its activities, the NCL launched the White Label Campaign, an antisweatshop campaign often considered the precursor to the modern-day antisweatshop movement. Developed under the leadership of Florence Kelly,2 longtime NCL president, the campaign allowed consumers to identify goods produced under fair labor conditions, including fair wages for both company employees and product producers. The NCL granted the white label of approval after inspecting the operations of manufactures and traders. The label stated, “made under clean and healthful conditions; use of label authorized after investigation—National Consumers League” (Sklar, 1998). After labeling products and stores with the white label, the NCL encouraged consumers to buycott and patronize these establishments and purchase particular brands upholding fair labor standards. Some scholars claim that the success of the White Label Campaign hinged on the NCL’s foresight in utilizing market forces to advance fair labor practices rather than reject them (Sklar, 1998).

Women were also organizers and leaders of consumer-based collective action in Canada. In 1893, a group of Canadian women’s organizations founded the National Council of Women (NCW). The NCW focused on improving conditions for families and communities, incorporating a consumer rights arm focused on monitoring goods and services, particularly food quality, in Canada (Kerton, 2015). Half a century later, in 1947, the NCW joined over twenty other women’s organizations to establish the Canadian Association of Consumers (CAC), later renamed the Consumers Association of Canada in 1961 (Kerton, 2015).

The mission and focus of the CAC evolved over time and grew substantially between 1920 and 1960. Similar to the NCL in the United States, the CAC provided an opportunity for women, often in charge of provisioning for their households, to use this role for specific consumer-based objectives (Belisle, 2014). The organization helped to achieve labeling requirements for textiles in 1949 and, one year later, led a successful food safety campaign for transparent labeling of bacon. In 1967, the CAC led efforts for national legislative action to promote competition among Canadian companies (Kerton, 2015). The CAC was composed of women from differing political perspectives: liberal women who wanted consumptive choices to be viewed politically; and more conservative, religious women whose motivation stemmed from moral grounds (Belisle, 2014).

The work of the female-led NCL and CAC established the groundwork for present-day political consumer campaigns by highlighting two main factors: the need for supply chain transparency; and the possibility of mitigating injustices at the point of production through consumption (Kerton, 2015; Micheletti, 2003; Sklar, 1998).

The Evolvement of Political Consumerism in North America

Three decades after the female-led NCL’s White Label Campaign, a boycott by another marginalized group began, this time involving African Americans. The Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work campaigns of the 1930s took place in the industrialized northern cities of the United States where African Americans fought against discriminatory hiring practices. The strategy was twofold and combined conventional (protest) and unconventional (boycott) forms of political action. African Americans protested in front of white-owned businesses that refused to hire African American employees and also leveraged their buying power through boycotting these businesses. The massive Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work boycott highlights the power and potential of boycotts, direct action, and protest among socially marginalized populations (Cohen, 2003).

The World War II period (1939–1945) still remains a critical but understudied era of the twentieth-century consumer movement. During this period, two government offices formed: the United States Office of Price Administration (OPA) in 1941 and the Canadian Wartime Prices and Trade Board (WPTD) in 1939. These offices fused government protection with consumer interest and were specifically charged with protecting inflation during the war. The success of each organization was constrained by differing political structures. Canada’s centralized parliament facilitated more decisive coordinated action than the decentralized U.S. system allowed. The OPA eventually dissolved into other federal organizations in 1947 while the WPTD was abolished in 1951 (Tohill, 2017). The OPA and the WPTD targeted middle- and working-class women as household caretakers, encouraging consumer protection from the ground up, in contrast with the NCL and CAC, which focused on upper-class women to filter information to the masses.

Beginning in the 1950s, the multifaceted civil rights movement sought to end racial discrimination and guarantee citizenship rights for all marginalized groups in the United States. One of the most famous boycotts of the time was the racially motivated Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1966 (Friedman, 1999). Throughout the 381-day boycott, African Americans boycotted city buses in Montgomery, Alabama due to their segregated seating. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to leave the front of a bus and move to the section designated for African Americans. This refusal by Parks, as protest to the racial segregation of the time, mobilized African Americans, who composed roughly 75 percent of the public bus ridership, to boycott the bus line and find alternative forms of transportation throughout the city (Coleman, Nee, & Rubinowitz, 2005). Boycotters were able to achieve such high rates of participation in part because they advertised their boycott in print media and had celebrity endorsements of the boycott (Glickman, 2009). The Montgomery Bus Boycott, regarded as the first mass civil rights protest in the United States, with similarities to the Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work boycotts of the previous decade, demonstrated the power of African American consumers and less privileged citizens to leverage consumer power for social change (see also Park, this volume).

In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement intensified, businesses began to recognize the importance of the consumer base of marginalized groups in the United States. During this time, the buying power of African Americans in the United States approached USD$20 billion, almost equivalent to Canada as a whole, forcing businesses to reconsider how they approached this lucrative African American consumer base (Sewell, 2004).

At the same time, in 1965, other marginalized populations also mobilized. Filipino and Hispanic agricultural workers joined forces to demand labor improvements from California grape growers. Workers’ demands included payment of the federal minimum wage, enforcement of safety regulations on pesticide use, and employer recognition of the newly created United Farm Workers (UFW). Led by Mexican American activist César Chávez, the UFW gained support from labor advocates, religious leaders, environmentalists, and middle-class consumers. Solidarity with like-minded organizations, including the civil rights–based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society, were instrumental in establishing a nationwide boycott (Bardacke, 2012). Campaign tactics included strikes; pickets; marches; promoting the boycott through the organization’s publication, Food and Justice; and, most significantly, a boycott on California-produced grapes. At the height of the campaign, which lasted five years, fourteen million people in the United States participated in the boycott. By 1970, the UFW had succeeded in signing approximately 150 contracts with grape growers, receiving employer recognition, increasing wages, and providing strict regulations on pesticide use to protect workers (Friedman, 1999; Gordon, 1999).3 The solidarity between consumers and producers should not be overlooked in the success of the UFW boycott. By making consumers aware of the labor conditions of agricultural workers, and then asking these consumers to boycott grapes in favor of better labor conditions, the UFW was able to achieve a substantial victory for better working conditions.

Political Consumerism Today

Since the 1970s, rates of political consumerism have risen in North America (Copeland, 2014a). As Stolle and Micheletti (2013) note, consumer choice plays a pivotal role in attempting to address the multifaceted problems of Western democracies, and in some cases these problems are not otherwise addressed by governments or other political establishments. Highlighted in this section are examples of political consumers taking on these challenges in the United States and Canada. They include, but are not limited to, culture jamming, anticonsumerist movements, antisweatshop movements, anti-GMO actions, and food justice campaigns.

Adbusters, a not-for-profit Canadian-based media foundation founded in Vancouver in 1992, is an internationally known anticonsumerist organization that encourages consumers worldwide to critically examine and reflect upon their consumption. As an organization and an anticonsumerist movement, Adbusters focuses on raising awareness about the deleterious psychological, social, and environmental impacts of consumer cultures. Adbusters embodies what Juliet Schor (1999) terms “new politics of consumption”: politics defined in opposition to the ubiquity of conspicuous consumption in the West. The foundation’s magazine, Adbusters, features stories from writers critical of how advertising, multinational corporations, and conspicuous consumption impact all facets of our lives (Rumbo, 2002).

Adbusters’ tactics extend beyond previously discussed boycotts and buycotts in this chapter. Adbusters also employs a discursive form of political consumerism that informs consumers about connections between their purchasing decisions and the impact these choices have on others around the world (Stolle & Micheletti, 2013). One of the main and most successful discursive tactics of Adbusters is culture jamming, designed to elicit consumer boycotts of multinational companies by exposing the realities (low worker wages, consumer debt, environmental impacts) of corporate domination (Friedman, 1999).

Adbusters’ culture jams are directed at corporate giants such as Nike, McDonald’s, and Philip Morris, among others. For example, one culture jam shows an advertisement featuring Joe Camel of Camel cigarettes (owned by Philip Morris) depicted in a hospital bed as Joe Chemo, a commentary on the likelihood of getting cancer from smoking. Another culture jam is a spoof of one of Adbusters’ favorite targets, Nike. In this advertisement, the face and wages of a Nike factory worker are juxtaposed with a picture and the price of the shoes they made, highlighting the abysmal wages of workers compared with corporate profit (Adbusters, 2017).

After highlighting the abysmal conditions of Nike workers, Adbusters provides an alternative: an opportunity for individuals to buycott. In 2003 Adbusters debuted Blackspot sneakers, which resembled Nike-owned Converse shoes. Currently retailing for USD$135 with the hashtag #unswoosh, these vegan, tire-soled, union-made shoes take aim at the corporate dominance of Nike. On their website, Adbusters acknowledges that, while they have yet to “unswoosh the swoosh,” success may not come overnight, as it also took a long time for craft beer, buy local campaigns, and farmers’ markets to make a dent in the overall market (Adbusters, 2017).

Finally, Buy Nothing Day, the signature anticonsumerist campaign of Adbusters, originated in Canada in 1992. This day challenges consumers to halt their spending for one day during the holiday shopping season. In the United States, Buy Nothing Day occurs the day after Thanksgiving, on the notorious Black Friday, the largest shopping day of the year (Stolle & Micheletti, 2013). Regardless of the day consumers choose, Adbusters encourages individuals to stop shopping for one day during the holiday season to raise consumer awareness about spending habits and not contribute to holiday overconsumption.

In addition to the consciousness-raising of Adbusters, rates of political consumerism continued to rise during the 1990s, as boycotts and buycotts increased in both visibility and participation in North America (Andersen & Tobiasen, 2004; Norris, 2002). For political consumers interested in the antisweatshop movement, two highly visible news stories—the sweatshop production of Kathie Lee Gifford’s apparel line and Jonah Peretti’s viral Nike sweatshop email—brought the issue to the public’s attention once again.

In 1996, a National Labor Committee investigation discovered that the Honduran factory Global Fashion was a sweatshop. Global Fashion was responsible for producing clothing for Kathie Lee’s apparel line, which was sold at the retail giant Walmart. The factory employed girls as young as thirteen, required seventy-five-hour workweeks, permitted only one to two bathroom breaks in a fifteen-hour workday, and forbade workers to attend school. Global Fashion paid workers an average of USD$0.39 per hour for pants sold at Walmart for USD$19.96. In one day, the factory produced USD$15,968 worth of Kathie Lee apparel, but the combined wages of the factory’s sixty-five workers was USD$203 (National Labor Committee, 1996). Other factories producing Kathie Lee’s apparel in Guatemala paid workers USD$28.57 for forty-four hours of work (USD$0.65 per hour). The Caribbean Apparel factory in El Salvador paid workers USD$0.60 per hour, only one-third of the living wage in El Salvador at the time (Spectar, 2000).

The public exposure and outcry from the Kathie Lee scandal reintroduced the term “sweatshop” into the broader public consciousness. The scandal caused so much uproar in the United States that then President Bill Clinton implemented an antisweatshop task force in 1998, composed of representatives from labor and human rights groups, labor unions, and clothing manufacturers, to implement standards regarding labor practices of U.S.-based companies abroad (Greenhouse, 1998). Shortly thereafter, in 2000, multinational apparel manufacturer Nike was involved in another sweatshop scandal. Nike introduced an option for shoppers to order customized shoes online. In an era of mass production, the multinational company framed this as an opportunity for customers to express their freedom and individuality. Nike, however, used (and continues to use) sweatshops to produce their apparel, and one consumer pointed this out.

Activist Jonah Peretti found Nike’s marketing strategy offensive given the company’s history of labor violations. Peretti ordered a pair of Nike shoes to be customized with the label “sweatshop.” He made a statement regarding the irony of consumers in the First World paying for customizing by Third World producers. Peretti, like Adbusters, employed culture jamming in an effort to highlight Nike’s atrocities (Stolle & Micheletti, 2013). Peretti’s culture jamming, premised upon turning corporate power against itself through the co-option or recontextualization of meaning, caught Nike’s attention (Peretti & Micheletti, 2004). After receiving the order, Nike responded via email that they could not fulfill the order. This original email began a public exchange between Peretti and Nike, eventually reaching over eleven million people within a few months (Stolle & Micheletti, 2013). From the point of cancellation, Peretti and Nike exchanged six emails, all of which were later published in Harper’s magazine.

During the same time as the outcry from the Kathie Lee sweatshop scandal and Peretti’s culture jam, the Canadian-based Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) began partnering with labor and women’s rights organizations in Mexico and Central America to combat worker exploitation. Between 1994 and 2004, the MSN served as the Canadian contact for international campaigns advancing women’s and workers’ rights in Mexico and Central America. The scope of MSN campaigns was expansive and included supporting workers’ rights to organize; living wage campaigns; advocating for women’s rights and for workers’ rights to childcare; and corporate and government accountability. The MSN was directly involved with holding the Canadian government and Canadian-based companies accountable for the treatment of workers throughout their supply chains (Maquila Solidarity Network, 2017). The success of the MSN again shows how solidarity networks that serve as partnering producers with consumers, applying direct pressure to the state and companies, are effective strategies to bring about desired change.

During this surge of antisweatshop awareness, another solidarity organization formed, this time composed of university students in the United States and Canada. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), formed in 1997, was a grassroots student-worker organization founded on principles of collective liberation and solidarity. Similar to the MSN, USAS focuses on holding parties responsible—in this case, university administrations—for adhering to factory codes of conduct and upholding workers’ rights. By employing a model of consumer-worker solidarity, USAS has been extremely successful. With over 150 chapters on college campuses throughout the United States and Canada, USAS has affiliated over 180 colleges with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), the only independent factory-monitoring organization of collegiate apparel, and it has achieved victories for workers against corporate giants including Nike and Hanes (Wimberley, Katz, & Mason, 2015).

In addition to the apparel industry, the food industry has also yielded to the power of political consumers. In 2004 agrigiant Monsanto lost a battle in Canada against the use of their Roundup Ready (RR) wheat, the first of a roundup crop (Eaton, 2017). The group defeating RR wheat in Canada was composed of a politically diverse coalition of farmworkers, environmental and food justice activists, and consumers. Notably, the coalition that united over opposition to RR wheat disagreed more broadly about GMOs and biotechnology. This coalition also differed from common health–related opposition to GMOs: instead, their campaign focused on agronomic and land stewardship, and six of the nine coalition members were from rural and farm groups. In 2003 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) yielded to the pressure of the coalition and asked Monsanto to provide additional information regarding potential agricultural changes farmers could expect from RR wheat. In 2004, Monsanto, understanding the request from the CFIA meant they were under additional scrutiny and would likely face continuing opposition to their product, withdrew their RR wheat from Canada (Eaton, 2017).

Similar to the strategies of the Maquila Solidarity Network, this coalition also targeted the corporation and the Canadian government, specifically the CFIA, simultaneously.4 Notably, in this battle against RR wheat, it was Monsanto proponents of RR wheat who urged farmers to “vote with their dollar.” Their argument, rooted in neoliberalism, was that individual farmers, not the Canadian government, should have the freedom to decide whether or not they would use a product. In Canada, governmental regulation of products occurs on a case-by-case basis, therefore each anti-GMO campaign is a separate victory (previous victories include denial of the bovine growth hormone and other biotech companies withdrawing GMOs from their processes) (Eaton, 2017). The successes of the anti–RR wheat campaign and other food justice campaigns remind us that individuals advocating for food and land justice can also be farmers themselves, not only privileged individuals advocating on behalf of others (Allen & Hinrichs, 2007; Minkoff-Zern, 2017).

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food (the Fair Food Campaign) is the next example in a long line of successful producer-consumer alliances. Similar to the UFW grape boycott of the 1960s, the Fair Food Campaign was worker-led but relied upon consumer support to demand an improvement in their working conditions (Minkoff-Zern, 2017). In the United States, an estimated one-half to three-quarters of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, mainly from Mexico and Central America. Because of their precarious status, many workers fear speaking out about low wages and poor working conditions (Minkoff-Zern, 2017). An estimated one-fourth of farmworkers live below the federal poverty line and 55 percent are food insecure (Kresge & Eastman, 2010). Farmworkers are one of the few occupations exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a minimum wage, forty-hour workweek, overtime pay, and prohibited child labor. They are also excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which guarantees private-sector employees the right to organize (Minkoff-Zern, 2017).5

The Fair Food Campaign is a farmworker-led, consumer-backed movement to improve the working conditions of farmworkers. The campaign is focused on corporate buyers of produce including fast food companies, food service providers, and grocery stores. The Fair Food Campaign identifies power brokers, primarily multinational corporations, and pressures them to improve labor standards by applying pressure to the entire food industry from the top down. Consumers supporting the CIW write letters to companies demanding they meet the requests of the CIW, stating they will boycott the retailer if they do not agree to the CIW’s demands. In addition to boycotts and letter-writing campaigns, the CIW has also circulated petitions and organized protests and days of action at multiple agrifood company headquarters. When a company signs onto the Fair Food Campaign, they agree to use their market power to increase farmworker wages (for example, paying one more cent per pound for tomatoes as was the case with the Taco Bell boycott), enforce a human rights–based code of conduct for suppliers, and agree to third-party farm audits (Minkoff-Zern, 2017).

Since the onset of the Fair Food Campaign in 2011, over USD$18 million has been paid to farmworkers directly; over 150,000 workers have been educated on workplace rights; and 600 workers have filed complaints of worker abuse (Coalition of Immokalee Workers, 2015). Fair Food contracts have been reached with fast food giants McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell; food service providers Aramark and Sodexo; and grocery stores Walmart and Trader Joe’s (Minkoff-Zern, 2017).

The Fair Food Campaign owes its success to two main strategies: producer-consumer solidarity and targeting multinational corporations. Because the Fair Food Campaign is worker-led, with consumer support following, it prioritizes the needs of workers rather than consumers. Second, the Fair Food Campaign’s targeting of fast food giants and grocery stores has implemented change from the top down. By specifically targeting megaconsumers of agricultural products, the Fair Food Campaign’s impact is amplified (Minkoff-Zern, 2017).

The aforementioned examples—from the CIW’s Fair Food Campaign, to the culture jamming of Adbusters and Jonah Peretti, to the Canadian farmers’ defeat of Roundup Ready wheat—exemplify the diversity of campaigns and participants of political consumerism in United States and Canada. Additionally, cultural shifts in both countries also led to the rise of political consumerism, as discussed below.

The Impact of Postmaterialism and Lifestyle Politics on Political Consumption

Two major shifts occurred post–World War II in North America that enhanced the visibility and influence of political consumerism: a rise in postmaterialist values and an emphasis on lifestyle politics (Haenfler, Johnson, & Jones, 2012; Miller, 2005; Newman & Bartels, 2011). Increasing rates of political consumerism in the United States and Canada are reflections of societal shifts with respect to citizen values, norms, and practices (Copeland, 2014a; Dalton, 2013; Gotlieb & Cheema, 2016). For example, Canadian political consumerism increased from 20 to 27 percent for individuals twenty-five and older (and dropped off again for individuals over sixty-five) between 2003 and 2008 (Statistics Canada, 2014).6 These societal shifts provide opportunities for individuals, citizens, and consumers to express their politics in unconventional ways. Instead of pursuing change via conventional routes of political participation (voting, signing petitions, contacting elected officials), individuals increasingly engage in political consumerism (Andersen & Tobiasen, 2004; Stolle, Hooghe, & Micheletti, 2005).

The rise of postmaterialist values following World War II has historical importance. According to Inglehart (1981, 1997), the socioeconomic conditions affecting a generation during childhood have an impact on generational values. Compared to individuals born and raised during World War I and the Great Depression, who endured greater economic uncertainty, those born after World War II enjoyed better material circumstances. Consequently, they are more likely to embrace postmaterialist values because they do not have to devote all of their energies to meeting their basic needs.

Some commonalities exist for those who embrace postmaterialist values in the United States and Canada. These individuals are broadly concerned with social justice issues, including fair labor conditions, environmental protection, and racial and gender equality. A recent study of political consumers in the United States found those who embrace postmaterialist values are more likely to participate in political consumerism than those who do not (Copeland, 2014a). Prior studies on postmaterialist values of undergraduate students in Canada, Sweden, and Belgium found support for postmaterialist values significantly increased the likelihood of participating in political consumerism (Stolle et al., 2005).

Thus, it is not surprising that the rise of postmaterialist values coincides with participation in lifestyle politics. Postmaterialist values align well with modern-day examples of lifestyle politics, including fair trade, food preferences (veganism/vegetarianism/organic), green consumption, and participation in the slow food and voluntary simplicity movements. In the United States, Fair Trade USA, the national certifier of fair trade products, reports that, since 1998, fair trade farmers have earned an additional USD$165 billion as a result of U.S. consumers purchasing fairly traded goods (Fair Trade USA, 2017). In addition, Fairtrade Canada’s annual report indicates a strong consumer base for fair trade goods. In 2016, Fairtrade Canada indicates farmers were paid an additional CAD$4.6 million as a result of fair trade pricing, an increase of 11 percent from the previous year (Fairtrade Canada, 2016). This upward trend indicates support for purchasing fair trade products is growing and also highlights how lifestyle politics and fair trade work: individual actions, collectively, bring about social change (Webb, 2007).

The expansion from conventional forms of political engagement to the inclusion of lifestyle politics signals a change within the framework of consumer cultures. Individuals shop and politically engage differently now. They are interested in the “politics behind the products” and motivated by their ability to “politicize the personal” through political consumerism (Newman & Bartels, 2011; Stolle, Hooghe, & Micheletti, 2005, 2013). In this regard, the commitment of individuals engaged in lifestyle politics extends beyond the other three forms of political consumerism (boycotting, buycotting, discursive) as individuals focus on forming a cohesive identity and align their politics with their purchases regarding personal identity as a site of social change (Haenfler et al., 2012; Stolle & Micheletti, 2013).

Because lifestyle movements are neither formalized social movements nor conventional means of political participation (i.e., voting, signing petitions), scholarly examination has lagged (Haenfler et al., 2012). Due to their amorphous nature, lifestyle movements may also be easily overlooked because participation and categorization are not easily measured. For example, take the case of vegetarians and vegans. An estimated 3 percent of adults in the United States are vegetarian or vegan (The Vegetarian Resource Group, 2016) and 8 percent of Canadians are vegetarian (Vancouver Humane Society, 2015; also see Jallinoja et al. in this volume). While these individuals boycott meat purchases, alternatively they may buycott vegetarian or vegan products, discuss animal rights with friends engaging in discursive political consumerism, and strive to align their lifestyle with their politics (Stolle & Micheletti, 2013). How do we measure their level of involvement? Should each one of these actions be counted individually or do they constitute various forms of the same lifestyle choice?

Furthermore, compared to overtly political movements, lifestyle movements also tend to be relatively individualistic and private (i.e., people may not know your shopping choices unless you tell them); ongoing, rather than episodic; and directed toward changing cultural practices rather than the state (Haenfler et al., 2012). In this regard, lifestyle movements are a relatively low-risk form of political action in the sense that they do not compromise the physical safety of participants (Micheletti, 2003). On the other hand, lifestyle movements are challenging because they often require a substantive change of lifestyles (e.g., downshifting). While participants in lifestyle movements believe the sum of individualized actions collectivized can impact the global economy, they engage from a position of minimal risk (Furlong & Cartmel, 2006; Haenfler et al., 2012; Stolle & Micheletti, 2013). Postmaterialist values embedded within lifestyle movements also tend to attract younger participants (Dalton, 2008; Harris, Wyn & Younes, 2010; Micheletti & Stolle, 2008) and provide a “participatory alternative” (Shildrick, Blackman, & MacDonald, 2009) to an otherwise low rate of participation in mainstream electoral politics (Côté & Allahar, 2006). In a national study of Canadian political consumers, Nonomura (2017) found individuals ages thirty to thirty-four were the most likely to engage in political consumerism, but individuals between ages twenty to fifty-four all had rates rates of political consumerism between 28 and 33 percent.

The impact of gender in lifestyle movements, and political consumerism more broadly, varies. Several studies indicate women have higher rates of political consumerism than men, often explained by women’s historical exclusions from representative political institutions (Acik, 2013; Gil de Zúñiga, Homero, & Valenzuela, 2012; Sandovici & Davis, 2010; Stolle et al., 2005) and women’s roles as household provisioners (Neilson, 2010). Other studies point to the interaction between gender and class to explain participation.

In a recent study of Toronto ecomothers, researchers state that buying organic is a form of “caring consumption” and a gendered form of class distinction (Cairns, de Laat, Johnston, & Baumann, 2014). In other words, it is not simply being a woman, but being a middle- or upper-middle- class woman, that explains participation in ecomothering. In another study of Toronto food preferences, researchers found participation in “good eating” was more likely among economically privileged households (Johnston, Szabo, & Rodney, 2011). In these examples, the critique that “good” food or ecoconsumption are elite forms of participation is substantiated (Guthman, 2003).

Overall, the post–World War II shifts towards lifestyle politics and postmaterialist values created opportunities for historically excluded populations to participate in political consumerism. In these instances, individuals who were historically excluded from public spaces were able to politically consume through changes in their lifestyles. As discussed below, the demographics of political consumers vary across the United States and Canada and between privileged and historically excluded groups.

Demographics and Participation in Political Consumerism

The scholarship is divided regarding predictors of participation in political consumerism. For example, recent studies indicate specific demographic predictors among political consumers (Copeland, 2014b). In a comparative study based on 2011 YouGov survey data of U.S. political consumers, participation in both boycotting and buycotting was predicted by level of education, political interest, and ideological strength. Individuals with higher levels of education, higher rates of political interest, and higher rates of ideological strength were more likely to politically consume than those who did not. Importantly, however, income did not predict participation in either boycotting or buycotting, refuting the notion that economic privilege is a precursor for participation. However, level of income and ideological strength significantly predicted the likelihood of dualcotting (participation in both boycotting and buycotting), while partisan strength was negatively associated with dualcotting (Copeland, 2014b).

Yet, other studies measuring demographic predictors of political consumerism contrast the aforementioned findings regarding demographic predictors of political consumers. While previous studies also indicate higher levels of education significantly increase the likelihood of participation in political consumerism (Andersen & Tobiasen, 2004; Dalton, 2008; Norris, 2002; Verba et al., 1995), income has also significantly predicted participation in boycotting or buycotting (Ferrer & Fraile, 2006; Holt, 1998; Katz, 2011; Leighley & Vedlitz, 1999; Min Baek, 2010; Stolle, Hoothe & Micheletti, 2005).

Overall rates of political consumerism are high, with studies of U.S. political consumers indicating 67 percent of individuals report boycotting at least one product or company within the past year, and 78 percent of individuals report buycotting at least one product or company within the past year (Katz, 2011). In Canada, the rates of participation are lower, with 27 percent of Canadians having participated in a boycott (Statistics Canada, 2014).

Because distinctions regarding various motivations and subsections of political consumers is a relatively new development in the literature, prior studies have largely discussed political consumers in their entirety, without differentiating demographic and ideological differences between boycotters and buycotters (Copeland, 2014b; Min Baek, 2010). Boycotts are more protest- and punishment-oriented, while buycotts are reward-oriented and therefore may appeal to different individuals with varying motivations for participation (Copeland, 2014b).

Some commonalities exist amongst those most likely to participate in boycotting and buycotting. In the United States, political consumers are more likely to belong to racial ethnic majorities and younger generations; to be highly educated and have higher incomes; to be more politically engaged; to engage in unconventional forms of political action; and to identify as female (Copeland, 2014a; Min Baek, 2010; Stolle et al., 2005). In Canada, political consumers are more likely to be between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-five; to be highly educated and have higher incomes; to live in metropolitan areas; to have lower rates of confidence in corporations; but they are not more likely to identify as female (Statistics Canada, 2014).7 However, when differentiating among various forms of political consumers, demographic predictors shift.

For example, survey data from the 2002 National Civic Engagement Survey (NCES) of U.S. political consumers indicated women were no more likely than men to engage in political consumerism, as previous studies found (Katz, 2011; Min Baek, 2010). Dualcotters and boycotters had a slightly higher proportion of male participants, while no gender difference existed between buycotters and noncotters (Min Baek, 2010). The notion that shopping is a feminized activity, and therefore more prevalent amongst women, is more nuanced than originally thought. As previously stated, men who live in a leading consumer nation are also susceptible to hyperconsumerism, which is an increased pressure to consume goods in capitalist societies for nonfunctional purposes (Ritzer, 2005). However, because we tend to see fashion and shopping as a “women’s arena” (Klepp & Storm-Mathisen, 2005), women may be more likely to politically consume in this realm (Austgulen, 2016). Perhaps what matters is not the act of viewing shopping as inherently feminized, and thus something women are more likely to take part in, but what products are purchased and by whom.

The Rise and Role of the Internet

Scholars argue that connectivity is important for long-term sustained involvement in political consumerism, whether considered as a social movement, an assertion of a lifestyle, or an alternative form of collective action (Benford & Snow, 2000). Digital media affect political consumerism in at least three dimensions: access to goods, interaction among consumers, and availability of information regarding corporate practices.

The rise and ubiquity of internet shopping has made shopping, an already individualized activity, potentially more isolating. Online purchasing has become more common in the United States than shopping at the mall, in part, because consumers have access to a wider range of goods than they do in brick-and-mortar stores. While is currently the number-one apparel retailer in the United States, one-third of the country’s malls are likely to close in the coming years. Interestingly, Canadian malls are not closing at the same rates, due in part to a difference in per-capita penetration of shopping centers: Canada has 16.5 square feet of mall space per person, compared to 23.6 square feet per person in the United States (Shaw, 2017). These shifts in infrastructure, coupled with the rise and ubiquity of the internet, have changed the landscape of both shopping and political consumerism.

The internet also increases the likelihood of interaction among consumers who may be otherwise geographically isolated from others with similar political or social values. Individual consumers can organize and disseminate information regarding specific boycotts or buycotts through social media, using platforms such as email, Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs (Makarem & Jae, 2016). Additionally, a campaign promoted through one platform can easily spread to other platforms, increasing the likelihood of more individuals learning about a particular action (Gil de Zúñiga et al., 2012). For example, by publicizing his email exchange with Nike online, culture jammer Jonah Peretti was able to reach a broader audience informing them of the atrocities of Nike. The ubiquity of the internet and, more recently, of social media have changed the scope, breadth, and accessibility of political consumerism.

For example, CarrotMobs, while not currently active, have mobilized 250 campaigns in over twenty countries around the world and spent over USD$1 million improving conditions at businesses. Departing slightly from a traditional buycott, CarrotMob organizers mobilize consumers to patronize specific businesses in exchange for those businesses taking socially responsible actions demanded by the CarrotMob. CarrotMobs encourage businesses to meet their demands through the promise of patronage—often first issuing a call for participation with the agreement that the CarrotMob will collectively support the selected business. The official CarrotMob website encourages participants to spread news about their particular campaign via social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter; to devise a short YouTube video; and to advertise via email lists (CarrotMob, 2017). While also encouraging promotion via flyers and media press releases, the success of CarrotMobs, similar to other mass boycotts and buycotts, is due in part to how quickly information is disseminated over the internet to likeminded individuals.

In addition to CarrotMobs, the internet and social media have also had an impact on how consumers access information about particular companies. Although there are limited empirical studies examining the relationship between internet usage and political consumerism in North America, studies indicate individuals who use social media are more likely to engage in political consumerism than those who do not (Gil de Zúñiga et al., 2012). One explanation is that the information shared within the boundaries of specific social networks provides a tool for mobilization and information sharing, facilitating potential engagement in political consumerism. Particularly, the rise of hashtags for a particular campaign has made it easier for individuals to connect and mobilize with other likeminded consumers, even if they are not in geographical proximity (Makarem & Jae, 2016). A recent study U.S.-based consumers reveals that social media use, in particular, may play a mediating role between general digital media use and political consumerism. However, more research is needed to establish the exact aspects of internet use that influence participation in political consumerism (Gil de Zúñiga et al., 2012).

Recent analyses of the #boycott hashtag in Twitter feeds revealed some commonalities amongst boycott targets. Boycott targets are frequently for-profit companies, and the most common reasons for boycotts include human rights violations, hindering freedom of speech, and infringement upon women’s rights within these companies (Makarem & Jae, 2016). However, it is also important to note boycotts are not exclusively a tactic of the political left, and often when a boycott occurs for one political stance, a boycott ensues on the other end. For example, in June 2012, the Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant’s chief operating officer, Dan Cathy, publicly declared his opposition to same-sex marriage. Supporters of same-sex marriage called for a Chick-fil-A boycott while simultaneously a buycott ensued, of which 630,000 supporters showed up to patronize Chick-fil-A for an appreciation day of the company in August 2012 (see Park; Micheletti and Oral in this volume). Undoubtedly, the internet has changed the way we shop and politically organize. Individuals are able to consume 24/7, but they also have access to information regarding boycotts and buycotts.

Political Consumerism in North America Today: Conclusions and Challenges

Political consumerism has a long tradition in North America, and consumer-based campaigns in the United States and Canada have become even more ubiquitous in recent years (Copeland, 2014a; Newman & Bartels, 2011). Research on Canadian political consumers still lags behind research on U.S. political consumers and, accordingly, more examples are offered from the United States in this chapter. The research on Canadian consumers, however, is more localized and specific than research on U.S. political consumers. For example, the last General Social Survey module to collect data on political consumers in Canada was in 2008, and less research by other scholars exists on Canada.

Nevertheless, since the 1990s, political consumerism resurged as boycotts and buycotts increased in both visibility and rates of participation (Andersen & Tobiasen, 2004; Copeland, 2014a; Norris, 2002). Recent studies indicate between 22 and 44 percent of the general population has engaged in political consumerism (Copeland, 2014a). As a point of comparison, these rates of political consumerism are higher than levels of participation in more traditional forms of political participation, which include contacting public officials, participating in rallies, and contributing to campaigns (Min Baek, 2010: Gil de Zúñiga et al., 2012; Newman & Bartels, 2011). In other words, even though “political consumerism” is a relatively new term in the scholarly literature, its ubiquity suggests that more attention should be paid to it.

With the rise and spread of the internet and social media, information sharing and gathering of a particular company’s practices, along with information sharing about how to participate in boycotts or buycotts, have increased the potential for an even wider group of individuals to become political consumers. As evidenced by Jonah Peretti’s email exchange with Nike, the internet is an inexpensive and rapid way to educate millions of consumers about boycotts quickly (Glickman, 2009).

Moreover, while the ubiquity of political consumer campaigns is vast, those that rely upon solidarity between producers and consumers, including the UFW grape boycott, the CIW Fair Food Campaign, and the antisweatshop movement, are preferable to those that do not. In this regard, consumers are careful not to take the lead in determining what producers or workers need but rather to follow their lead in demands for better working conditions and pay.

Additionally, as mentioned above, there is currently more research on U.S. political consumers than Canadian political consumers. This may be due to the scale of consumption between the countries as well as the different levels of government intervention in consumer affairs in both countries. However, despite the recent increase in boycotts and buycotts, research on political consumerism in the United States and Canada remains more limited than in European countries (Nonomura, 2017). In particular, there is a need for more research on the motivations of political consumers (Hoffmann & Müller, 2009; McFarland, 2011). To date, there is a growing body of literature on participation rates of political consumers but less information regarding why they politically consume. Developing a better understanding of consumer motivation for participation could help potentially galvanize participation and support during future boycotts and buycotts.

Studying political consumerism in North America also poses methodological challenges. First, political consumerism is difficult to quantify and compare cross-nationally, particularly because there is no standard way of measuring political consumerism (Stolle & Micheletti, 2013).8 Second, political consumers tend to be studied in their entirety rather than as distinctive populations (e.g., boycotters, buycotters, discursive, lifestyle). However, it is known that boycotters and buycotters have different motivations for participation (Copeland, 2014b), and it would not be a stretch to suggest other political consumers do as well. It would be beneficial to study the distinctive forms of political consumerism separately, while acknowledging that overlap between types of political consumerism exists. Finally, it is often a challenge to quantify what people do not do. How do researchers quantify how frequently individuals boycott a particular company or product if they no longer patronize that store or purchase that product?

Currently, there is knowledge of the demographic attributes and predictors of participation in political consumerism but not what initially interests and sustains involvement in political consumerism. Further research into the motivations behind political consumers would not only address a gap in the scholarship; it would also be helpful to movements and organizations hoping to mobilize consumer action on behalf of political and social justice movements.


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(1) For an approximation, on August 17, 2017, the exchange rate was USD$1 = CAD$1.26.

(2) Continuing the family tradition of consumer activism, Florence Kelly was the niece of Sarah Pugh, a leader in the American Free Produce Association (Glickman, 2009).

(3) The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Campaign for Fair Food discussed later in this chapter is another example of consumer-farmworker collaboration.

(4) In discussions surrounding political consumerism, there is an assumption that an individual and organizations will choose either the market or the state to achieve their goals. As this Canadian victory over Monsanto indicates, it is possible to do both simultaneously.

(5) In 1975 the UFW was successful in amending this law to cover farmworkers under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. However, workers in other parts of the United States remain unprotected (Gray, 2014).

(6) The last module of the General Social Survey collecting data on ethical consumerism in Canada was in 2008. In this module, the question respondents answered was, “In the past 12 months, have you done any of the following activities: […] boycotted a product or chosen a product for ethical reasons?”

(7) The General Social Survey of Canada only used boycotting as a measure of political consumerism. Results may have differed if including the additional three forms of political consumerism.

(8) For example, as mentioned previously, Canada’s General Social Survey’s measurement of political consumerism only measured boycotting. Comparing responses from that dataset to nationally representative data from the United States, which includes boycotting and buycotting, poses methodological challenges.