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From Moral Concerns to Market Values: How Political Consumerism Shapes Markets

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter draws on the economic sociology literature and considers the effects of political consumer activism on market structures and practices. Its main argument is that activists who employ market-based tactics provide markets with alternative valuations of products, corporate reputations, and economic activities that challenge existing market values. These contentious forms of valuation modify the structure of opportunities for market operators, leading some companies to change practices or products, which may in turn influence market competition. Moreover, the new normative framing of market values by civil society may convince states to regulate corporate behaviour. This perspective reveals conditions in which normative concerns emerge about market activities and may be progressively integrated into market practices. This works through a complex mechanism of changes in the valuation of market entities, actors, and activities. Markets could then be locations for the emergence of moral economies that can challenge existing economic practices.

Keywords: markets, values, economic sociology, consumer, political consumption, market devices, reputation

Starbucks is known throughout the world for its programmes on the environment, diversity, community support, fair trade, and the fight against poverty and illiteracy. Yet this company, indisputably a symbol of globalization, has regularly been targeted by boycotts in response to a wide range of issues (Simon, 2011) because of its status and visibility (Bartley & Child, 2014). Is there a link between changes in corporate practices and political consumer activism? This chapter discusses the puzzling outputs of political consumerism in terms of its capacity to achieve social change. Political consumerism exemplifies forms of contemporary political engagement in social justice in capitalist societies (Micheletti & Stolle, 2008). However, assessments of the effectiveness of political consumer activism fall short, as the phenomenon seems to concern only a small proportion of society.

This chapter draws on the economic sociology literature and considers the effects of political consumer activism on market structures and practices. Its main argument is that activists who employ market-based tactics provide markets with alternative valuations of products, corporate reputations, and economic activities that challenge existing market values. These contentious forms of valuation modify the structure of opportunities for market operators, leading some companies to change practices or products, which may in turn influence market competition. Moreover, the new normative framing of market values by civil society may convince states to regulate corporate behaviour.

The first part of the chapter discusses why political consumerism can only have limited effects on consumer behaviour, and it demonstrates that political consumerism as a market-based protest tactic inevitably has an ambiguous relationship with markets because it seeks to influence market values and structures through the use of market mechanisms. This makes it both a form of criticism and a driving force (p. 814) of markets. The second part of the chapter broadens the analysis by considering the mediated outputs of political consumerism and assessing how the market-based tactics developed by activists attempt to provide markets with new valuations to contest existing market values. It has been shown that these valuation activities affect the relational structures of markets, which may change corporate practices and encourage the state to impose regulations. The conclusion maintains that market-based and anticorporate activism should be considered not only for their attempt to achieve social change through changes in economic actors’ behaviours but also through their call for state regulation.

Political Consumerism’s Limited Capacity to Change Individual Consumers’ Behaviour

The question of the capacity of political consumerism to change individual consumers’ behaviour links with the classical issue of the outcomes achieved by social movements. In a seminal study, well-known scholar of social movement theory Gamson (1990) identified two categories of the effects of social movements: the first is acceptance of the challenger group, which then embodies a legitimate set of interests; the second is linked to a movement’s capacity to obtain new advantages. When a group achieves both acceptance and new advantages, it is considered to be completely successful. In the case of political consumerism, this would mean that a group that legitimizes political consumers’ aspirations and convinces companies to change their practices would achieve success. However, previous scholarship does not provide such evidence, and there are only few studies on how political consumers as a group can foster social or market change (Holzer, 2006; see also Chapter 36).

Political consumerism, which grew strongly in the wake of the global justice movement of the 1990s following social forums in Seattle and then Genoa (della Porta and Piazza, 2008), has become increasingly visible in both the social sphere and the social science literature. The literature treated it as a specific form of political expression by individuals (Micheletti, 2003), the determining factors of which were then related to national contexts. Since 2002, the European Social Survey has shown discrepancies between northern European countries, which have very high rates of political consumerism, and southern European countries, where individuals are less inclined to participate in such practices. In comparison, rates of consumption by American consumers are around the European average (Bartley et al., 2015). Political consumerism has mostly been framed as an expression of individual expectations or values. However, studies have acknowledged political consumerism’s limited capacity to engender significant changes in individual consumers’ behaviour.

(p. 815) Two sets of results can be drawn from the literature. First, several studies have demonstrated the limited capacity of political consumerism to spread beyond a socially segmented group. Many scholars have attempted to demonstrate the very significant role played by the effects of gender and social class in political consumerist practices. Most participants are women with an average age of 35, an above-average level of education, and an upper-middle-class background (Koos, 2012). For example, practices of buying fairtrade or organic products provide a low degree of social accessibility (Baumann et al., 2015), which obviously limits their capacity to spread widely within societies. Political consumerism has also been likened to forms of cultural consumption by individuals with a high social status (Holt, 1998), who are looking for a new form of class distinction through the consumption of organic, local, craft or natural products, or do-it-yourself products (Carfagna et al., 2014; Johnston, 2008). This ethical or political consumption is primarily by a social elite composed of consumers who are generally in good health and highly educated, for whom political consumerism has become a cultural repertoire closely related to indications of class status (Cairns et al., 2013; Johnston et al., 2011). Moreover, they are inclined to build symbolic boundaries between their own and others’ practices, such as buying organic products from specialized brands and shops rather than ordinary ones, which limits the spread of these practices among large groups of consumers (Dubuisson-Quellier and Gojard, 2016).

A second stream of literature argues that the inconsistency and reversibility of political consumerism practices indicate their limited scope. Inconsistency refers to the fact that a consumer might feel concerned with ethical aspects of his/her consumption in certain circumstances but not in others. Reversibility is linked to the possibility that a consumer might buy ethically and then stop doing so. Political consumerism is very sensitive to the context of purchase situations that do not always allow individuals to interpret correctly recommendations made to them (Carrigan et al., 2004). Many studies also mention the ambivalent positions of consumers with regard to these recommendations; for example, many consumers purchase organic products for health reasons, although organic labelling does not support such claims (Lockie et al., 2002). Ultimately, faced with these difficulties of interpretation, individuals might seem inconsistent as they tend to develop consumption practices that respond to a large number of objectives, of which political or ethical dimensions are only one aspect (Halkier, 2001). Like all consumption practices, political consumerism is articulated around a multitude of constraints, including cost, time, and distinction (Sassatelli, 2006; Shaw and Shiu, 2003). As a result, consumers develop a diversity of practices wholly reversible, including some that they erroneously assume to be ethical (Pecoraro and Uusitalo, 2014); they limit their ethical practices to certain types of consumption (Harrison et al., 2005); or they even balance unethical practices with ethical ones to legitimize their modes of consumption (Ulver-Sneistrup et al., 2011). They may also make compromises between different objectives to justify variations in practices from one situation to another (Andersen, 2011). Whereas the studies mentioned above highlight the segmented nature of political consumerist practices, at the same time the authors demonstrate the inconsistency (p. 816) of political consumerist practices because they examine the irreconcilable objectives of consumption practices. Moreover, critics state that political consumer activism relies on an excessively “naïve aggregationist” perspective that links social change to illusory changes in individual consumer behaviour, leading people to believe themselves to be agents of social change because they ride a bicycle or eat green (Princen et al., 2002; Willis and Schor, 2012).

Market-based tactics, such as boycotts and buycotts, either on a mass scale or over time, have been able to change individuals’ consumption patterns on a limited basis. Such tactics appear to be either a niche of very specific consumption behaviours for elite consumers who consume goods in pursuit of political objectives, or more commonly as an extension of the possible repertoire of consumption practices for consumers for whom political or ethical allegations could be part of their set of preferences.

Political Consumerism as a Driving Force of Markets

Political consumerism can then be included as a strategy of distinction or a new dimension of consumers’ preferences. As a consequence, this form of expression is closely connected to the functioning of markets and directly compatible with the ideal of consumer sovereignty.

This representation of the role of consumers in the economy as one of free choice is the result of a long social process that started in the eighteenth century (Trentmann, 2001). A variety of market professionals, such as designers, retailers, marketers, or advertisers, have worked to encourage the accumulation of goods and a materialist relationship with them as characteristics of modern consumers (Dubuisson-Quellier & Chessel, 2018). Accumulation guarantees growth to companies and states. Consumption has progressively and naturally come to be based on the experience of generalized and frequently renewed choice (Gabriel & Lang, 2006). Thus, the construction of individuals’ interests appeared to be an efficient mechanism for achieving the economic optimum, and the sovereignty of consumers’ choice is its cornerstone (Johnston, 2008). The notion of consumer sovereignty describes the power of control exercised by the consumer through his/her ability to choose between options under conditions of scarce resources (Hutt, 1940). This sovereignty, based on free choice, has progressively come to be considered a principle of market democracy (Schwartzkopf, 2018).

As a result, mass consumerism remains compatible with political goals. During the American New Deal, a veritable social contract between the state and consumer citizens was sealed, as the “purchaser citizen” became the kingpin of mass consumption. It fostered the means for the government to achieve both economic prosperity and democratic objectives (Cohen, 2003). Therefore, the majority of democratic countries (p. 817) institutionalized the figure of the sovereign consumer around relatively stable relationships among government, company representatives, and consumer organizations (Hilton, 2009; Trumbull, 2006). From then on, the identity of the consumer was established around the ideal type of an individual capable of pursuing his or her own interests for the benefit of shared growth for all. Consumer sovereignty, both political and economic, was then established.

Not surprisingly, political consumerism appears to be relatively compatible with the sovereign consumer (Shaw et al., 2016). It corresponds to the inclusion of collective goals of consumer aspirations and has developed at the same time as the consumer society itself (Glickman, 2009). Since the emblematic case of eighteenth-century American colonists’ revolutionary boycotts against the British Empire, history abounds with examples of political consumerism (Newholm & Newholm, 2016). Consumer mobilizations have backed a wide diversity of causes, such as the fight against slavery and for black civil rights, the defence of workers’ rights, or the prohibition of child labour. Movements have not only used boycotts or the publication of blacklists but also used positive political consumerism, as in the case of the White Label Campaign, developed by the National Consumers League in the United States in the late nineteenth century to encourage consumers to buy clothing from factories that did not force women to work at night. There is more to learn from this historiography of these past mobilizations. These historical studies demonstrate that it was rarely possible to assess the success of political consumption mobilizations based on their immediate objectives. Only in exceptional cases have political consumer tactics caused economic difficulties for the companies targeted (Stolle & Micheletti, 2013). However, they have frequently helped to popularize the causes defended and to trigger the enactment of new legislation that affected both the economy and the market. Moreover, several of these mobilizations fostered new commercial cultures and identities as market actors reacted by commodifying some aspects of the cause. The claims of social movements have regularly been a source of inspiration for companies (Kozinets & Handelman, 2004), especially when these claims have been reinterpreted as indicators of new consumer identities, aspirations, or preferences. Examples of the construction of new markets for black communities, seniors, organic products, and even do-it-yourself goods testify to the ability of marketing to segregate the market according to ethical dimensions (Carrigan & Bosangit, 2016). Not surprisingly, political consumerism must be considered one of the critical driving forces of the market.

As shown above, political consumerism has had an ambiguous relationship with the market from the outset. It is both within and dependent on the market, because it mobilizes market techniques such as advertising, brands, and labels, and it is outside the market in that it attempts to establish a critical stance with regard to market actors. Moreover, activists may criticize market actors’ practices and become a resource for them to expand their action. As a critical force of markets, the outcomes of political consumerism must not be directly assessed in terms of changes to consumer behaviour but rather in terms of changes in markets.

(p. 818) Using Market-Based Activism to Provide Markets With Contentious Valuations

To what extent is political consumerism capable of transforming market structures? To answer this question, we must advance the analysis from the failures and successes to the outputs of movements. This requires a twofold perspective. First, we must focus on social movement organizations that use political consumerism as part of their repertoire of action rather than on political consumerism itself as an isolated tactic. Most organizations that use political consumerism employ a complex mix of strategies and tactics, some of which are market-based, such as calling for boycotts, naming and shaming, or labelling strategies, while others are part of the classical repertoire of collective action, such as street protests, public campaigning, petitioning, lobbying, or civil disobedience. Second, following Marco Giugni’s (1998) seminal proposals on assessing social movement outputs, the analysis must go beyond the goals and ends or even consequences for targets to consider broad and mediated effects. Giugni (1998) recommends considering the effects of social movements on opinions and values, political structures, and the institutional arrangements of society (see Chapter 36). In the case of market-based activism, particularly its effects on market values, structures, and arrangements should be considered.

Assessing Market-Based Activism: Insights From Economic Sociology

A substantial body of literature has studied the capacity of social movements to regulate economic activities. Facing important claims and criticisms from social movements in the 1990s regarding their labour rights or environmental policies, some corporations funded independent standard-setting initiatives to develop corporate social responsibility programmes and label their products (Bartley et al., 2015). For example, corporations have adopted codes of conduct, standards, or multistakeholder certification programmes designed by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (Cashore et al., 2004; see, e.g., Chapters 11 and 16), or have adapted their rules and routines to respond to the claims expressed by civil society organizations (Vogel, 2005). These actions have been interpreted as strategic responses to the claims from activist organizations that companies engage in symbolic rather than real change (Balsiger, 2014a; Krieger et al., 2015). As consumers, corporations may be multifaceted, making only a part of their production green while continuing to lobby against environmental regulations. They may develop public relations campaigns to discredit environmental discourses or escape compliance by creating their own monitoring or certification programmes (p. 819) (Locke, 2013). Certain adaptations have revived and intensified criticism because their compliance was so obviously symbolic (Hamilton et al., 2015). Therefore, assessing political consumerism outputs based only on direct effects on company practices may fall short, as most companies strategically adapt to the pressure and private regulation they must endorse. Research in economic sociology allows us to penetrate the question of the effects of political consumerism on market structures and practices in more innovative fashion.

Importantly, market-based tactics are a way for activists to influence the valuation processes of markets. The intent of political consumer activism’s disruptive strategies is to contest conventional values of markets, such as self-interest, profit, private property, consumerism, and accumulation by promoting alternative values such as solidarity, sharing, recycling, and material sobriety. Political consumerism introduces other conflicting valuations in the market in its attempt to achieve social change. This notion of valuation is extensively developed in the economic sociology literature (Stark, 2009). Drawing on John Dewey’s work, it is defined as the activities through which actors perform or produce value. In the specific case of economic activities, the notion of valuation corresponds to the process whereby economic entities acquire value (Beckert and Aspers, 2010). It involves cognitive and cultural dimensions (Fourcade, 2011) as well as material and symbolic ones (Karpik, 2010). Several actors are involved in these valuation processes. Companies are deeply engaged in producing valuations of their products, corporate image, and reputations through their marketing, design, corporate communication, and advertising activities (Dubuisson-Quellier, 2013a; see Chapter 10). However, many other actors, for instance market professionals, competitors, and critics, may intervene in these valuation processes. Valuation is performed through market devices (Callon et al., 2007) such as brands, labels, advertisements, communication tools, and shops. Valuation is both evaluation and the tangible production of worth. It is not specific to the economic realm, but valuation activities occur in every social world where actors do not immediately agree on what worth is, and for that reason they may conflict. For instance, economic sociologist Viviana Zelizer (1979) showed how the market for life insurance at its inception in the nineteenth century was undermined by Catholic organizations, which opposed this economic valuation of life. Zelizer (1979) demonstrated the strong contribution of this religious social movement to shaping the new market values of these economic activities. Some companies, instead of fighting the critics directly, took advantage of it and redefined the promotion and selling of life insurance as caring for one’s relatives beyond one’s death. These conflicting valuations have modified the structures of markets, creating opportunities for some companies and modifying the way in which the new activity was evaluated by the rest of society. Engaging in valuation activities is a way for activists to “play” the market in order to modify it from the inside and, in so doing, create dissonance in markets (Berthoin et al., 2015) by providing market actors, both consumers and corporations, with alternative visions of worth. This is also the goal of activists who use political consumerism and seek to achieve social change by undermining the values of consumerist ideology. They raise awareness about the negative externalities of economic activities (p. 820) on several considerations, such as social justice, environmental pressure, and social inequalities, to achieve social change. They use market-based tactics as a way of providing consumers and citizens with contentious valuations of economic activities and products, what should be valued, and what should be morally condemned and collectively considered as unacceptable. Political consumerism produces normative sanctions of economic activities that may create opportunities for some corporations and influence state regulation.

Political Consumer Activism as Means of Producing Contentious Valuations in Markets

Political consumer activism is about producing and circulating symbolic, normative, and material resources for valuation. These resources can be market devices, such as labels, brands, or shopping guides; awareness-raising campaigns on a collective issue; alternative exchange systems; or shaming and blaming actions. They are available in the public space and represent alternatives to the benefits that market actors offer to consumers for choosing and valuing their products (Dubuisson-Quellier, 2013b, 2013c, 2015).

To contest the ideal of consumer sovereignty, social movement organizations use market-based activism to provide consumers with alternative competencies to help them be reflexive and critical. Two important elements structure this representation. The first consists of replacing the vision of a hedonistic and egoistic consumer guided by his/her own individual aspirations with one of a conscious consumer aware of the effects that his/her decisions have on the common good. This not only increases individual awareness of certain collective issues but also helps them to see their own responsibility and capacity for change in order to deepen their involvement. The resources provided to consumers for this purpose are simultaneously discursive, through the use of messages and campaigns, and material, through the use of products, labels, or shops. These resources help to circulate an alternative vision of consumerism attached to the notion of political consumerism. They also circulate alternative valuations of products to undermine what is usually valued in consumerism, such as frequent renewal of products, the accumulation of goods, cheapness, or extreme hygiene and cleanliness (Portwood-Stacer, 2012). The political consumption movement questions not only products and market actors but also the norms and values that they promote and impose as values in markets. For example, market actors place high value on disposable products, cheap clothes, or protein consumption for their capacity to provide consumers with a convenient, plentiful way of life. In contrast, social movements have associated these products and their consumption with negative values such as waste, overspending, and unsustainable ways of life. These alternative valuations introduce contention into markets, as they are available for market actors to challenge existing supply, for consumers to valuate products, and for public decision-makers to undertake economic regulation.

(p. 821) Table 38.1 shows the potential effects of various tactics in the repertoire of political consumerism on markets and public decisions. For each tactic, it shows the type of resources and competencies provided to consumers or individuals and the possible impact on market structures. Political consumerism may create market niches, provide business opportunities for challenger companies or new entrants, or weaken incumbent companies. However, in addition to these economic impacts on corporate opportunities and structures that the literature has mostly analysed (King, 2008; King and Pearce, 2010; King and Soule, 2007), political consumerism modifies the normative rules for markets concerning what should be important (what should count) and the aspects for which economic actors should be accountable. Political consumerism builds moral economies intended to challenge the domination of the principles of consumer sovereignty. It also raises awareness of large audiences, consumers, shareholders, or public decision-makers on a range of public issues directly identified for the effects of their externalities on the common good and provides cognitive and normative resources for these audiences to valuate products, corporations, or ways of life in a different way than what currently occurs in the market sphere. These alternative norms and values may provide market actors with opportunities to create new businesses. Even if they do not change their purchasing behaviours greatly, consumers can be aware that some modes of production, such as poor working conditions for South Asian workers, or modes of consumption, such as wasting food or the frequent renewal of products, are morally condemned. Different ranking systems are increasingly integrating environmental and social criteria into ratings of corporate reputations. Some of these even specialize in these issues and publish reputational rankings only based on the ways in which corporations are encouraged or blamed by social movement organizations. Some shareholders may be discouraged from having any holdings in activities that have become increasingly delegitimized, such as coal production, because they may themselves be targeted for their portfolio policies. Finally, decision makers in the public sector may be all the more encouraged to regulate economic activities or environmental and social policies when public opinion favours it (and is empowered to do so), and some economic actors have already changed their practices to enhance their reputations. Recent regulations in various countries regarding equal opportunity, gender equality, consumer credit, ecodesign, tobacco, food waste, genetically modified (GM) food, and pesticides reveal the capacity of states to regulate these issues, even in neoliberal countries (Dobbin, 2011; Prasad, 2009; Mourad, 2015). Even though most of these regulations do not greatly constrain companies and some of them are voluntary, they embody a normative definition of what counts in the market and what economic actors cannot ignore (Bartley, 2011).

Table 38.1 highlights the following issues:

  • The role of various political consumer tactics in providing consumers with material, cognitive, political, and symbolic resources to valuate products and corporate activities and in raising specific normative concerns for integration into ordinary consumption practices. (p. 822)

    Table 38.1 Potential Effects on Markets and Public Regulation of Political Consumer Activism

    Tactics from the repertoire of collective action

    Resources/competencies provided to consumers

    Potential effects on markets

    Potential effects on public decisions

    Boycotts, blacklists, naming and shaming campaigns

    • Identification of certain products/brands/corporations/economic activities that should be ostracized or avoided

    • Identification of specific negative externalities of economic activities for biodiversity, social justice, economic development, climate change

    • Raise awareness of public issues linked to economic activities

    • Introduce new criteria related to normative concerns on which consumers may rely to choose products: child labour, gender equality, fairness of trading relationships, damage to biodiversity, climate change

    • Negatively affect corporate reputations

    • Affect valuation of products

    • Create business opportunities for alternative practices

    • Set new public issues on governmental agendas

    • Call for regulation of corporate practices

    • Call for bans on certain activities, products, or ingredients, or for labelling the contents of products

    Labels, shopping guides, certification systems, ethical shops, carrot mobs

    • Identify certain products/brands/corporations/ economic activities that should be preferred and encouraged

    • Identify positive market categories and values that include normative concerns: sustainability, social responsibility, local growing, small-scale production

    • Create market niches

    • Singularize products

    • Introduce new market categories (e.g., palm oil free, low-packaging, locally grown, fair trade, DIY, ecofriendly, social quality, low-carbon, etc.)

    • Challenge incumbent firms

    • Call for public policy promoting certain economic activities and products through national labelling schemes or public provisioning policies

    • Call for public policies on carbon, social, or nutritional labelling

    Promotion of alternative modes of living

    • Associate mass consumerism with negative values: materialistic accumulation, overspending, waste, unsustainability

    • Provide specific solutions to resist mass consumption and develop consumption practices that include normative concerns: DIY, co-operatives, sharing, reuse

    • Delegitimize certain market values: cheapness, convenience, disposability, fashion

    • Create niche markets (DIY, collaborative consumption, sharing economy, reuse, or recycling)

    • Call for public policies to encourage a social and solidarity-based economy

    • Set a public agenda for new issues such as planned obsolescence or ecodesign

    Promote alternative exchange systems

    • Provide consumers with alternative supplies or modes of provisioning

    • Provide consumers with new alternative modes of living (ecovillages)

    • Empower consumers to make them stakeholders in the governance of these alternative systems

    • Create new production or retailing organizations: co-operatives

    • Create new market values: direct, local, small-scale operations

    • Creation of market niches: platform capitalism, local food systems, new building material (like mud-brick, straw)

    • Creation of new valuation of what counts (solidarity, happiness, free time)

    • Call for regulation promoting alternatives to capitalism in ways of producing and selling

    • Call for public policies encouraging a social and solidarity-based economy

  • The potential effects on markets of these tactics in reshaping worth and legitimacy and the responsibilities of companies.

  • The potential capacity for these new valuations of markets to convince public decision-makers to impose the regulation that their audience demands.

(p. 823)

Disruptive tactics such as calls for boycotts, naming and shaming campaigns, and blacklists of products or companies provide consumers with cognitive resources to identify both the products and brands they should not purchase. Moreover, they highlight the collective issues for which some companies or economic activities should be accountable, such as damage to biodiversity or social justice. These tactics help consumers to connect economic activities with specific normative concerns and offer them new criteria by which to valuate and choose their products, such as working conditions, equality policies, or environmental issues. As noted in the literature, this may affect firms’ reputations, because these tactics, which usually have very limited effects on sales, have social implications since they ostracize certain actors or products. This situation provides business opportunities for challenging companies or (p. 824) new entrants, who may take advantage of the blame ascribed to leading companies to promote the social or environmental qualities of their own products. Disruptive strategies may also convince some companies to develop social management devices and make them more inclined to address the activists’ issues (McDonnell et al., 2015). However, these tactics may also affect the valuation of all products as consumers are provided with new norms and criteria for valuation. Even if few companies undertake real changes, most have to deal with new normative valuations of economic activities that circulate largely in social spaces outside of markets, ranging from the media to ranking organizations and even shareholders. These situations also set new agendas for public decision-makers. As public awareness of new public issues has been raised by these conflicting valuations of markets, public decision-makers may be more inclined to undertake regulation that civil society seems to desire. They are all the more convinced to do so when some companies have already made changes and lobbied them to pass regulations.

Labelling and certification strategies are less disruptive and more consistent with existing market functioning, despite being potentially controversial. These tactics, as well as the publication of ethical shopping guides or maps (Balsiger, 2014b) or the organization of “carrot mobs” (eco-fundraising flash mobs) (Hoffmann & Hutter, 2012), provide consumers with material and cognitive resources to help them choose their products from the available supply. These market devices offer new criteria by which to valuate products according to publicized normative concerns, usually related to the modes of production. They are designed to convince consumers of their political power and responsibilities for consumption. In turn, this opens market niches for companies that operate ethically, and it creates new business opportunities and market segments for new product features (organic, locally grown, low-packaged, or ecofriendly) that modify the structure of the competition. Market devices created or initiated by NGOs and corporate actions then singularize some products and brands within the supply, which is usually carried out by market actors. The notion of “singularization” has been developed by economic sociologist Lucien Karpik to describe how market devices and intermediaries make some goods different and incommensurable with others (Karpik, 2010). This may convince public decision-makers to regulate product information and labelling (e.g., for GM food). They may also develop public policies to support third-party certification systems through means such as public provisioning policies, as is the case for fair trade and organic supply in various countries. These policies have strong normative and symbolic effects in legitimizing economic activities and the values they embody.

Some social movements promote alternative lifestyles (Wahlen & Laamanen, 2015), such as the degrowth movement, the voluntary simplicity movement, the anti-advertising movement (Zamwel et al., 2014), or the freegan movement (Barnard & Mourad, 2016). Individuals committed to environmental NGOs may develop initiatives such as living with 100 objects, zero waste, or no-impact experiences. These actions provide consumers with cognitive resources to criticize mass consumerism through (p. 825) negative notions such as materialistic accumulation, overspending, the throwaway society, and unsustainability. Such actions seek to modify the assumed relationship between people and their consumption behaviour and help them to question it, raising specific normative concerns and creating uncertainty about basic choices. Activist tactics provide consumers with material and organizational solutions to change their ways of living, such as technical solutions to decrease their energy consumption or to reduce their waste, or organizational solutions to share material resources for mobility. These actions try to delegitimize some core market values, such as cheapness, convenience, disposability, and fashion, by showing both the externalities for which they are responsible in relation to social justice and the environment and the manipulation of consumers pursuing such values. Of course, this may create business opportunities for some challenger companies that wish to take advantage of what they identify as new market niches or new consumers’ preferences, for example, for do-it-yourself or reusable products for repairing and recycling activities. Moreover, as we know, the development of practices of sharing equipment, cars, housing, and services has created a powerful platform economy, known as the sharing economy, which has little to do with the original activist project of reducing the environmental impact of consumption. Public decision-makers may have been convinced to regulate what they identified as new public issues, such as planned obsolescence—of which manufacturers were accused in order to increase the renewal of products—or ecodesign, which has received public subsidies to encourage manufacturers to consider environmental impacts in the design of new products or the prevention of food waste through targeted policies.

The wide range of alternative exchange systems that has been developed in many countries over the past decade has also provided the market with new resources that foster alternative values for production and consumption. Local currencies, local food systems, housing co-operatives, and energy production co-operatives not only provide consumers with alternative products and services, modes of production, and provisioning but also empower consumers by making them stakeholders in the economic and political governance of these systems (Dubuisson-Quellier et al., 2011; Forno & Graziano, 2014; Lamine, 2005; Weber et al., 2008). Consumers became aware of the effects on outputs of modes of production and could switch from chooser to decision maker. This raised the notions of solidarity-based, local, small-scale production and caring as positive values (Eräranta et al., 2009). These values may inspire market actors who consider them in their range of products. However, this may well create new opportunities to develop production or consumption co-operatives as alternative economic organizations, sometimes in the context of new public regulations. In some countries, such as France or Italy, public policies have encouraged the solidarity-based economy and alternative food systems. These actions also suggest that individuals form an alternative relationship with consumption based on these new values as a way to pursue a political objective. From this point of view, they pertain to prefigurative politics insofar as they reveal an attempt to further the political causes that they promote (Yates, 2015) and their capacity to include new normative concerns.

(p. 826) Market-based activism may introduce, spread, and institutionalize alternative values to those already prevalent in markets and connected to consumerism. The argument proposed in this chapter is that these alternative forms of valuation circulate broadly in societies and markets and may influence the choices of the public. This is not only because activist groups produce market devices and create market activities but also, as noted, because some market actors use these criticisms and proposals as a source of inspiration. As a result, the circulation of these alternative valuations changes the structure of opportunities in markets, modifies corporate and competition structures, and changes company practices. These changes rarely correspond exactly to activist groups’ objectives. They may be an opportunistic recycling of activist ideas for economic profit, as in the case of greenwashing practices. However, behind these small changes in company practices and corporate opportunity structures, another type of change is at stake. It concerns normative changes in value and legitimacy in markets, alternative visions of consumption, and production behaviours; this resembles a prefigurative meaning of history that may affect firms’ reputations and image and convince public decision-makers to impose regulations in ways they consider to be consistent with the expectations of civil society.


This chapter has identified the avenues opened up by the field of economic sociology to assess the results of political consumer activism. While most of the existing literature has focused on the impacts on individual consumers’ behaviour or corporate changes, economic sociology provides another perspective that broadens the analysis by considering the market mechanisms, such as competition, imitation, or emulation, that are at stake. Specifically, three insights from this field of social science are of particular interest in relation to the question of assessing the capacity of social movements to foster social change.

The first insight concerns the need for economic sociology to better take into consideration the role of political consumerism when analysing market functioning. Economic sociologists have demonstrated that market devices such as brands, labels, advertisements, prices, or corporate communication facilitate the supply of products consistent with consumer expectations (Callon et al., 2007). These devices also help to redefine product qualities and consumer preferences (Dubuisson-Quellier, 2013a). Political consumerism, through its repertoire of collective action, develops and circulates many market devices, such as labels, advertising or “subvertising” campaigns, shops, shopping guides and maps, and blacklists and whitelists that both consumers and companies may consider while making economic decisions (Dubuisson-Quellier, 2013b, 2013c). These market devices are resources on which consumers may rely to valuate products or other market entities. As such, as with any other market devices, they contribute to organize, perform, and modify markets. This makes social movement organizations part (p. 827) of market actors, not only as stakeholders but also as real contributors in market functioning and changes.

The second insight from economic sociology concerns precisely the valuation at stake in markets. Valuation is a broad social process in markets, involving cultural, cognitive, and political resources by which economic entities are valuated (Fourcade, 2011; Karpik, 2010). However, several valuations may coexist and conflict (Stark 2009). Market actors provide themselves with most of these resources for valuation, but social movements provide consumers or other actors with resources for alternative valuations of market entities. For example, for some years, market actors emphasized the notions of novelty, hedonism, disposability, or convenience. However, these notions have been turned by social movements into negative values of mass consumerism as they embody ideas of materialistic accumulation, waste, and unsustainability. Moreover, social movements have revealed that cheapness may conceal poor working conditions, situations of underdevelopment, or environmental damage. Political consumerism provides the market with moral economies of production and consumption that conflict with the dominant form of valuation, thereby opening up methodological avenues to the assessment of political consumer outcomes. Each tactic from the repertoire of collective action may be analysed through the cognitive and normative resources with which they provide economic actors. How do they help consumers to identify the sources of supply and valuate products? How do they provide them with a critical vision of production and consumption? One may also identify the social space in which these devices and their valuation resources circulate and the way they are used and referred to by different actors, companies, advertisers, prescribers, stakeholders, shareholders, ranking organizations, or public decision-makers. Another methodological option is to develop an economic anthropological approach to domestic consumption. From this perspective, some researchers have developed ethno-accounting methodologies to assess what people take into account when they consume, how they count, and how they value activities or goods (Cottereau, 2015). Adapted to the case of political consumerism and lifestyle activism, such as ecovillages and alternative lifestyles, this methodology provides interesting paths to understand alternative modes of valuation (Pruvost, 2016) and the potential effects of lifestyle politics on regulation (de Moor et al., 2017).

The third insight is related to the interaction between the state and economic phenomena (see Chapter 39). Since its inception, economic sociology has devoted great attention to the role of the state in the economy. States are acknowledged to contribute to the creation and rule of markets. They may create the legal, political, cultural, and institutional conditions for the functioning of markets through property rights, economic governance organizations, and competition rules. Some markets, such as recycling, certification, and renewable energy markets, are deeply indebted to state intervention, for example, through public procurement policies, among other measures. We also know from economic sociology studies that regulation is strongly associated with the type of relationship that exists between state actors, business organizations, and (p. 828) corporations, and that some market actors may lobby the state to pass regulations in their own interests. In the case of political consumerism, social movement organizations seek to produce normative changes in markets that may influence the interests of some companies for pushing for some regulation, especially those that have been at the forefront of some changes. For instance, in France some retailing companies have decided to stop providing consumers with plastic bags for both economic and environmental reasons. To take advantage of a pro-environmental position that might improve their reputation and avoid turning away consumers who prefer to be provided with plastic bags, these retailers have been pushing for a state regulation: today free plastic bags from supermarkets are banned by law. Public decision-makers may also be convinced to regulate as they identify; this view seems to be supported by both some market actors and public opinion.

Political consumerism relies on a number of market mechanisms, such as imitation, competition, and valuation, to convince state actors to impose regulation. For this reason, economic sociology may greatly assist in understanding political consumerism outcomes. Integrating an economic sociological, conventional, and political consumer approach could promote precise and informed analyses of the role of political consumer activism in shaping markets. This cross-fertilization perspective could reveal the conditions in which normative concerns emerge about market activities and actors and how they may be progressively integrated into market practices. This works through a complex mechanism of changes in the valuation of market entities, actors, and activities and state intervention. Markets could then be locations for the emergence of moral economies that can challenge existing economic practices.


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