While doing some research for my thesis, I read this article by Lucy Atkinson called “Buying in to Social Change: How Private Consumption Choices Engender Concern for the Collective.” In it, Atkinson argues that consumerism is, like most people argue, an individual and self-serving activity. But, she notes, such self-serving behavior isn’t always as bad as most people seem to think. Rather, consumer activity can actually be beneficial to the collective. When people buy organic food because it’s healthier for their families, for example, they’re also helping the people who work on organic farms who aren’t exposed to dangerous pesticides. In a nutshell, “socially-conscious consumers embody an alternative kind of citizenship in which the acquisition of private, self-serving benefits is inextricably linked to the pursuit of broader collective virtues” (191).
I find a number of problems with Atkinson’s article overall. For one, she only interviews white, middle-upper class people as part of her analysis. According to Atkinson, “socially conscious consumers tend to be middle class, well educated, and white, as they are the individuals likely to have both the means and opportunity to engage in socially conscious consumption” (195)–already, Atkinson begins with a sampling bias. If she’s interviewing the people most likely to engage in “socially conscious consumption,” what does the consumption of everyone else tend to look like? Furthermore, she notes how difficult it is for even the most dedicated in her group of interviewees to engage in this socially conscious consumption; people have to go to multiple stores, do hours of research, and drive miles out of their way to buy food and products that fit within their political ideals. Is this tenable for the majority of the population?
Nevertheless, I think Atkinson proposes an interesting defense of political consumerism that requires some thought and attention. You can find her article here: