The Consumer Citizenship Network describes a ‘consumer citizen’ as “an individual who makes choices based on ethical, social, economic and ecological considerations. The consumer citizen actively contributes to the maintenance of just and sustainable development by caring and acting responsibly on family, national and global levels”.
Alternatively, in a 2006 paper, Martin Powell, Shane Doheny and Ian Greene describe another approach in which the citizen is understood as a consumer of public services. They suggest, citing Harris – 1999, that the ‘consumer citizen’ is “a subject created by the New Right to form some kind of equivalence between the active citizen in the community and the citizen in receipt of social services.”
Neither of these approaches are particularly broad. But the idea of ‘consumer citizenship’ could go much further, to encompass the entire continuum of our action as citizens and our actions as consumers. An alternative framing of the essential idea might then go along the following lines:
- In democracies that in principle aspire to be highly market-oriented (such as that of the UK), many environmental and social challenges are understood as ‘market failures’ that demand market-based solutions. In this characterisation, we consumers – people and citizens who happen also to be market actors – are handed huge responsibility to signal our concerns directly to ‘the market’.
European consumers (and many others) are encouraged by a sometimes bewildering range of information, advertising, labels and certificates to spend our money in ways that are judged ‘responsible’ or ‘ethical’ by others, or to place our own ethical demands on the record with retailers or suppliers.
In other areas, we are offered public incentives and opportunities to consume or take up opportunities for environmentally responsible behaviour on a voluntary basis, thereby contributing to public resolution of recognised challenges. One example might be a decision to take up subsidised opportunities for home insulation as part of a government’s overall approach to tackling climate change.
- However, there is also a set of environmental and social issues that are slated for public decision-making and participation where people are characterised principally as ‘citizens’ – or rather ‘community members’. A public consultation process around a planning decision on whether to allow a wind-farm to go ahead would be one example.
These examples are very far from exhaustive; but I offer them simply to illustrate the distinction between our actions as ‘consumers’ and as ‘citizens’ or ‘community members’.
One interesting question then is this: what could be the potential value of reframing the continuum on which ‘consumer-citizenship’ happens, so that it’s about much more than responsible consumption, encompassing the entirety of peoples’ engagement with the public realm issues that make up sustainable development? What could ‘consumer-citizenship’ in this broad sense offer?
On the home-page of this website, we include a quote from UK environmentalist Sara Parkin, who argues that climate change should be treated, not as market failure, but as a failure of democracy.
What might happen if rather more environmental or social challenges were understood as failures of democracy rather than failures of the market?
Perhaps democracy (and our responsibility to engage as citizens in progressive decision-making for environmental or social change), rather than the market (and our responsibility to consume ethically), would be on top in our mental imagery.
No doubt this all sounds a little abstract for the time being. More practically, Consumer International’s Director of Operations Bjarne Pedersen and I have agreed to swap notes on the potential of ‘consumer-citizenship’. We’d like to come up with some ideas that can help us to position our respective areas of work; Bjarne’s on sustainable consumption, mine on democracy; so that we get more ‘sustainable development bang’ for our ‘consumer buck’ or our ‘public or citizen participation’.
The emerging potential of ‘consumer-citizenship’ doesn’t stop at ethical or sustainable consumption or public service delivery. It’s also about scaling up the impacts of real people’s behaviour on sustainable development by finding new ways to align responsible consumption and citizen-led community action in the public realm.