A common analogy made of sustainable consumption is that it is a modern form of political citizenship, of making one's preferences known, taking action on the basis of those values with the intention of changing social and environmental conditions in society, and essentially voting with one's money. In a relatively early example of this framing, Zadek et al. (1998) write about 'purchasing power' as a form of civil action (and a complement to an earlier generation of activism based on boycotts), and assert that consumption choices
'can change the manner in which business is done and the terms by which livelihoods are constructed' (p. 1) by directly benefiting stakeholders, influencing larger-scale processes, and combating passivity by demonstrating that positive alternatives are possible. More recently Barnett et al. (2005) claim that rather than democratic participation being in decline, ethical consumerism is a new terrain of political action which links individual action with collective outcomes, through governance of consumption patterns and indeed the consumer themselves. Concurring with these findings, Shaw et al. (2006) find that ethical consumers perceive their actions as 'empowering' and think in terms of a voting metaphor. Yet while these analyses are initially encouraging in terms of realising the potential of citizenship actions, a fundamental contradiction lies at their heart: namely, that it is a citizenship of the market, and individual consumption purchases are the only votes that count.
Within this framework of political action and market transformation, there are many barriers which may prevent individuals from acting on their ecological citizenship preferences, leaving them unable to influence the market. These include the affordability, availability and convenience of more sustainable products and services; feelings of powerlessness generated by the thought that individual action will not make any difference; and disenchantment with corporate green marketing (Holdsworth, 2003; Bibbings, 2004). One barrier to effectiveness is that 'institutional consumption' decisions are made on a societal level, rather than by individuals, and only products and brands with which consumers are familiar are subject to transformative consumer pressure. Institutional consumption, which includes producer goods, public procurement (purchasing by the state for building and maintaining roads, hospitals, schools, the military, and so forth, accounts for half of all consumption throughout western Europe) and most investment products, is extraneous to the hands of individual domestic consumers, according to Lodziak (2002). Consequently the majority of societal consumption takes place in a consumption decision-making arena beyond the reach of individuals, and so excluded from the market transformation possibilities of sustainable consumption.
Another important barrier is a consumer preference for products that are simply not available, or for avoiding or reduced consumption in the first place - a choice not to consume is as meaning-filled as one to consume, yet makes no impact on the market. Princen (2002a) argues this may be because the mainstream neo-classical economic model on which policy is based cannot account for activities and transactions which take place outside the market, yet for consumers the choice to seek 'less consumptive, less materialintensive means of satisfying a need' (p. 28) can be the strongest expression of sustainable consumerism. Consequently, if we stick with the voting metaphor, then the sustainable consumption marketplace begins to look like a rigged election, disenfranchising those who cannot afford their ballot papers, or who prefer to reduce consumption or choose a collective alternative to individualised market choices, voting for 'none of the above'!
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