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Consumers on the March, 1960s to 1990s

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Workshop Report ‘The Contested Consumer: An Interdisciplinary Workshop on Consumer Activism and Consumer Governance’

On 8 and 9 September 2020, the online workshop ‘The Contested Consumer’ brought together academics from history, social and political sciences to discuss the topics of consumerism and consumer governance from an interdisciplinary perspective. The aim of the workshop was to overcome internal fragmentation with academics studying the institutional developments regarding consumer protection from a top-down perspective and scholars keen to understand the bottom-up development of consumer activism and consumer organisations. The workshop was organised by the project group ‘Consumers on the March’.

By Amber Striekwold

Bringing these strands together raises new questions about the impact of consumer organisations on the development of consumer protection policies and, vice versa, the enabling or hampering effects of institutional and legislative frameworks on consumer representatives and activists. When does political consumerism lead to changes in consumer governance? What is the role of the different actors involved? These two strands of research are closely connected to questions of representation. After all, the institutions and the organisations which concerned themselves with consumers did so from a certain conception of consumer interests and how they could serve those interests.

After a brief introduction by project leader Liesbeth van de Grift (Utrecht University), Magnus Boström (Örebro University) was the first to give a pitch on the topic of political consumerism from an interdisciplinary perspective. Being one of the editors of the Oxford Handbook on Political Consumerism, Boström shared several insights derived from this work. Most importantly, he highlighted the biases at work in the field of political consumerism: the predominant focus on Western Europe and North America and the overrepresentation of so-called “good” causes,” such as fair trade, with cases of consumer mobilisation for the sake of racist and undemocratic causes being neglected.

The importance to be critical to inherent biases within the field of consumerism was further stressed in the pitch by Benjamin Möckel (University of Cologne). He analysed how the concept of solidarity has been used by consumers and consumer organisations, such as the Fair Trade movement. By focusing on several case studies, Möckel demonstrated how solidarity needed to be constructed by activists through and alongside the products they presented on the market, as the market does not create these social ties of itself.

The second session was centered around the theme of food activism. First, Jasmine Lorenzini and Johanna Huber (both University of Geneva) presented their research on alternative food organisations. Based on a dataset of Alternative Food Organisations, they compare goals, action repertoires, and organisational models to better understand the field. The second pitch from Amber Striekwold concerned the alternative food movement during the seventies in the Netherlands. Her pitch showed how activists within these movements understood themselves as political actors and underlined the importance of understanding their ideas and actions on their own, context-specific terms.

The second day was kicked off by Bart Combée, former director of Dutch Consumers’ League. Among other things, his talk centred around the tensions between representation and institutionalisation within the consumer movement. As he stated: “The Dutch Consumers’ League was founded at the kitchen table by concerned citizens.” But what happens if the organisation gets further removed from the kitchen table? “If you exist, but the people for whom you exist do not feel enough ownership, why do you exist? That is the trouble with these institutions.” This explains why consumer organisations have moved somewhat away from traditional institutional frameworks towards networks and consumer mobilisation – a movement that Combée himself contributed to as director. This strategy, he argued, makes representative consumer organisations more fluid and dynamic, as it allows consumers to opt-in and opt-out of concerns that they find important. Moreover, it gives a boost to the legitimacy of consumer organisations.

The second session, which addressed different conceptualisations of the consumer, directly connected with the issue of representativity. After all, how the consumer is perceived affects how she or he is represented. The pitch by Peter van Dam (University of Amsterdam) on the rise of the consumer as a trope in Dutch politics shed light on this issue. He showed that while an abstract and inclusive view of “the consumer” came to dominate the political-institutional imaginary, the lived reality of consumers remained highly differentiated. To analyse this gap, Van Dam introduced the concept of “the entangled consumer,” which takes into account linkages with other social categories such as class and gender as well. Using this concept can shed light on the variety of ways in which organisations claim to represent consumers and consumerism is practiced.

Alessandra Schimmel (Utrecht University) gave a talk about her research on the European umbrella organisation BEUC. Connecting her research with some of the insights shared by Bart Combée, she showed how representativity is crucial to understanding the functioning of BEUC, comprised of national consumer organisations. Members organisations have held very different understandings of the consumer figure, its interests and the ways in which these interests are best served through the activities of consumer representatives.

The last session set out to integrate a top-down institutionalist approach with the bottom-up experience of consumers. In her pitch, Brigitte Leucht (University of Portsmouth) highlighted the importance of studying the social dimensions of legal history. By focusing on the Cassis de Dijon case, she will combine the institutional and societal dimensions of consumer law and governance. Koen van Zon (Utrecht University) recounted how different conceptualisations of the consumer (as in need of protection or as an autonomous actor on the free market) underpinned the actions of European institutions and came to shape consumer governance.

From the pitches of the scholars, and the discussions afterward it became evident that the two fields can engage in a fruitful conversation over a number of themes. First, the question of the impact of consumer organisation on institutional frameworks and vice versa. In other words: when does political consumerism lead to changes in consumer governance? And: what are other ways to measure the impact of consumer organisations? Second, the question of representation allowed for the establishing of connections between the fields, as all actors studied do so from a particular conception of the consumer. Related to this is the question when consumerism becomes political and who determines what constitutes “the political” exactly. Each of these themes asks for further exploration. The pitches and the discussions were a fruitful point of departure.