As in many other countries, consumer organizations in France are strongly institutionalized and are at the core of an impressive consumption policy that makes the French consumer one of the most protected in the world. Yet at the same time, these organizations have to face a major criticism: they are not large grassroots movements, and in a way, one finds it difficult to support the claim that they are representative of consumers. A good example of this difficulty (with respect to the French consumer organizations to claim to act on behalf of consumers) is that these organizations were not identified as the first spokespersons in the development of conditions of sustainable consumption. As in other countries, the idea of the role of the consumer in sustainable development emerged in France at the end of the 1990s, already some time after the Johannesburg Earth Summit, where consumers of Northern countries were blamed by Southern countries for their direct responsibility in the deterioration of the environment. Several NGOs and social movements tried to involve consumers more deeply in what could be a political project on sustainable consumption. They were quickly joined by companies and public authorities. Most of them found it difficult to generate profound changes in consumer behaviors and to establish the conditions of what could be called a political awareness of the consumers’ responsibility. Some of them succeeded, as we will see in the last part of this section, but do not use market tactics as much as others groups do. We can thus conclude that the market may not be an arena for consumers’ political involvement.
The purpose here is not to assess the different instruments that are used by public authorities to influence consumer behaviors, but to present the role of NGOs and social movement activities in the reshaping of consumption practices.
3.1. Patterns of Political Consumerism in France
French consumers, who wish to change their consumption patterns, in order to be more environmentally friendly, or to show their concern for social justice, have access to a wide range of goods, services, and recommendations. These include advice proposed by public authorities, such as the National Agency for the Environment (ADEME), regarding the use of water, household appliances, energy for the home, transportation in urban areas, or product label identification. This advice is available for consumers in brochures, or on websites, designed by the government, or may be disseminated through the media (e.g., commercials or radio).
Other propositions come from NGOs or companies, which offer labelled products, such as “green” products, organic food, and fair trade products. In France, several green labels exist for products; some have been introduced by the public authorities, while others are private initiatives. “NF-environnement” is the French official label for environmentally friendly products. Nineteen types of products may be sold using this label, which is the property of the French Agency for Standardization (AFNOR). This agency is also in charge of the certification for the label. The European eco-label created in 1992 is also used, but less often than in Belgium or Germany. A label for organic foods, the AB Label (Agriculture Biologique), was created in 1985 by the French Ministry of Agriculture, to identify products that comply with the French requirements on organic food production. In France, only 1.8% of the surface area farmed produced organic food in 1995, with a 5% increase since 2004 (Fédération Nationale d’Agriculture Biologique). Finally, other labels from abroad may also be used to sell products. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label is controlled by three types of actors (NGOs working on environmental issues, NGOs working on social justice issues, and companies exploiting or distributing wood) and may be used to sell sustainable wood products in home improvement stores. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label is proposed by the NGO, WWF, and Unilever to certify products that comply with requirements concerning sustainability. In France, about 12 frozen fish products use this private label. The private Max Havelaar trademark is given by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) to products that comply with fair trade requirements. These are the main labels used in France, most of which are available both in supermarkets and in specialized shops (organic food shops and world shops).
Figures produced by the French Agency for the Environment (ADEME) show that total sales in France of eco-labelled products grew from 50 million euros in 1998 to 800 million euros in 2005. But the market share of eco-labelled products may vary widely from one market segment to another. For example, eco-labelled products account for 25% of the market share for garbage bags, but no more than a 1 to 3% market share in most other segments. No figure is available for the market share of organic food products, but sales have been evaluated by the French Agency for organic food at 1.6 billion euros in 2005, with a growth rate of almost 10% per annum. Finally, the fair trade figures supplied by the Max Havelaar Company also show a considerable increase, but remain low: 120 million euros in 2005.
These mixed results show that a substantial increase, in the consumption of what remains a very small share of the market, has to be related to French consumers’ sensitivity to political consumerism. A recent survey by the French Center for Research on Living Conditions (CREDOC) [28
] on political consumerism shows a gap between what French consumers say about their political involvement through consumption and what they actually do when they shop. In 2006, 44% of French consumers said they cared about companies’ ethical involvement while choosing their products, which is 6 points more than in the 2002 survey, and 61% said they would agree to pay 5% more for a product produced by such a company, which is 9 points more than five years earlier. They also said they would be able to boycott products from companies with unethical practices. When asked about their purchases over the past six months, 21% said they had purchased a product for ethical reasons and 30% said they may have done so, but were not absolutely sure. This political choice was more important for high-income consumers (72%) than for low-income consumers (45%). Such a survey has some limits. Most importantly, it is based on statements rather than acts, and therefore cannot describe real consumption patterns regarding political consumerism in France. But it does, nevertheless, show that ethical framing of consumption may be used as common knowledge between consumers, and perhaps as a social norm: consumers claim, (and the more they earn, the more they do so), that they may shop for the environment or for social justice. The high score of answers shows that they have integrated the fact that it is socially and politically correct to show such political involvement in their purchase choices.
These data portray the French situation as a case in which consumers are aware of the power of their purse, but use it sparingly, especially when they are economically constrained. In the next section, I provide a theoretical explanation of the limits of such political involvement of consumers in the marketplace.
3.2. The Limits of Market Action to Build Consumers’ Political Awareness of Sustainable Development
It seems important to place the development of a supply of ethical products (fair trade products, organic food, eco-labelled products) within the context of mass consumption.
As described by Lizabeth Cohen [13
], the development of a mass consumption economy was a fertile context for the articulation between general interest in growth in the post-war period, and individual interest in spending for consumption. The state, companies, and consumer movements all wanted the best conditions for consumers to spend their money [29
], and they all worked at designing and implementing what was to become known as market segmentation. This was a term introduced by Wendell Smith and Pierre Martineau in the late 1950s. With trademarks and distribution chains [30
], market segmentation was one of the pillars in the making of mass markets. One of the main assumptions of the principles of market segmentation is that these groups of consumers, or consumption patterns, already exist in society; these groups are kinds of sub-cultures that regularly emerge to bring together individuals and differentiate them from other groups. Even the development of what historians called the consumer society has been described as the social construction of a sub-culture in the 19th century, based on Romanticism, which made consumption a major occupation [31
]. The market appears then as a suitable arena for individuals to express their identities through their consumption choices. Even market specialists acknowledge that markets produce the fragmentation of consumers into isolated groups [32
]. From this perspective, each critique of mass consumption society can be reinterpreted as the development of a new sub-culture, which the market ends up supplying. Examples include the hippie or the beat generation cultures. Capitalism is founded on an immense capacity to integrate its own critique [33
]. This mechanism has been assessed in depth in consumer studies, especially by authors who have proposed a theory of post-modern consumers based on their huge capacity for reflexivity in their consumption behavior [34
In France, the first alternative supply proposed to consumers to make them responsible for environmental protection, or for the development of social justice, was proposed by groups formed to challenge some of the conventional market rules. In the 1970s, some fair trade products were sold in specialized shops by Artisans du Monde, an NGO, which adopted the new ideology of development based on “trade not aid”. The Biocoop network, a consumer cooperative, was also developed in the 1970s to organize the retail distribution of newly available organic food production. Most of these groups of producers, importers, sellers, and consumers had the feeling of belonging to a politically involved social group characterized by concerns on environmental or social justice issues.
For many food marketing departments or retailing companies, these positions sounded like a new sub-culture, perfectly congruent with the post-modern consumer concept, and could easily be incorporated into new market offerings. Most supermarkets had a variety of organic products on their shelves by the end of the 1980s, and were selling different fair trade products under the Max Havelaar trademark by the end of the 1990s. The point in this paper is not to establish whether fair trade and organic food are a sub-culture or not, but to show that large companies in food processing and retailing have dealt with them as though they were fruitful critiques that should be incorporated as new market segments. In France today, fair trade products and organic food are still available in specialized stores (Biocoop or Artisans du Monde shops for example), but are also largely available in supermarkets.
In a former contribution, we showed that consumers learn to choose their products in supermarkets by relying on what we called a “delegation process” [38
]. This idea emphasizes the role of certain technical devices to inform and guide consumers, such as trademarks, logos, labels, or certification. As consumers are not able to check the supply chain, they simply rely on some “delegates,” which they decide to trust. From this perspective, eco-labels, fair trade, and organic food labels are just some extra “delegates” in the supermarket, which consumers may or may not decide to follow or to trust. In the marketplace, the idea of sustainable, ethical, or political consumption essentially appears as a new market proposition intended for the specific market segments of consumers who are willing to show their responsibility by shopping in a certain way.
However, this does not mean that this consumption is excluded from what is called political consumerism. In other words, the political dimension of consumption does not disappear simply because most ethical consumption is produced by large companies. We agree with the analysis proposed by Michele Micheletti, who has defined such consumption as an individualized collective action [2
]. Even when they are expressed in the marketplace and driven by business strategy, consumer choices are politicized. Micheletti shows that in a context where involvement becomes more flexible and network oriented, individuals try to combine their daily life with political causes. Consumption provides a good opportunity for such a combination, since it is driven both by self-interest, like every other purchase choice, and by the general welfare, for the ethical message it contains. The collective dimension of what remains an individual choice depends not only on this post-modern reflexivity theorized by Beck, but also on the aggregating effect of every individual purchase. These two causal factors are summed up in the concept of the ecological and ethical footprint of daily private lives. Additionally, the collective dimension depends on the amount of knowledge that must be translated with respect to the environmental consequences of consumption [6
]. Many social movements and NGOs promoting ethical consumption, such as Max Havelaar for fair trade, and Biocoop for organic food, make the following type of assumption: consumers’ political power will derive from the aggregate effects of their individual purchases, which will help more small producers in the South or support more small organic farmers in the North. Max Havelaar advertisements tend to show this aggregate effect and to use this argument to defend the firm’s strategy in contracting with large retailing companies.
Hence, consumption in the marketplace may definitely be a political act for both those who promote it by selling products (such as NGOs, cooperatives, or alternative producers and retailers, or even companies) and those who purchase these products. Why do market shares of ethical products fail to show the level of awareness and involvement in political consumerism described by the survey data? Several theoretical reasons may be proposed. The first is that, as shown by the surveys, this awareness concerns mostly high-income consumers, and economic constraints play a major role in the segmentation between convinced consumers and those reluctant to shop for ethics. Many people may therefore answer positively because they have accepted the necessity of political consumerism as a social norm, but actually think they cannot afford it. However, there is a second reason. The activity of grocery shopping is strongly informed by a wide variety of prescriptions and devices, such as plans, dispositions, and constraints from the consumer’s side; trademarks, labels, and packaging from the product side; and prescriptions, commercials, disposals, and sales from the market environment inside and outside the supermarket [40
]. This wide variety of devices, combined with that of the supply, contributes to making purchase choices highly erratic and unstable. Prescriptions from the government, fair trade, or organic food labels participate in this diversity of devices, thus contributing to framing and unframing consumers’ choices. Purchase choices are always a trade-off, not only between products, but also between devices that are able to inform the choice. Like other purchasing choices, consumption of ethical products in a mass consumption market cannot be anything but unstable.
Earlier I presented two avenues for political consumerism that are proposed to consumers in France: first, through the government’s prescriptions and guidelines for changing consumption patterns regarding transportation and the use of energy or water, in home improvement or ordinary consumption; second, through the ethical products supplied by NGOs, cooperatives, alternative producers, and retailers. In the next part, I present a third avenue for consumers’ political involvement.
3.3. Consumers’ Involvement in Social Movements
Today, several groups seek to involve consumers in collective actions aimed at improving their awareness on ethical or environmental issues [38
]. I will present two of them. The first is a social movement organization focused on political consumerism, derived from the anti-globalization movement ATTAC (Association pour la taxation des transactions financières et pour l’action citoyenne
—Association for the promotion of financial transaction taxation and of citizen activism) and created at the end of the 1990s. This organization, consisting of about a hundred members, only a few of whom are real activists, provides a large range of information to its members on the social, economic, and environmental effects of consumption. The movement is based on a very precise ideology of consumers’ responsibility, which fills the gap between two points of view: one in which this responsibility is overemphasized or exaggerated by governments that consider most of the damage to the environment or social justice as a result of consumers’ foolish and selfish behavior; and, the second, a view in which this responsibility is minimized, for example, by some fair trade operators who consider that once consumers have bought some fair trade products, they have done their duty. The movement thus positions its prescriptions between what it calls an over- and an under-responsibility of consumers. It attempts to show accurate evidence of the effects of consumers’ choices by describing the functioning of mass markets and capitalism, as it is usually portrayed in the anti-globalization arguments. Most of the members and activists of the group are also involved in ecological, anti-advertising, or downsizing movements. The group belongs to international networks that campaign against the effects of capitalism on the environment and social justice (such as Adbusters, Public Citizens, anti-GMO movements) [41
]. Its members promote fair trade products and organic foods that are not sold in supermarkets, but in alternative retailing networks. The groups’ main opponents are not only large retailing or food processing companies, but also the government, especially when the group considers the public regulations insufficient with respect to the environmental or social justice effects of consumption and production. But as shown by [37
], who studied similar groups in the United States, ordinary consumers are also targets of this social movement, especially when the movement denounces consumers’ foolish consumption behavior.
This situation tends to establish members’ and activists’ involvement on the basis of the feeling of adherence to a social group of expert consumers who share knowledge on the capitalist and mass consumption system, and provide one another with accurate advice for their purchase choices. In a sense, these people feel different from other consumers, not only on both moral and ethical grounds, but also with respect to knowledge and awareness. These exchanges of expertise and experience between the different members of the group build an important social constraint, which provides members strong incentive to change their individual behaviors. Most of the organizations’ leaders were activists and felt very concerned about sustainable issues. They had already changed their consumption behavior. For them, there is no use of big retailing or chain stores and no use of cars. Additionally, they only consume local organic food and seasonal fruits and vegetables, and only utilize fair trade products. They share services or domestic appliances, reduce their consumption and waste, and find some solutions to reduce their energy consumption. But most of the other members were just aware about some environmental issues and their emergency. Once one entered the organization, they learnt a lot from other members experiences, adopted some solutions (such as the collective buying schemes developed by the group to source local organic products), and some of them were also eager to provide the group with new solutions (such as finding some technical solution to insulate windows to decrease energy consumption), to share they own experiments (with washable diapers, organic home-made washing powder), and to involve themselves in collective campaigns (against GM food, against ionized food) or actions (against advertising). Indeed, the group provides different resources to each individual consumer: practical solutions for consumption, information and expertise on environmental issues, and collective support to share services and assistance. But, the group also provides consumers with new norms on consumption that may be shared, and which can also help to legitimate each individual choice. Indeed, some of the members explain that their new choices about consumption may put them aside from their former groups of friends or relatives, who may think they are becoming too requiring or too critical. For these members, the activist organization provides them with a more similar social context with consumers that share not only their ideas, but also their consumption practices.
But, in the meantime, the group may also be very demanding of each individual, asking him or her to comply with specific norms of consumption. Even though no member has been fired by the group for his or her consumption practices, a member may tease some member that does not adopt the norms, or more often, some members adopt a very drastic compliance with these new norms such that other members may feel social pressure.
This position may sometimes trigger a kind of radicalization within the group, on certain subjects. In such cases, the members in favour of a radical shift in consumer behavior (stop shopping in supermarkets, stop buying unnecessary goods, support alternative farming and production, ride instead of driving) clash with those who prefer a gradual approach. This radicalization may also explain the high turnover in membership, as some members find that the group may be too elitist or demanding on consumers. Another reason for the high turnover stems from the fact that changing practices of consumption may offer few rewards for involvement. As explained earlier, consumer organizations usually wish to collectively defend consumers’ individual interests and rights. They are more of an advocacy technocracy than real social movements where activists can derive rewards from their involvement owing to its general interest. The third explanation for the turnover is related to the difficulty of mobilizing through involvement. This involvement often cannot lead to a collective and visible action. Even if all the activists in the movement change their daily consumption habits, this involvement remains thankless and invisible. For example, when many members called for more collective action, the group responded by joining national and international protest campaigns, such as the “Buying nothing day”, “the campaign against the abuse of environmental arguments in advertising”, the “campaign against the ionization of food” launched by Food and Water Watch, or the campaign against GMOs. But most of all, the group promotes consumers’ involvement in networks of local production and consumption of food, especially those built on the model of the US “Community Supported Agriculture” (CSA), the second social movement on political consumerism that we will examine here.
The AMAP system (Association pour le Maintien d’une Agriculture Paysanne
) was developed in Southeastern France at the end of the 1990s, in collaboration with the anti-globalization movement, ATTAC, and the small farmers’ union, Confédération Paysanne
. The system, inspired by the American CSA and the Japanese Tekei
, is based on a contract between a small farmer and several consumers, who agree to pay six months in advance for a weekly basket of fruit and vegetables [42
]. Today, there are about 200 of these groups of consumers in France. They may also contract with several farmers for the supply, or a wider variety of products, such as bread, milk, eggs, meat, or cheese. Consumers, as members of these groups, are involved in a direct relationship with the farmer: they decide collectively on the biological variety that will be grown, they help the farmer, and they visit the farm two or three times a year. The main aim of the AMAP system is to support small-scale farming activities around cities (green belts). Most of the farmers produce organic food products, but they also may choose, in agreement with their consumers, not to comply with the requirements of certification. As described earlier, this movement allows for the diffusion, within consumer groups, of a learning process that progressively makes most of them relatively knowledgeable on ethical consumption. It also emphasizes the awareness, responsibility, and possibly, the morality of AMAP consumers, compared to that of ordinary consumers. Through information and advice, consumers learn from one another where and how to find products that comply with the ethics of sustainable development, how to improve their home or their use of energy and water, how to collectively organize for transportation or for care services, and so on. As in the social movement described above, the AMAP groups have a high turnover: about 30% of the consumers may exit the system each year, but because of long waiting lists, new consumers enter the group immediately. The two also have in common the fact that they connect this strong involvement of consumers in ethical everyday consumption with their empowerment in local politics. The first group promotes, for example, the diverse involvement of citizen consumers in local decisions, such as the provision of school meals by local farmers instead of large catering companies, the negotiation with public authorities for the allocation of land to small-scale farming instead of real estate development, or the establishment of a farmers’ market in the city. The AMAP system provides a useful framework for this empowerment of consumers through learning processes, as well as through the connection between some of the members and other social movement networks (e.g., anti-GMO movement, ecological movement, anti-globalization movement) or other social groups (e.g., parents groups, citizen groups, sports associations).
This political consumerism is then strongly connected, not only with market protest, through boycotts and buycotts, but also with social constraints within consumers’ groups and with the political empowerment of citizen consumers in what could be called a food citizenship. As noted above, this political consumerism seems to be highly erratic, but one of its particularities is its connection to more conventional forms of collective and political action: from campaigning and protesting, to lobbying, including voting. Another particularity of this political consumerism is its congruence with the collective dimension of consumption that has been stressed by the theoretical framework on consumption practices [40
]. This perspective highlights what in consumption choices relates to collective and historical contexts. Indeed, individual practices are deeply rooted in socio-technical systems that are path dependent, and which strongly constrain individuals’ choices, as Shove showed for the case of the use of air-conditioning, but also for laundering practices [11
]. But these practices are also governed by collective norms that may legitimate individual choices and stabilize these choices [9
]. The collective experiment of political consumerism provides interesting initiatives to assess the way change in consumption behavior may come. Changes comes neither from information nor from market incentives, as is usually the case with political consumerism through boycotts and boycott, or though consumer education. Instead, changes come from the production of social norms and constraints within groups.