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Can consumers save the world? Everyday food consumption and dilemmas of sustainability

Les consommateurs peuvent-ils sauver la planète? -Regards sur la consommation quotidienne et la durabilité
Laura Terragni, Magnus Boström, Bente Halkier et Johanna Mäkelä

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1Global consequences of environmental problems, particularly climate change, affect both political agendas and people’s everyday life. As food consumption forms a significant part of the environmental load of households (Carlsson-Kanyama & Gonzalez, 2009; Duchin, 2005), the sustainability of what we eat has become a topical question. A new ethics of food is emerging (Coff, 2006): food consumers are encouraged to “to develop a moral Self” (Hub, 2000) and are increasingly expected to take responsibility for promoting sustainability (Harrison, Newholm, & Shaw, 2005; Korthals, 2001)

2While there is a wide consensus that environmental challenges require shared responsibilities, how and to what extent consumers can bear these responsibilities is a debated issue (Jacobsen & Dulsrud, 2007). From this debate, three ways of framing the consumers’ role can be outlined. The first one, which relates particularly to Cohen’s historical analysis of consumerism (Cohen, 2003), points the to role of the “citizen consumer” who has the duty of contributing to larger public interests. High trust in public authorities, compliance with public regulation, incentives and taxation systems are forms of interpreting the consumer’s role coming out from this approach. The second one focuses instead on the role of consumers as citizens and investigates the potentiality of political consumerism (Micheletti, 2003). Labels and diversification of markets (Boström & Klintman, 2008), together with critical consumers’ standpoints towards mainstream markets and politics, exemplify this second approach. Finally, the third approach warns against a new orthodoxy of the ‘active consumer’ (Jacobsen & Dulsrud, 2007) and pinpoints the ambivalent and routinised aspects of practices of food consumption (Halkier, 1999; Miller, 2001, Warde 2005). Following this approach, practices of sustainability can be more fruitfully framed and encouraged not as isolated practices, but rather as practices within practices.

Can consumers save the world? A Nordic Workshop and a special issue

3Inspired by this debate, the Nordic workshop “Can consumers save the world? Everyday food consumption and dilemmas of sustainability” was organised in Helsinki1 (1) in June 2007. A number of academic papers debating the complexity of sustainable food consumption in the perspective of consumers and their everyday life were presented. Considering ecological, cultural and social sustainability of food consumption, the workshop addressed particularly the notion of consumer’s responsibility and analysed the interrelations between consumers, markets and other institutions. Although the papers referred to experiences of dealing with sustainability in Nordic countries, the discussion of these experiences brought forward new insights on the consumers’ role and issues for new research relevant for worldwide debate about the consumers’ role in contributing to sustainability through food consumption.  

4The articles published in this special issue of Anthropology of Food are based upon papers presented at the workshop in Helsinki. The shared perspective across the different contributions is to understand the food related activities of ordinary consumers as part of social practices that are deeply embedded in the social processes, relationships and conditions of everyday life. Patterns of food provisioning, cooking and eating are culturally, socially and institutionally shaped and reproduced, yet at the same time they are contextually negotiated, adapted and changed. When food consumers attempt to handle their lives in modern societies, they do so in everyday life contexts characterised by routines as well as concerns trying to make their many different practical and social responsibilities hang together.

Food consumption and practices of everyday life: common themes across the articles

5The articles selected for this special issue are based on the idea that consumption cannot be defined as a series of autonomous choices made by sovereign actors in the market, but should rather be understood as context-based flows of actions anchored in social structures and institutions but certainly not reduced to them. Consumers are then considered as creative and bounded, individual and social, deliberate and habitual. The perspective on practices of food consumption and sustainability addresses the ways in which food use in everyday life may either facilitate or hamper environmentally, socially and culturally sustainable paths of development.

6The collection, starts with the provocative article written by Iselin Theien, which takes us back to the Second World War period, when the regulatory framework installed for dealing with food scarcity, namely the rationing system, heavily influenced food consumption practices. As Theien shows, consumers supported this system of redistribution of the available scarce resources and were willing to take their share of responsibility in a period of crisis. Drawing the parallel with current environmental challenges, the article brings up the question if rationing policies, which imply heavy public regulation and a significant limitation of consumer’s choice, indeed could represent a viable strategy also today.

7The issue of consumer’s responsibility is also discussed in the article of Magnus Boström and Mikael Klintman, however from a very different perspective. Problematising a simplistic view of the political and ethical consumer found in the literature, the article sheds light on some of the dilemmas that confront green political consumers. The authors discuss a potential mismatch between the consumers expectations when buying ethically labelled products and what these labels actually represent. According to the authors, green and ethical information schemes ought to become much more in line with the reflective potential of green, political consumers.

8The issue of the increasing mismatch between consumers’ aspirations and the availability of alternative products is addressed also in the article written by Laura Terragni, Hanne Torjusen and Gunnar Vittersø. Focussing particularly on the case of organic products in Norway, the article points to the consumers’ role in continuosly promoting new forms of alternative consumption. For instance, as organic products are facing conventionalisation, the authors suggest that ’alternative’ consumers may turn towards other inititiatives, such as for instance fair trade, farmers’ market, farm food outlets, box schemes and Community Supported Agriculture, which better reflect their alternative values. By turning to new products and initiatives consumers keep the issue of sustainable food consumption on the political agenda.

9Shifting the focus from political consumers towards the actual practices of food provisioning, cooking and eating, Bente Halkier invites us to consider how sustainability can be interwoven in ordinary consumption. Referring to three Danish empirical qualitative research projects, the author suggests that it is difficult to judge whether environmentalised food consumption can be regarded as part of broader food practices, or if environmentalised food consumption are practices in themselves. On the one hand, Halkier’s article opens up for a broadened repertoire of sustainable consumption practices, not only as a prerogative of reflexive, politically oriented consumers, but also of relevance for all people in the context of their ordinary consumption. On the other hand, the author sheds light on how certain food and consumption practices do not make easy openings for environmental friendly food consumption and on how environmental claims on food consumption, can come into conflict with existing food and consumption practices.

10This latter topic is further discussed in the last article, written by Jesper Lassen and Sara Korzen. Referring to focus groups conducted among Danish consumers, they underline that food and environment are significantly affected by societal discourses. Despite several surveys having recently documented broad public worries over environmental issues in general, and specifically in relation to food production/food products, Lassen and Korzen found that environmental arguments played an insignificant role for the interviewees, particularly in the everyday context. According to the authors, this surprising result could, for example, be explained by the emergence, in Denmark, of a new public food discourse focusing on individuals’ health and well-being while downsizing the importance of environmental problems.

Summary and future research potential

11Can consumers save the world? Seen together, the articles show that sustainable food consumption is a multifaceted topic, and that there are different views on possible pathways towards sustainability. There are public concerns and reflexivity. There are alternatives and innovations. There are responsibilities shouldered and readiness for action. Environmental issues have to compete incessantly with a repertoire of other agendas, discourses, and practices in public and everyday life. Although environmental issues have a high moral status, the gap between rhetoric and practice remains huge. Making that gap smaller implies consumers’ involvement. However, as the collected articles show, the contribution of all other types of societal actors, especially the ones capable of directly influencing the institutional conditions of consumption, is as well decisive. It is our hope that the articles included in this special issue will stimulate scholars and debaters to look beyond the rhetorical or discursive level and develop new theoretical and empirical sensitivity to the intriguing complexities in the practices of everyday life.

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BOSTRÖM., and KLINTMAN, M. (2008). Eco-standards, product labelling and green consumerism. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

CARLSSON-KANYAMA, A., and GONZALES, A. D. (2009). Potential contributions of food consumption patterns to climate change. Am J Clin Nutr, 89(5), 1704S-1709S.

COFF, C. (2006). The taste for ethics : an ethic of food consumption. Springer, Dordrecht.

COHEN, L. (2003). A consumers' republic : the politics of mass consumption in postwar America. Knopf, New York.

DUCHIN, F. (2005). Sustainable Consumption of food. Journal of Industrial Ecology

9(1-2), 99.

HALKIER, B. (1999). Miljø til daglig brug : forbrugeres erfaringer med miljøhensyn i hverdagen. Forlaget Sociologi, Frederiksberg.

HARRISON, R., NEWHOLM, T., and SHAW, D. (2005). The ethical consumer. Sage, London.

HUB, Z. (2000). A Short History of Food Ethics. Journal og Agriculture and Environmental Ethics, 12, 113-126.

JACOBSEN, E., and Dulsrud, A. (2007). Will consumers save the world? The framing of political consumerism. Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics   20(5), 469-482.

KORTHALS, M. (2001). Taking consumers seriously: Two concepts of consumer sovereignty. Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics 14, 201-215.

MICHELETTI, M. (2003). Political virtue and shopping : individuals, consumerism, and collective action. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

MILLER, D. (2001). The dialectics of shopping. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

WARDE A 2005, ”Consumption and Theories of Practice”, Journal of Consumer Culture, 5, 131-53.

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1  The workshop was financed by the Nordic Council, Nordforsk.

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Laura Terragni, Magnus Boström, Bente Halkier et Johanna Mäkelä, « Can consumers save the world? Everyday food consumption and dilemmas of sustainability », Anthropology of food [En ligne], S5 | September 2009, mis en ligne le 10 septembre 2009, consulté le 29 mai 2017. URL :

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Laura Terragni

Akershus University College, Norway, e-mail: .

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Magnus Boström

School of Life Sciences, Södertörn University, Sweden.

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Bente Halkier

Department of Communication, Business and Information Technologies, Roskilde University, Denmark.

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Johanna Mäkelä

National Consumer Research Centre, Finland.

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