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The Limits of Political Consumerism: A Short Review of Fresh

April 28, 2013

A student group asked me to speak at a screening of the film Fresh last week. The 2009 documentary focuses on the role of farmers, activists and entrepreneurs pushing for a more sustainable food system in the United States.

Fresh is an interesting film, and it helped to generate some great discussion following the screening last week. Although it addresses questions at a fairly broad level, it touches on many of the key themes and debates surrounding our contemporary food system. And it ends with a strong call to action—a sort of “we’re all in this together” with a bit of “we can do this” and an uplifting soundtrack to boot.

The shortcoming, I think, was in the call to action. Like much of the alternative food movement, Fresh frames its call to action in terms of consumerism. Buy the right food, at the right place, and the shortcomings of the conventional food system can be overcome. Consumerism—or at least, the right kind of consumerism—supplants citizenship.

I think there’s a real danger of this line of reasoning. In a great journal article on the ideological tensions of the citizen-consumer hybrid, Josée Johnston asks, “How did we get to a point where consumers are responsible for ‘saving’ the world by shopping?” It’s an important question.

To be clear, it’s not that political consumerism has no role. Historically, boycotts played important roles in numerous areas, including drawing attention to apartheid in South Africa and in establishing more just working conditions in California grape production. But I think it’s misguided to believe that choosing to purchase fair trade coffee or local produce will fundamentally transform the global food system, or more broadly, the global economy. In the case of South African apartheid and California grapes, political consumerism as accompanied by broader movements rooted in citizenship and political participation.

In the case of the contemporary food movement, we need a similarly broad strategy. Yes we need political consumerism. But we also need a political movement. Addressing subsidies, labeling, and the financialization of our global food system, for example, requires an integrated movement embracing a wide variety of tools and strategies.

And on an equally important note, it’s important to remember that conflating citizenship and consumerism (by, for example, voting with our dollars) creates a system of political participation that is fundamentally unequal. If we are really voting with our dollars, then those with the most dollars have the greatest number of votes. And those with little money are effectively excluded from the economic-cum-political sphere altogether.

So let’s rethink this conflation of citizenship and consumerism and embrace a wider, more inclusive understanding of both.

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