POSTED: May 5, 2016

Tuesday, 24 May 2016 | 2pm


CUSP Seminar
This seminar considers how responses to sustainability challenges are mediated by the real and discursive figure of the responsible consumer. 

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 :: Scott Beale / Flickr

The consumer is a well-established figure in contemporary politics and commerce, and there are strong tendencies – both colloquial and academic – to treat it as a self-evident category. Contrary to these trends, there is an important body of work that explores the contingency and construction of ‘the consumer’ alongside the ways in which this shifting subject position has been mobilized in pursuit of various political and economic projects.

Taking a cue from these developments, this presentation considers the apparent vogue for tackling global problems (in sustainability, health and so on) through appeals to the responsibilities of individual consumers. While objections to these manœuvers are not difficult to find, critical perspectives on sustainable consumption and behavior change neglect fundamental questions concerning changes over time, variation across substantive domains, and the mechanisms through which individuals and consumers are assumed to be responsibilised.

By way of rejoinder, David presents the findings from an empirically grounded study of the ways in which the challenge of food waste reduction has been framed, interpreted and responded to in the UK. Particular attention is paid to the configuration of relationships between different groups of strategic and collective actors (firms, policy makers, civil society organizations), and the ways in which these are mediated by the real and discursive figure of ‘the consumer’. He demonstrates that initial responses did indeed frame the issue as one fostering more responsible patterns of consumption, but that this quickly gave way to an emergent sense of distributed responsibility. Tracing the contours of this debate, David suggests that the (arguably) more satisfactory manner in which it unfolded relates to the rhetorical and tactical deployment of ‘the consumer’. To conclude, he posits the possible exhaustion of the responsibilized individual as a way of theorizing the location of the consumer in relation to the politics of sustainability.



Dr David Evans is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Senior Research Fellow of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on the interplay of cultural and economic processes across a range of sites and spaces. He has published extensively on consumption, the dynamics of everyday life, food, and sustainability. David has long standing interests in the nature of value, qualities and conventions, and is currently pursuing these under the auspices of an ESRC-funded project that explores the enactment of ‘freshness’ in food systems.

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