Accepted Paper:

On the challenges of signaling ethics without stuff: stories of sustainable and conspicuous non-consumption  


Cynthia Isenhour (University of Kentucky)

Paper short abstract:

With increased awareness of the environmental and social risks associated with contemporary consumption, many people are attempting to modify their consumer behavior in the interests of sustainability. Yet these folks, despite their intentions, run into stumbling blocks both structural and social.

Paper long abstract:

This paper takes an ethnographic look at Swedish consumers who have actively modified their lifestyles in an attempt to live more sustainably. Some buy ecolabeled, fair trade, and organic goods while taking care to recycle packaging and reduce waste. These families do all this without much social difficulty. Other individuals and families believe that shopping for environmental efficiencies and social justice will not be enough to avoid environmental and social risks if consumption levels continue to increase and the status quo is reproduced. These households try to buy green and fair, but also to buy less. Yet social problems arise when these low consumers try to signal their ethics, values, social positions, and capital without all the stuff. Consumers use different strategies to get around these predicaments. Some signal cultural capital with a few expensive and scarce goods while condemning the consumption practices of those who buy cheap or too much. Still others prefer goods that are conspicuously ethical and green. Yet many alternative consumers tire of trying to communicate alternative values to friends and family immersed in and content with normative consumerism. Some give up and others seek alternative social networks and new systems of symbolic meaning. This paper, drawing on ethnographic research with sixty sustainable consumers and interviews with twenty governmental and non-governmental agencies in Sweden, details some of these quandaries as well as the motivations, values, and discourses (popular, state-sponsored and movement-based) that inspire alternative consumer behavior.

Panel W001
Ethical consumption: consumers and producers, markets and ethics