, Volume 37, Issue 3, pp 229-270
Date: 30 Dec 2007

The citizen-consumer hybrid: ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market

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Abstract

Ethical consumer discourse is organized around the idea that shopping, and particularly food shopping, is a way to create progressive social change. A key component of this discourse is the “citizen-consumer” hybrid, found in both activist and academic writing on ethical consumption. The hybrid concept implies a social practice – “voting with your dollar” – that can satisfy competing ideologies of consumerism (an idea rooted in individual self-interest) and citizenship (an ideal rooted in collective responsibility to a social and ecological commons). While a hopeful sign, this hybrid concept needs to be theoretically unpacked, and empirically explored. This article has two purposes. First, it is a theory-building project that unpacks the citizen-consumer concept, and investigates underlying ideological tensions and contradictions. The second purpose of the paper is to relate theory to an empirical case-study of the citizen-consumer in practice. Using the case-study of Whole Foods Market (WFM), a corporation frequently touted as an ethical market actor, I ask: (1) how does WFM frame the citizen-consumer hybrid, and (2) what ideological tensions between consumer and citizen ideals are present in the framing? Are both ideals coexisting and balanced in the citizen-consumer hybrid, or is this construct used to disguise underlying ideological inconsistencies? Rather than meeting the requirements of consumerism and citizenship equally, the case of WFM suggests that the citizen-consumer hybrid provides superficial attention to citizenship goals in order to serve three consumerist interests better: consumer choice, status distinction, and ecological cornucopianism. I argue that a true “citizen-consumer” hybrid is not only difficult to achieve, but may be internally inconsistent in a growth-oriented corporate setting.