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

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.

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Notes

  1. While WFM’s aspirations are oriented towards customer concerns of health and environmental sustainability, its growth strategies are unabashedly entrepreneurial, garnering massive growth, profits, and an impressive record of expansion and acquisitions. In 2006, WFM boasted revenues of $5,607 million − a 19% increase from 2005. Earnings per share in 2006 were $1.41, which was a 40% increase from the previous year. In 2007, the company reported that it employed 39,000 people, and had 195 stores in the USA, Canada, and the UK. Even though Whole Foods Market faces competition, particularly from the large-scale entry of WalMart into the organic sector, industry analysts consider Whole Foods Market the industry giant of natural foods (especially after the February 2007 $565 Million dollar buyout of its major competitor, Wild Oats) as well as a solid economic performer (e.g., WFM was named the best 2007 retail stock by The Motley Fool stock advisors; Lomax 2007).

  2. Approaches emphasizing the manipulation of consumers are most often associated with the Frankfurt School and post-war critiques of the advertising industry (e.g., Marcuse 1964; Packard 1981, but today, such approaches are often viewed as overly pessimistic and old-fashioned because they underestimate consumer agency, and over-state the importance of selling (or manipulating) consumers (Micheletti 2003:70; Schudson 1991, 1984). Against Frankfurt pessimism, more optimistic accounts focus on consumers’ abilities to manipulate the commercial environment to construct meaningful lifestyles and identities (e.g., Fiske 1989; Abercrombie 1994; Nava 1991). Further, a voluminous business literature on the topic emphasizes how consumer demand fuels the growth of socially responsible corporations promoting social justice and environmental sustainability (Cairncross 1992; David 1991; Heald 1988).

  3. While positivist analysis focuses on a case’s ability to represent a larger population, in critical theory’s interpretive tradition, cases are used to bridge the nomethetic/ideographic divide: they provide a source of rich descriptive data, but are also important for their ability to extend out to, and engage with, larger theoretical issues and struggles over power (see Burawoy 1998; Steinmetz 2004).

  4. Consumerism focuses on individual choice and shopping pleasure, while citizenship generally emphasizes the importance of civil society to channel citizens’ rights and responsibilities for the greater public good, or commons (Stevenson 1995:110; Gabriel and Lang 1995; Soper 2007:215). I appreciate that scholars have begun to problematize the citizen-consumer distinction, and describe these ideals and debates below.

  5. As Cook (2000) notes, “ample space exists for resistance to structurally given meaning, but this does not alter the fact that capitalist hegemony “depends upon the continual integration of person with commodity” (p. 111).

  6. Social movement scholars have emphasized a value-neutral interpretation of ideologies (Ferree and Merrill 2000, 455–456) to avoid the epistemologically problematic presumption that one can identify “true” causes of oppression. With Fegan (1996) and McLellan (1995), I suggest that a critical perspective on ideology remains key to understanding domination and inequality in socio-cultural arenas. For clarity of language and in keeping with the usage in social movement scholarship, I refer to “consumerism” and “citizenship” as competing ideologies, yet acknowledge that both terms invoke normative ideals that may, or may not be employed ideologically. My emphasis here is not on distinguishing ideology from “truth,” but on identifying on how ideological processes can naturalize and legitimize “ideas in pursuit of dominant interests,” which are not imposed in a crude, top-down fashion, but involve a negotiation between individual subjects and dominant cultural constructions (Fegan 1996:184).

  7. Of course, all of the framing processes constituting discourse can never be captured in a single study. As Phillips and Hardy (2002) write, “[w]e can never study all aspects of discourse and we inevitably have to select a subset of texts for the purpose of manageability” (p. 10).

  8. For an overview of this debate refer to the webcast provided by the University of California-Berkeley (http://webcast.berkeley.edu/event_details.php?webcastid=19147), as well as Pollan’s open letter to Mackey http://www.michaelpollan.com/article.php?id=80), and Mackey’s open letter to Pollan (http://www.wholefoods.com/blogs/jm/archives/2006/05/an_open_letter.html).

  9. Discourse analysis allows for multiple qualitative methods of data collection; “texts” are not simply printed words, but include other materials such as visual sources, spoken words, ethnographic field notes, and artifacts that are collected to understand better a discourse and its underlying ideological conflicts (Grant et al. 1998; Lutz and Collins 1993). Despite these multiple methods, what distinguishes discursive approaches is that they are studied with the objective of understanding a discourse “and its role in constituting social reality” (Phillips and Hardy 2002:10) while maintaining a constructionist epistemology that sees language as central to the constitution of social reality.

  10. The majority of the ethnographic fieldwork was carried out by the author, with additional field work carried out by research assistants to corroborate observations and collect additional impressions.

  11. Primary participant observation was focused on the Toronto WFM location; additional field research was collected at the Oakville Ontario, Portland, Oregon, and New York City (Manhattan) locations.

  12. Proquest and EBSCO Host engines (databases that contained mainstream and financial newspapers) were searched generating roughly 1,500 citations, and 700 relevant articles. Also, Internet searches acquired additional information about WFM’s marketing, consumer practices, and labor relations.

  13. Gabriel and Lang (1995) note that Naderism has not been readily reproduced in other countries, although they see Consumers International − a global network of consumer organizations with representation from 115 countries − as a manifestation of the Naderist stream of consumer activism that has been buoyed by anti-globalization critiques of corporate rule in anarchic market conditions (p. 48).

  14. The state of our knowledge on consumer activism makes it is difficult, if not impossible, to parse out the impact of ethical consumer activism on corporations versus the pressures from other “ethical” voices like the media, the state, market competitors, and other members of civil society (Crane 2006: 220).

  15. Much recent scholarship has cast considerable doubt on the ability of CSR to make tangible progress toward global environmental and social improvement (Vogel 2005; Locke 2006), and identified instances of corporate “greenwashing”, where companies put forward an environmentally friendly image but do little actually to reform their operations (Athanasiou 1996; Karliner 1997; Sutton 2004).

  16. There is an untapped opportunity for social movement scholars to engage with critiques of corporate adaptation. While social movement scholars have identified the need to assess social movements’ impact on the state, other movements, and political-culture (Guigni et al. 1999; Gamson 1975; Meyer and Whittier 1994; Eyerman and Jamison 1998), little work has been to address the impact of social movement activism on corporate actors – even though activists and scholars alike emphasize the power of corporations in public life (Sklair 2001; Bakan 2004). Social movement scholars have elaborated new ways of thinking about transnational resistance (Keck and Sikkink 1998) and have examined specific campaigns targeting corporate globalization (Johnston and Laxer 2003; Evans et al. 2002; Carty 2002), but to avoid fetishizing these cases of resistance in the global justice movement, there is a need to gain greater insight into social change processes involving social movement critique and market adaptation.

  17. For a critique of “co-optation” theory, see Thompson and Coskuner-Balli (2007). Although this critique usefully identifies potential limitations of a monolithic understanding of market cooptation of social movement ideals, I question the accuracy of suggesting that there is a unified body of “co-optation” theory that represents a “conventional theoretical standpoint,” since theories of co-optation come from multiple disciplines, and tend to emerge from the analytic margins rather than a disciplinary core.

  18. For example, the recent RED campaign (November/December 2007) at the GAP asks the question on store signage, “Can the shirt off my back change the world?” and then answers, “Yes, this one can.”

  19. While the commons have been defined in many ways, philosopher John McMurtry (1999) usefully describes them as “human agency in personal, collective or institutional form which protects and enables the access of all members of a community to basic life goods” (p. 204). Life-good are distinguished from a commodity using two criteria: (1) freedom from a price barrier (while markets can be used to distribute life goods, they cannot be restricted to those with resources), and (2) the property of enabling vital life-capabilities which includes not just the capacity to be physically alive, but the broad human range of thinking, acting, and feeling (McMurtry 2001: 827, 837).

  20. As Goldman (1998) insists, “[m]aintenance of the commons is thus one of the legs on which commodity production stands,” a fact that is increasingly recognized by capitalists themselves: “These ‘defenders’ of the commons (many of which are in the business of expanding access to private property and surplus-value production) argue that the sustainability of private-property regimes is actually completely dependent upon the maintenance of non-private property of the commons.” (pp. 16, 6).

  21. This introduces complex debates about the possibilities and limitations of working with markets that cannot be explored here. For a discussion of the historical importance of markets in capitalism, see Wood (1999); on the connections between markets and ecological exhaustion, see van der Pijl (2001). A more positive assessment of markets and the environment is found in Hawken et al. (2000), but Guthman (2000) assesses market dynamics in organic agriculture and reaches more pessimistic conclusions (pp. 305–306).

  22. A neo-Gramsican use of the concept of hegemony emphasizes that elites cannot rule by force alone – cultural leadership is required to achieve cultural consent, which reinforces class inequality and often works to suppress critical thinking by its appearance common sense. While power is concentrated in key capitalist agents and organizations, a neo-Gramsican approach also see power and agency at the “bottom,” resting in the hands of civil society and social movements (e.g., Johnston 2001; Carroll 1992).

  23. For example, in one book entitled It's Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living (Trask 2006), the author writes that “Adopting better habits and ways of doing things doesn't require riches, inordinate discretionary time or overhauling your life, but these could be a few of the misperceptions that inhibit more Americans from acting on their predilection for a healthy environment” (p.10). The back cover furthermore lets us know that we can become green “without the fuss.”

  24. To be clear, acceptance of neo-liberalism is not globally uniform, and important exceptions exist, particularly in China, Malaysia, and now in the “pink tide” of left-leadership in South America. The status of consumer organizations and state regulation is also not identical in Europe and North America. In contrast to the bottom-up consumer organizations found in North America, Burgess (2001) describes how state-sponsored consumer organizations in the EU work with an overarching regulatory state to re-gain the legitimacy lost with the diminishment of Keynesian welfare state models (p. 96).

  25. Academic understanding of social reproduction has advanced beyond a narrow interpretation of child-rearing, and connected globalized capitalism to the ecological and social reproduction of the labor force (Katz 2003; Micheletti et al. 2004:2; Hochschild and Ehrenreich 2003).Globalization scholarship has traditionally focused on the realm of production, yet the importance of social reproduction as a realm of necessity, vital for both social and ecological sustainability, has been highlighted by feminist geographers (Katz 2003), political economists (Sousa Santos 1995; van der Pijl 2001)), and ecological philosophers (McMurtry 2001). With neo-liberal reforms, cut-backs to the public sector and expanded markets worked to shift the work of social reproduction out in two directions: first, to charity-based organizations and non-profit organizations providing services for marginalized populations, and second, to private corporations who provide services for those who can afford them, relying on the labor of marginalized transnational workers from the Global South (Katz 2003:256; Hochschild and Ehrenreich 2003). While affluent consumers may actively choose private commodity choices (e.g., private nannies, personal chefs), it is important to note that privatized consumer choices lack the universality-principles of welfare states, and the end result is the large-scale privatization of social reproduction in the twenty-first century (Mitchell et al. 2003:17). Whole Foods Market represents a key corporate component of the privatization of social reproduction, offering choices like prepared meals, a one-stop shopping format offering conventional foods and organics/fair-trade, and the opportunity to “feel good about where you shop.”

  26. To be clear, CEO John Mackey speaks plainly to the business press about the company’s aggressive growth strategies, which he presents as complementary with an ethical orientation: “[t]here’s this notion that you can’t be touchy-feely and serious. ... We don’t fit the stereotypes.” (Fishman 1996:103). Indeed, WFM is deeply competitive internally and externally. Top-down corporate hierarchies are supplemented with self-managed “teams” where team members are voted in (or out) of full-time jobs by other team members after a 30 day trial period. Stores, and the self-managed “teams” within stores (e.g., produce, bakery), compete to achieve the best performance targets in service, sales, and profitability. Productivity and company bonuses are closely tracked, and directly tied to team’s competitive performance (Fishman 1996). As CEO John Mackey explains, “peer pressure substitutes for bureaucracy” (as in Fishman 1996). Externally, competition is also the name of the game in the WFM business paradigm. WFM has absorbed smaller and competing stores in its path to becoming the largest natural foods chain in the world, and has been criticized for opening stores in close proximity to established natural food stores.

  27. WFM has traditionally built stores in the 31,000 square foot range, but is planning to build 58 new stores in the 50,000 square foot range. The flagship Austin store is 80,000 square feet; the industry average for a grocery store is 34,000 square feet (Matson 2005).

  28. Not all aspects of citizenship are obligatory since many aspects of political capital and civil society depend on voluntary citizenry efforts; however, the central economic and security/regulatory aspects of the citizen/state nexus depend on compulsory measures that allow governments to reflect the will of the people, and perform services essential to welfare states. While consumerism does mandate some compulsory responsibilities – e.g., the payment of debt – (see Jubas 2007: 241–2), it is primarily defined by individual rights, rather than by its collective obligations, particularly as it occurs in “impersonal markets where ... consumers can make choices unburdened by guilt or social obligations” (Gabriel and Lang 1995:173).

  29. In debates over organic standards in the United States, various decisions have favored the entry of large corporations into the organics sector, such as the allowance of factory-farming, food additives, and synthetic chemicals that opened the door to synthetic processed organic foods. Organic processed foods may be free from pesticides and be grown without fertilizers, but the energy used to construct processed foods make them highly problematic on environmental grounds. On average, the food processing industry in the USA uses ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy (Manning 2004:44). However, the political-economic motivation for retailers to promote highly processed foods is strong, since they have more “valued added” and higher profit rates than less processed foods (e.g., eggs, milk, flour), and are found to be featured more prominently in retail displays (Winson 2004).

  30. It is worth noting that the role of WFM as an ethical corporation is similarly voluntary; it can choose to support greater animal welfare in its operations, while it simultaneously quashes unionization efforts, refuses to join labor campaigns organized to guarantee labor rights for strawberry pickers, and markets a wide-range of energy-intensive processed foods. WFM’s anti-union policies and strategies are well documented, and linked to Mackey’s libertarian political-economic philosophy. In Mackey’s own words: “basically, labour unions don’t create value.... Fundamentally, they’re parasites. They feed on union dues” (Lubove 2005:42). Mackey wrote and circulated a 19-page position paper entitled, “Beyond Unions” that has been circulated to “team-members” since 1990. Numerous journalistic accounts have documented WFM’s systematic efforts to prevent unionization. In addition, CEO John Mackey, refused to sign a United Farm Workers union petition to guarantee the rights of strawberry pickers in 1998. According to Mackey, “The UFW is trying to coerce us because we won’t sign their damned petition....I’m damned if I’m going to sign.” (Lubove 2005:43).

  31. I would suggest that this problem extends beyond WFM, and to the realm of lifestyle marketing more generally. Witness the latest Evian water slogan: “The most important body of water is your own”.

  32. Even within the much narrower field of fair-trade products, the plethora of labeling schemes creates cynicism and obscures understanding of whether certain products are more ethical than others (Hudson and Hudson 2004).

  33. A report by the LOHAS-focused market-researchers, the Hartman Group, warned producers not to over-estimate consumers’ ethical or health commitments, since their research indicated not only that “consumers are undisciplined,” but that consumers react negatively to too much information about a product. http://www.hartman-group.com/products/HB/pf2005_06_16.html.

  34. The rise of organic superstores like WFM marks one end of the spectrum in neo-liberal food provisioning, the other extreme is marked by an increase in food banks. The institutionalization of food banks during the period of neo-liberal globalism demonstrates how the corporate sector is enmeshed with tasks of social reproduction, but in a way designed to maximize profitability. Relying on corporate donations to fill emergency food hampers, food banks provide a venue for the corporate food sector to dump damaged, past-due and trial products without having to pay tipping fees at landfills. The limitations of addressing poverty and chronic hunger through a system of charitably-distributed corporate waste have been well established (Poppendieck 1999), but viable alternatives for feeding food insecure populations are uncertain. While community food security programs do offer important ways of channeling healthy food to poor communities, these projects are often limited in scale (Johnston and Baker 2005).

  35. All of my research trips involve an expensive grocery bill; a research assistant working on the project reported feeling too poor to shop there while doing field work, yet feeling self-conscious and deprived being there without consuming.

  36. Cox’s (2006) journalistic investigation into WFM found that there are no WFMs “located in zip codes with average 2003 household incomes at or below $31,000 – the approximate income earned by a full-time employee earning the average Whole Foods wage,” and that “half of the zip codes with Whole Foods stores lie above $72,000 in average income,” and one-quarter have incomes over $100,000.

  37. The connection between class and ‘quality’ food is not unique to Whole Foods. See Guthman’s (2003) description of these connections in the case of California organics, and the connections made among gentrification, a high-wage economy, and class differentiation.

  38. While the entry of Walmart into organic foods partially addresses the class bifurcation of ‘quality’ food, it does not dissolve other markers of high-quality, high-status food available exclusively at WFM, such as foods marked as authentic, rare, and exotic (e.g., small-batch olive oils and rare imported cheese).

  39. For an overview of the risks of industrial agriculture, see Kimbrell (2002); Laidlaw (2004); Magdoff et al. (2000).

  40. As Slate columnist, Maloney (2006) observed, “every media profile of [WFM] invariably contains a paragraph of fawning produce porn, near-sonnets about “gleaming melons” and “glistening kumquats.”

  41. A food coop or a non-profit food service is more amenable to delivering a message of consumption reduction (that de-centers consumer identities in favor of citizen responsibilities), since it is not legally bound to maximize sales. See, for instance, Johnston and Baker (2005) for a description of a non-profit service of this nature, and for a discussion of the limited scale of these projects given the dominant culture ideology of consumerism.

  42. WFM’s discursive commodification of nature through food products is vulnerable to critiques made of commodified nature in other corporate consumption realms. Beardsley (2000) argues that the commodification of nature is not only happening at large-scale theme parks and exhibits (e.g., SeaWorld, Disney’s Animal Kingdom), but is occurring in ordinary places like malls and grocery stores, where nature is constructed as “a source of products that makes you feel good rather than as a primary and complex phenomenon for which one bears personal and social responsibility” (p. 3).In a critique of the commodification of nature through corporate chains like the Rainforest Café, Beardsley (2000) describes how the corporate message of salvation and conservation through consumption is both illogical and “possibly deceptive,” particularly since it might “comfort some into thinking that consumption and waste aren’t among our most pressing social and environmental challenges” (p. 4). Kate Sandilands (1993, 1997) similarly critiques green consumerism, arguing that the very idea is an oxymoron that depoliticizes environmental problems, shifts accountability from government and corporations towards individual lifestyle choices, and leaves the daily lives of consumers relatively unchallenged.

  43. The idea of a modern “meta-discourse” is used to distinguish an overarching spirit of modernity (Lyotard 1984). Similar notions have been used by other academic traditions to describe an overarching, and unquestioned logic justifying economic expansionism The French regulation school, for example, speaks of a mode of capital regulation, understood as a “body of interiorized rules and social processes,” which takes the form of “norms, habits, laws, regulating networks” (Lipietz 1986).

  44. The would-be citizen-consumer at WFM thus operates within the broader rubric of ecological modernization, channeling the desire for more sustainable choices into the market-place, thereby enabling some degree of environmental protection without challenging economic growth. Thanks to a reviewer at Theory and Society for suggesting this point to me.

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Acknowledgments

Numerous people helped in the construction and conceptualization of this article. A special thanks to Shyon Baumann for his helpful suggestions and insightful feedback. Valuable research assistance was provided by University of Toronto graduate students Norah MacKendrick and Tara McMullen. The article benefited from comments received at the ASFS/AFHVS meetings, the Consumer Studies Research Network conference, the Schulich School of Business Research Colloquium at York University, as well as from the constructive critiques and suggestions provided by the Theory and Society Editors. This research is part of a larger project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, as well as the Connaught Research Fund at the University of Toronto.

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Johnston, J. The citizen-consumer hybrid: ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market. Theor Soc 37, 229–270 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-007-9058-5

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Keywords

  • Consumer Choice
  • Ethical Consumer
  • Social Reproduction
  • Ethical Consumption
  • Consumer Sovereignty