The ethics of consumption

pp 172-176

The consumer does not exist: overcoming the citizen/consumer paradox by shifting focus

  • S. AertsAffiliated withKAHO Sint-LievenCentre for Science, Technology and Ethics

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A common framework to describe the difficult situation of today’s agricultural markets is the different (perceived) attitudes of the citizen (as found via surveys) and that of the consumer (assessed via buying patterns). It is said that the citizen is demanding for ever increasing animal welfare and environmental efforts (usually at an increased production price), but at the same time the consumer in the shops is heading for the cheapest product, regardless of the production system. This dilemma (or paradox) has been confirmed many times by scientific and market research. This way of framing does however not align with the complexity of contemporary food production. It starts from the – flawed – assumption that food producers (farmers) and consumers interact. But only on rare occasions they still do. Except in short-chain commercialisation systems, consumers do not buy food as it is produced by farmers, but instead they buy – even fresh produce – from retailers that have acquired it from auction markets. For other food products many more intermediate steps exist. In this paper we will show that in most instances in which conventional food production systems made progress towards more welfare friendly or more sustainable production this has been done by circumventing the citizen-consumer paradox instead of addressing it. Examples are the shift to non-battery eggs in the Low Countries in 2005-2006 and the current steps towards non-castration pig production. We conclude that focusing on the consumer in order to restore balance is – if not futile – overly optimistic. It assumes a consumer position that is not in line with reality. Furthermore, it obscures the important leverage of other actors in the food chain, some of whom may not be unsympathetic to this ‘invisible’ position.


consumption market power