Retail and anti-consumption

Project: ResearchIndividual research project


Being a good consumer was once synonymous with being a good citizen. When individuals shopped, they supported local farmers, national manufacturers and contributed to economic growth (Cohen, 2003; Coskuner-Balli, 2020). The climate crisis has changed this. Today, consumption is increasingly criticised for destroying or depleting common resources (Jansson, 2018) and retailers are condemned for promoting a culture of over-consumption, which is also seen as a direct contributor to global heating (Devlin, 2015). Anti-consumers were once outside the mainstream (Cherrier, 2008) but are now increasingly normalised, with the trend for buying less reaching as far as the red carpet. A good citizen, today, appears to be one that forgoes material desires rather than indulging them. And some consumers are using anti-consumption rather than consumption as way to construct their identities.

This trend obviously has consequences for retailers, but how exactly should they respond? This is an especially pressing question for those retailers whose business models are based on volume and unnecessary replacement of items, such as fashion retailers. But, in order to understand how retailers can respond to the anti-consumption trend, we must first understand the trend from a consumer perspective.

This might feel like a luxury in the present moment, when many retailers are concentrating on merely surviving the current pandemic-related economic downturn. However, such a crisis also offers the opportunity to reflect on what kind of retail industry we want in a post-Corona world. Many retailers were in crisis before the pandemic and, as customer’s buying patterns change, those that do not adapt will face harder times still (Moström, 2020). Some consumers see the pandemic as another manifestation of humanity’s exploitation of the planet (Rockström, 2020) and may leave the crisis with renewed motivation to consume less. Hence, responding to the growth of the circular economy and the anti-consumption movement is essential to retailer’s long-term success and survival.

This research project takes its departure in Giesler and Veresiu’s (2014) concept of the responsibilised consumer, in which consumers are responsible for moderating their own behaviour but at the same time are made aware of the social impact of their choices on e.g. the environment. In other words, individuals are not instructed how to behave but they understand, through a variety of mechanisms such as popular culture, how a good citizen ought to behave. For example, reality television shows, such as Hoarders in the United States or Lyxfällen in Sweden, deride people who overspend for material accumulation. Meanwhile, minimalists, like Mari Kondo and those who streamline their possessions to take part in the Tiny House Revolution, are celebrated. The concept of the responsibilised consumer has been successfully deployed to understand how and why we consume fitness products and services (Egan-Wyer, 2019) and can also help to explain how responsibilised individuals react to societal imperatives to consume less for ecological reasons.

This research will be qualitative in nature and will employ a socio cultural approach because consumption decisions do not occur in a vacuum but rather are enmeshed in webs of social and cultural concerns and expectations (Arnould & Thompson, 2005). Consumer choices inside the store are not isolated from life outside the store nor from the kind of selves we want to present to the outside world (Belk, 1988; McCracken, 1989). Although each of us makes individual choices about what to buy and not to buy societal expectations, norms and discourses shape the range of acceptable choices with regard to sustainability, just as they do with other areas of consumer responsibilisation—e.g. fitness and training (Egan-Wyer 2019).

Empirical material will be collected via semi-structured interviews with sustainable retailers and consumers (e.g. anti-consumers, minimalists, circular consumers) as well as via ethnographic observations of consumers in alternative/sustainable retail spaces (e.g. Swop Shop, Returhuset, Green Furniture Concept, Mobilia). Discursive data that condition consumer identity (e.g. media representations) will also be examined.
Effective start/end date2021/02/012023/01/31