The Political Consumer – Everyday Personal Politics

Jesper Bo Jensen, Ph.d., Futurist / 30. sep 2017

A quick visit in a supermarket Friday afternoon or Saturday after 11 am could convince anyone in doubt: Something new is happening in Denmark. We’re not used to items being out of stock, but that is exactly what we find week after week in the supermarkets. Empty shelves where there was supposed to be organic milk. Consumers have thrown themselves at organic produce in droves, and since the fall of 1994 you have had to plan your grocery shopping meticulously if you wanted to make sure to get any of that glorious organic milk.

At the same time, surveys on how worried Danes are about pollution and the environment show that we are no longer as worried about the environment. While almost 80 % - according to a survey – in mid 1987 were very worried about pollution, only about 55 % were very worried in fall 1994. Participation in environmental movements has also dropped. An action-oriented organization like Greenpeace has gone from 50.000 members in 1987 to 22.000 member at the close of 1994. A more peaceful organization like the Danish society for Nature Conservation has also experienced a member decline from 274.000 to 243.000 in the 90s

It doesn’t look like it’s because of worry over the environment that the Danes are head over heels for organic produce. But then why is there such a big interest in organic produce right now, when it’s not because of the environment?

Ethics, quality… and environment

A number of general tendencies in the 90s might explain the organic boom that we’ve seen over the past many months. The 90s are – after the valueless 80s – more and more about the search for new values – also values of moral/ethical character. We are looking for constants in a time marked by diversity and uncertainty. That means that organic produce becomes a sought after thing based on a desire to do some good in our everyday life. It’s a good thing that the pig or the chicken has had the opportunity to live a decent life before they end in the oven. It’s also a nice feeling that the cows that produce our milk are treated well. Animal ethics is popular these years.

At the same time we’re in the middle of an economic upturn. An economic upturn always leads to more demand for quality. Furthermore, since the tendencies in the 90s are moving away from discount and toward better quality, we are experiencing a very high demand for quality produce. Abroad the tendency is called “less is more”. We’d rather buy a good chair of high quality – possibly even a used but classic one – than we’d buy another 3-2-1 group that needs replacing in 5 years.

This wave of quality also pulls along the organic produce. In our optics, they are of a far superior quality than regular produce. Another important aspect of the quality is that there’s an inbuilt experience in the product. This is true for the organic produce where we are given an experience through a story told by that product. We are not just buying milk, but organic milk with a long narrative on the cover of the carton on how the milk is produced, how the cow has lived and often a description of the place where the milk was produced.

Finally the environmental interest on a local level also matters. In later years many environmental questions have become international, like for example CFC-gasses, CO2 pollution etc. This has meant that it has become more difficult for the individual person to see what they can personally do for the environment. Here the discussion on agriculture and traditional forms of production has given an obvious opportunity for the individual to manifest themselves through their role as consumer. The environment is still an object of interest for people.

Lack of influence through elections and parties

On the other hand, the environmental question is more and more significant for the political parties. Several political parties are giving environmental questions the same importance as the traditional core political area of economy. Some parties even find it necessary to defend economic interests versus the environmental and a few even try to add new life to less relevant ideological thoughts by combining them with environmental issues.

The environmental question has become an important theme on the political agenda, which can in part be attributed to the organizations in the field and the professional specialists that work with legislation and administration of the area dealing with the environment. Put a little crudely, you might say that the environmental question has become a mature political area that the political parties show great attention and where the organizations in the area are increasingly a part of the established system.

Political parties are also experiencing a generally falling membership count. The party political participation is steadily declining. Meanwhile there’s also a disconnect of the population’s opportunity to affect the political decisions. In Denmark we have parliamentarism. This means that the government needs to resign if there’s a majority against them in parliament. This has also meant that we as voters at elections could decide which government to form. The last two elections it has been the other way around. The winner of the last election, Venstre, had to let the loser, Socialdemokratiet, form the government. The same happened in December 1990, where Socialdemokratiet won the election and Konservative and Venstre formed the government. We can’t decide the government’s political color via elections. Our influence as voters has diminished.

Direct, personal politics – The political consumer

This means that the population’s interest in politics and environment is moving to new ways of expressing itself. In the 1990s we’re seeing – as has often been pointed out in the work done by the institute – strong tendencies toward increased individualization and falling trust in authority in the population.

These changes in attitude have already changed the political participation form toward a more individual and personal political participation, which is tied directly to the actions of the individual. Those disseminators that have traditionally carried the population’s attitudes to the political scene – political parties and grass roots – are of course still playing an important role, but the individual’s actions need to be increasingly recognized as a relevant political expression.

In light of the increased individuality and antiauthoritarian attitude found in the population, the political participation in the future will to a high degree be focused on the individual’s actions and lifestyle. People won’t settle for representation by different groups whose points of views might only be shared on a few areas. You represent yourself. The individual antiauthoritarian political participation will be expressed in thing such as consumerism, waste sorting, recycling, energy saving etc.

The organic revolution has shone a light on the political consumer as a new form of participation, which hasn’t had much attention in traditional political theory. The connection between consumerism and politics – the political consumer – is the 1990s new political way of participating. The political consumer isn’t looking to push his own interests forward by participating in movements, organizations or parties, but is acting politically on his own.

The emphasis on consumerism as political expression means new demands and new opportunities for producers. Companies haven’t traditionally seen themselves as producers on a political market. That’s why they’re not ready to take up the challenge. Agricultural organizations’ reaction to the organic wave is a good example of not being prepared to deal with these demands. They would rather decide their mode of production on their own. But when the consumer is on the move, the producers have to follow.

Is it a counterwave?

The tendencies in the development behind the political consumer and the organic wave, aren’t just passing fads that will disappear with the next fashion-wave. They are long term tendencies that will also affect us in, for example, 5 years. Looking a bit further, the political consumer will make themselves heard in a number of new areas, while the organic will be a natural demand in much the same way as the quality-stamp ISO 9000 and demands that companies don’t pollute. Within the next 5-10 years we will see supermarkets that will only sell organic produce, so that we as customers won’t have to look for the red Ø-stamp but will just know that everything is OK in the store.

What’s next?

On the environmental side, there seems to be a strong tendency towards incorporating more and more product groups and it’s the institute’s assessment that almost all producers will be faced with environmental demands in the coming years. Many consumers will start to consider it a natural quality of a product in the same vein as design, price, etc. which makes it harder to brand oneself on environmental questions.

What will the next areas be? The things close to us – such as food – are prime candidates. Environmentally acceptable diapers for babies are coming, creams, shampoos, soaps etc. are also areas under development by the Bodyshop chain of stores. But there are also a number of other areas that may join. Eco-Electricity, toxinfree interior decorating and also including building materials etc. are all within the realm of possibility.

Published in Samvirke in January 1995, Published here 2017

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