Never use the word “consumer”. Here’s why.

A public service announcement to everybody concerned about environmental and social issues: when writing or talking, refrain from the use of the word “consumer” if at all possible.

There is considerable empirical evidence that merely using the word, instead of words like “citizen” or “individual” will cause readers and listeners to feel less personal responsibility to take action and trust others less. The word seems to trigger self-regarding behavior and attitudes that prioritize wealth, status and success. As such, the mere use of the word makes it harder – slightly, but nevertheless harder – to promote behaviors and attitudes that are almost certainly required if the humanity is to live within the means of our single homeworld.

On a philosophical level, labeling people “consumers” instead of “citizens” circumscribes the actions available to the individual: as Justin Lewis [1] has explained, whereas citizens can express themselves in every aspect of cultural, social and economic life, consumers are by definition expressing themselves only in the market place.

Some examples of the behavior changes triggered by word change include the experimental study by [2], where university students who were invited to take part in a “Consumer Reaction Study” identified more strongly with notions of wealth, status and success than those who were participating in otherwise identical “Citizen Reaction Study.” Another survey reported in [2] asked participants to imagine themselves as one of four households facing a water shortage due to a drought. Half of the participants were given a survey that described the scenario in terms of “consumers,” while another half were referred to as “individuals.” The first group reported feeling less personal responsibility to take action, and less trust in others to take action as well.

Considering all the problems in the world, this might seem like a minor issue. But it is an issue that everyone can help with, simply by refusing to use the ideologically loaded term “consumer”- and in a longer term, such small changes in attitudes and behaviors can add up.

It certainly doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the use of the word “consumer” slowly but surely replaced the word “citizen” in English texts at about the same time as our current, very probably unsustainable and certainly unjust economic system rose to prominence.[3] If we want to change the world, we must convince people to act, and it seems counterproductive to reduce our powers of conviction simply by choosing to use words that can make people more passive.

google ngram consumer-citizen

Google Ngram: prevalence of “consumer” vs. “citizen” over the years in English texts.

The examples and my motivation for writing this PSA are from a book Doughnut Economics (Raworth, 2017), which I believe makes for an excellent reading for everyone interested in creating a better, more just world for all living things.

Sources

[1] Lewis, J. et al. (2005). Citizens or Consumers? What the media tell us about political participation.

[2] Bauer, M. et al. (2012) “Cuing consumerism: situational materialism undermines personal and social well-being.” Psychological Science 23, pp. 517-523.

[3] Shrubsole, G. (2012). “Consumers outstrip citizens in British media.” Open Democracy UK, 5 March 2012.

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About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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