Constructing and mobilizing 'the consumer': Responsibility, consumption and the politics of sustainability

David Evans, Daniel Welch, Joanne Swaffield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

80 Citations (Scopus)
170 Downloads (Pure)


This paper advances critical perspectives on the governance of sustainable consumption by exploring the ways in which ‘the consumer’ is constructed and mobilized by strategic actors and organizations. Existing approaches draw on theories of practice to emphasize the limitations of governing through behaviour change. Whilst this provides a welcome corrective to the overemphasis on individual responsibility in sustainability research and policy, fundamental questions concerning changes over time, variation across substantive domains, and the mechanisms through which authorities and intermediaries responsibilize ‘the consumer’ are neglected. By way of rejoinder, we suggest that attention should be paid to the project of sustainable consumption and – following Clive Barnett, Nick Clarke and colleagues’ analysis of ethical consumption campaigning – the ways in which it engages consuming subjects and mobilizes the rhetorical figure of ‘the consumer’. To illustrate, we present the findings from an empirical study – drawing on documentary sources as well as 38 key informant interviews – of how the challenge of food waste reduction has been framed, interpreted and responded to in the UK. Our analysis suggests that initial responses to the issue made claims on the responsibilities of individuals as consumers, but that this quickly gave way to an emergent sense of shared and distributed responsibility. To conclude we argue for the importance of exploring specific instances of sustainable consumption governance and their underlying political rationalities, as well as periodizing these accounts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1396-1412
Number of pages17
JournalEnvironment and Planning A
Issue number6
Early online date1 Jan 2017
Publication statusPublished - 27 Feb 2017


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