Alternative Consumption Projects’ Use of Social Movement Strategies



Amory Starr

Boston College Sociology Seminar

Alternative Consumption Projects’ Use of Social Movement Strategies

The paper I distributed is about local food as a social movement. That paper provides a model that I am wanting to apply to a different, more cutting edge arena, which is what I call “local stuff”. Both in the case of food and in the case of stuff, it seems necessary to consider the possibility that consumption can be political, can be a social movement, and, if so, how. Now the form of my presentation is intentionally designed to avoid the  arbitrary closures and authoritative logic of powerpoint. I am giving you a technical handout later, which is more precise than possible with powerpoint, which will enable you to join me in analysis. I am also offering you some visual stimulus, but it does not provide an argument. It is to engage you in making other kinds of connections analysis than the ones I have made.

So the paper I distributed provides a background of the synthetic analytic framework I am using for identifying and evaluating a social movement. You can see that I am using mostly newer social movement theory, regarding the importance of culture and identity. I feel that I need to say that I used to think all that was hogwash. It was only after spending 10 years as an activist that I was able to recognize that identity is not just a resource, more importantly it is a landscape of boundaries and belongings. And likewise I recognized that culture is not just a nice part of meetings or some decoration on the protest, but it is the language of the movement, through which it is foreign and indecipherable to observers. Indeed culture and identity are not only carriers, which enable movements to survive in the margins and while they are, as Alberto Melucci points out, not inactive but “submerged”. Culture and identity are also the static which disrupts the articulation between movements and their dehumanized societies. The woo-woo task of creating “inclusive cultures” has been misoriented. We have thought to build spaces that are neutral and empty or which offer a profusion of cultural references (a Chicano shrine, a water purification system, a poster of Malcolm X). We have thought to pare down our “frame” so that it speaks to the “real common denominator”.

But the Frankfurt School teaches us that cultural signs overwhelm such rationalities, be they “interests” or assemblages. Movement culture, then, requires a more accurate metaphor. I want to point out that it is a shared language. And I mean language in the linguistic sense. What I grasp from Eyerman & Jamison and Melucci is that movement ideology and movement culture are one and the same. Resistive culture confronts something in its society. It reacts. It forms a critique and an alternative. This is easy to recognize from an academic perspective, but its implications for organizing and activism (and criticism of activism) are momentous. If we think about culture this way, we recognize that it is not a negative, not an absence and emptiness, and it is not a blithe collage. It is a complex system, which requires work to learn, which has an introduction, and many layers of sophistication, which takes years to become fully formed in each participant. And movement culture begins with something like “hello”. From there, it must entice new speakers to want to learn. It must understand that beginners will be very limited and if it is to succeed its adherents must find a way to make it accessible.

This is a very different way of thinking about social movements. Most discussion of social movements presumes either that they cannot be built at all but must be anxiously awaited like forces of nature or that they are a rational process which emerges in each participant and group as a fully formed ideology, a whole sentence, neatly capturing structure and agency and, of course, recognizing history. I do not think that culture is all we need to understand about social movements, but I want to argue, drawing on the case of food, that if we are to understand culture, it would look something like this:

Julio, my friend. Teach me some spanish: What is the word for “poison”? “Venano”

“Mi comida es veneno.”

Ah, “químicas agrícola”.

“Si. Kee-mi-cas ag-ri-co-la.”

Social movement culture functions as a process of recognition, query, and expansion, repeated, slow, but growing bigger in each conversation. What this means is that rather than looking for correct analyses when we look at events-we-think-or-hope-might-be-or-become-social-movements, we should look for trajectories and expansions. Eyerman and Jamison make the point that what social movements do is introduce a new idea into their societies, through many channels. They argue that the very idea of an “ecological society”, that this idea is now a common context, is the victory of a social movement. It has travelled by many different strategic paths, and that is why it so powerful. I want to point out that the first social movement book I ever read, and one of the best, was Vincent Harding’s There is a River. His point is that everything Africans did from the moment of enslavement, from gulping down sand, to jumping off the ships, to accommodation, to Black Power, to afrocentrism, has been part of the struggle for freedom, has been what I call developing a language which in its increasing vocabulary and sophistication is better and better able to articulate that project. This is what Patricia Williams describes as the “alchemical” process through which African Americans brought into being the idea that they had rights.

Ok, that’s the rather lengthy introduction to how I am looking at consumption-based social movements. And this is very much a work-in-progress – so I am treating this as a real seminar. I expect you to help me find how this project could be better! It’s very messy right now but I figured a seminar should be work in progress that I’m still interested in rather than something all tucked in, that I’m totally bored with because I’ve been working on it so long.

So alternative consumption does a lot of things. It builds new economic institutions, creates choice (instead of “voting” among decreased choices), develops new products, builds community to aggregate the effects of action in an attempt to reform corporations, shops for a better world, it urges us not to consume, and innovates solidarity projects. But is it effectively disruptive? Is it subversive? Is it reflexive? The critique, power, and vision of its activities is certainly contestible. As a tactic it seems individualistic and materialist or escapist. As a goal it is incomplete, dependent, and cooptable. But if we think of alternative consumption as strategy, both its goals and its future tactics remain open. Instead of evaluating what it is, we can engage in praxis with it.


So the first thing I did in looking at  alternative consumption was to make an inventory. And I divided this inventory according to three groups:

• Alternative production

• Alternative spaces of exchange

• Ideas of alternative consumption which might organize seeking, choosing, innovating

Then I wrote a brief case study of each entry, based on my own many years of engagement with alt. Consumption, augmented by internet research, and in some cases by some ethnography. Based on these case studies, I then created some very rough heuristics to enable me to think about social movement ideas and a lot of data at the same time. Having separated alternative consumption according to production and exchange I then found that I needed to recombine them in order to look at them as social movement “projects” in which a variety of actors and institutions collaborate.  So now we’re ready for the handout. The first page of your handout lists these 27 alternative consumption “projects”.

The second page lists 33 social movement strategies that I identified as relevant to consumption. I organized them into materialist and post-materialist projects. I have further divided the materialist projects into institutional innovations and organizing. The post-materialist ones are divided among social interventions and changes in consciousness. I do not think that these categorizations are excusive and watertight or that things couldn’t go into other categories. And I really tried to give materialist organizing its maximum due here.

So then I made a huge matrix, in which I gave each project a dichotomous score for each strategy. (I did not include this in your handout!) I told you it was a rough heuristic!  I view these findings as suggestive at best, given the diversity of activities attached to each project. Also the size and sophistication of the projects varies widely. Ultimately analyzing by sectors (food compared to stuff etc.) wasn’t very interesting because each of the sectors has some very weak projects and some hip ones and so it didn’t really tell me much.

So the first question I wondered about was how busy are the movements? How much are they doing? After applying a correction factor to address the different numbers of postmaterialist and materialist strategies considered, projects used an average of 7.1 materialist strategies and 10.7 postmaterialist strategies.

Table three lists the strategies according to their popularity among the 27 projects.  Postmaterialist strategies seem more popular than materialist ones, with 7 of the 12 postmaterialist strategies used by more than 18 projects and only 3 of 21 materialist strategies used that often. Yet the 4 most popular strategies are spread across the different strategy groupings: 23 of the 27 projects expand diversity (mat-innovations), 23 build community to aggregate actions (mat-organizing), 25 projects express “emotional immediacy…” (postmaterialist –social intervention), and 25 have “enchantment” (post-consciousness). But the next strongest set (each used by 20 – 22 projects) are all postmaterialist: increasing control over space and time, building a “we”, establishing a sense of place. And then we get a batch of innovation and institution-building. The least popular strategies (each used by only 4-7 projects) are all materialist: economic development projects that remobilize surplus, activist blocs acting in the market to discipline corporations, disruption/breach, and reassertion of the polis as a locus of decisionmaking about the economy.

In other words, challenging the mode of production and shopping for a better world are not as popular as innovations and economic development projects. Solidarity and diversity are more popular than disruption. A sense of place and control over time & space are more popular than deliberative democracy. Relationships infused with meaning (solidarity, regard, emotional immediacy, direct participation, and a sense of “we”) are winners. Abstract and distant issues (anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, mode of production, political regulation) are not hot. Even decommodification is more popular than regulatory discipline as an economic vision.

Table 4 then looks at all the projects ordered by how many and which strategies they use.  The strong food movements (local, slow, CSA, and farmers markets) are good at everything. Fair trade (about half way down) is a leader in materialist projects and a loser in postmaterialist ones. Voluntary simplicity is strong in post-materialist and weak in materialist. Fine art and traditional craft are stronger at postmaterialist than materialist with glaring weakness in materialist organizing.

Table 5 breaks down table 4 differently. We can see which are the strongest and weakest projects in terms of their use of various strategies. Here I’ve broken materialist and post-materialist into their subcategories and I’ve also created some composites of strategies, which you can see below the heavy line. What’s obvious here is that different forms of alt.consumption are using very different strategies.

Table 6, this is the last one groups some of the projects. I’ve called them “solidarity”, DIY, and “unconsume” and I list these project clusters’ use of all the strategies, in order, by how many uses. I started drawing lines between the strategies to see how they fall in the different clusters, but then I thought that would be fun for you to do. That way you can follow your favorite ones.

But after making this particular chart I decided I didn’t like it. I created these three clusters according to issues of economic logic. But I really think that’s now how social movements work. I think the groupings should be by cultural affinities and social spaces. They should be grouped according to everything flowing from punk. Or by things that homeowners do.

So, to summarize this whirlwind tour.

Alternative consumption projects (even the more conceptual action projects) are strong institutional innovators, averaging 6-7 institutional innovations per project. Examined as a social movement, these projects are not ideology-heavy, sloganeering, meeting-bound projects. They are actively making space and creating experiments in society. Moreover, they are little concerned with creating a unified front and and instead highly committed to generating diversity. They work at the edges of culture, build a sense of “we”, and introducing enchanting new ideas, even though their interests are economic.

Clearly, most alternative consumption has low “marketness” in Block’s terms. [1990]  Consumers are actively expressing concerns other than price, although it should be noted that this does not mark them as unfrugal or wealthy. Despite the opportunities this presents, the possibilities for economic development have not been fully explored. Using Gibson-Graham’s 2006 scheme of alternative economic development, alt.consumption could more fully explore the possibilities for mobilizing surplus, meeting needs, enhancing consumption, and expanding the commons.

Alternative consumption projects, particularly more developed ones like local food, mix new political strategies with traditional ones. But other highly developed projects, like fair trade, although institutionally and ideologically sophisticated in a materialist sense, have failed to also engage postmaterialist strategies. This analysis confirms postmaterialist claims like the importance of pleasure/play and gaining control over space and time. All of the cutting edge movements have both. And this duo is among what the less innovative and active projects lack.

Interestingly, fair trade is also a centralized and controlled movement, sharply constrasting with Indie, which is totally grassroots, with strategies expanding according to the interests of consumer and producer participants. It would be interesting to correlate openness and access with the use of political strategies.

This study has not mapped the networks between movements. Such a mapping could help us understand how political ideas and strategies are influencing allied movements, or where there are impenetrable barriers. Various kinds of consumption are a natural fit with each other. Others, although they have no political/logical connection, may share an “alternative” association based on social proximity, culture, or networks. As noted, similar projects may be unable to learn from each other because of cultural divides. An example of this is Martha Stewart DIY and DIY/self-creation. (However I would like to see a market analysis and find out about readership overlap between Martha Stewart Magazine, Make Magazine, etc.)

Various consumption projects with different goals may gravitate together in the minds of consumers as “ethical”. Indeed, a recent article investigated a situation in which some people were having a party and they felt pressure to be green, to be local, and the article talked about the conflicts between these projects. The point is that issues were bundled not according to their own logics, but as pressures on consumers — a different moment in the process of social change. Perhaps here is where the social networks that Juliet is interested in come in! “What will my party guests think if I use paper napkins?” But I had to drive to the farm to pick up the meat, so then i rode my bike to get the vegetables and I ran out of time… I forget exactly what the problem was. [Jacobs 2007]

In understanding the economics of alternative consumption, it is, of course, important to distinguish between producers and consumers. However, in building new markets, both producers and consumers need to be recruited, and that is done around new ideas, spaces, and social technologies. (These are the issues that melucci started pointing at in 1989. The very fact that in my analysis I could not separate production from exchange from ideas indicates that it is “new space” that seems to be important in understanding the formation of these new projects.) This is why the analysis above focused on social movement projects/concepts which involve a mix of promoters, innovative institutions, consumers, activists, and producers.


Ok, so part 2 of my talk is where this is all going? All of my work has academic and activist dimensions. My new activist project draws on all this work to try to figure out how to help build a “stuff revolution” comparable to the revolution of “local food”.  And all of what follows has been developed jointly with my partner, Durant Schoon. And this draws heavily on the food paper that you read.

At heart, I’m not a social movements scholar, I’m a political economist. I’m interested in economic development and its relationship to liberatory projects. But people keep thinking I’m talking about social movemens, so I’ve reluctantly learned to use that language. Freeman’s argument about “the great doubling” makes it clear that cheap labor as the basis of economic development strategy is over. So what kind of economic development is going to make sense?  The local food movement has already conceptualized the social and economic architecture for a sustainable, secure, just, and delicious new food economy. New institutions are proliferating, along with skills development, seasonal limitations, and social commitments. I think we can build another new and pleasant economy around “local stuff”.

Recent magazine spreads hint at a similar shift in the arena of “stuff” – a shift from consumption measured by exchange value of high tech gadgets to one measured by products of use-values in which specific people, and relationships, matter, products which  affirm green, Bauhaus, or DIY values. [Furio 2008, Tarashka et. al. 2008, Khemsurov 2007] Moreover, highly educated “symbolic analysts” are exiting their careers to become craftsmen. The mutinies are catalogued in The New York Times’ “Style Desk” [Treffinger 2005, Anderton 2005] And schools like Florida State and UC-Santa Cruz are overwhelmed with applicants for graduate degrees in organic farming and master crafts. Young fine artists are making a living again. [Eastman 2008]

This is not to propose that we can knit ourselves to egalitarianism (although keeping artists in rent and food and space is worthwhile in any society). Nor is the point that enlightened consumerism will rebuild a reasonable economy. That is why my analysis treated all these projects as strategies. What I want to suggest is that these projects are points of observation and discourse on a lurching process of re-thinking and rebuilding life and work that is ecologically limited, intrinsically meaningful, solidary, and self-governed through reflexive and participatory democracy. A collective process of trying to remember what was good before the distanced processes of colonialism started delivering commodities and corporations started taking our time. A process of excavating desire, pleasure, happiness, place, and human connection – including the joys to be had through work/self-creation. (Interestingly, a recent inquiry to a famous department of industrial design revealed no concept of “work” under consideration in the curriculum other than “working conditions”.)

In Eyerman & Jamison’s terms, the emergent idea of “local stuff” modeled on “local food” would be something like this: We develop a relationship to objects that engages our intuition and energy and values in a way that is more like making art than acquisitiveness. Along the continuum of modes of production from DIY to art object we imagine a series of possibilities of collaboration between consumer and producer, in which the materials, aesthetics, and function fulfill the ideals of the household. We will buy just one dishdrainer in a lifetime, instead of 20.

We need Artisan Department Stores, reliable, organized, marketplaces to drop by and pick up: a dish-drainer, bookshelf, garbage can, wine glasses, and a lamp. The markets need to have rules comparable to those at farmers market about production methods and ownership scale. But today, such a market would draw more consumers than producers. Currently, artisans tend to cluster in jewelery, accessories (scarves, hats) and gifts. In recent visits to 3 craft fairs, I found useful household items at just over 10% of the stalls at each market. [Also see Weitz 2005] It’s hard to think about committing to solidarity relations with local artisans when they don’t make anything useful.

Therefore, we don’t just need a market for local stuff, we need to support the development of production of local stuff. But that’s not as hard as it sounds. Once farmers found out that people wanted to buy heirloom veggies in person, they started producing and marketing that way (with help). We need to support existing and aspiring craftspeople in producing useful objects, learning about sustainable materials, and designing with a wider range of aesthetics (some modernism, please!). Some aspects of this project are easier than local food. While aspiring young farmers can’t afford land, collective workshops would be relatively affordable to support artisans. And, produce spoils, dishdrainers don’t.

Small and mid-size farmers who monocropped and sold everything wholesale were in bad shape a few years ago. Intensive outreach and training by agricultural agencies and organizations have helped these farmers diversify and get into direct marketing. Similar programs could help tradespeople, like skilled metalworkers and carpenters who do not currently do artisanal pieces, to retool for that market. These folks would be particularly appropriate for building a custom market, or executing designers’ projects. Community institutions which provide craft education, such as the Elliot School ( could be supported with state job training funds. Public or private programs could offer grants, loans, help with materials (free advice on sourcing and coop buying, transport), workshop and retail space for artisans, providing special incentives for producing everyday goods with sustainable materials. Artisans could cluster in Style Guilds which would provide a range of products in a similar style, using comparable materials and level of workmanship. It would certainly help to have a directory of artisanal producers, again organized by use categories and indicating willingness to do custom work. These would be similar to CSA directories and farmers directories.

Looking at the lessons of the local food movement, we see that meat producers had a more difficult time than produce producers getting their goods to market due to processing requirements. New institutions (some funded as public-private collaborations) are necessary to build boutique (smaller scale) slaughterhouses and to educate chefs (indeed to re-train a new generation of butchers to fabricate a whole animal). Similar middle-market functions are needed for the “local stuff” revolution. For example, it might be helpful to build coop factories where artisans can arrange production of larger runs and get really great advice on how best to maintain quality. This would also provide good jobs and be an artisan incubator, where young people could learn craft skills. As we work to re-build the American economy, we might re-think public education, renewing both arts and trade programs with courses in artisanal production and craftsmanship. Perhaps initially as after school programs, new workshops could be kept open to the community. Outreach programs should involve elders and immigrant craftspeople who can demonstrate diverse knowledge of materials. Adding a component of reuse, schools could accept donations of industrial and scrap materials for these programs.

Finally, the local food movement benefited from conceptual and political work done by non-commercial organizations, such as Food First, the Organic Consumers Association, the Community Food Security Coalition, and many more. We need such organizations to help ethical consumers think through and connect the issues, so they will then want to connect with artisans.