Forget the consumer: the citizen is king

Companies need to stop pigeonholing people as merely buyers and start engaging with them meaningfully. By Anna Cura.

Growing up, we’ve all had our share of nicknames. From endearing to tongue-in-cheek, they have the tendency to stick through the years and eventually become a part of us. Language has tremendous power. It engages us in many ways, leading to a multitude of conscious and unconscious responses. Not just in the playground but in our daily adult lives.

Research has shown that the simple fact of addressing people as “consumers”, rather than “citizens” or even just “people”, makes them less likely to care about one another, act collectively or actively participate in society. To think of ourselves and each other purely as consumers is to tell ourselves a story of humanity that is fundamentally selfish, a story that we know is not true. We are by nature collaborative. We want to work together and help one another. But when we are a part of the high-volume, low-margin business models that define many food businesses, this consumer mindset can be extremely hard to break out of.  

However, when brands pigeonhole people as consumers, their purpose becomes purely a matter of providing what those people seem to want, as reflected by their purchasing choices. They then become consumers of their supply chains, referring narrow self-interest up through the chain right to the top. Challenging the notion of people as consumers becomes increasingly difficult, however much we may want to disrupt the status quo.

But while consumerism is a powerful idea, the good news is that it is just that: an idea.

Between September 2016 and June 2017, we explored and challenged this idea with six organisations working in the food system (including the Co-op and Cook Foods), in partnership with the New Citizenship Project. The inquiry aimed to test what happens when the food system stops referring to consumers and starts seeing people as citizens, going beyond just engagement to involve and recognise the multiple roles citizens can play in the food system.

Here are some lessons we learned:

By simply changing how we define people, we interact with them differently and engage with them in a much more meaningful way. For brands, this serves to create and strengthen relationships where people buy into your purpose, instead of just buying your products. These relationships are deeper, longer-lasting and have greater financial reward. By speaking to its customers as people, Cook deliberately involves them in a different way, recognising the power of the citizen, and ultimately including them in delivering its purpose, not just selling them products.

Problems are seen under a new light. We can approach every debate with new questions, reimagine every role in the food system and give room for new ideas. The good news is that very often, it is not about creating drastic changes but about getting more from things that are already happening within the business. The Co-op already holds an AGM for its members; this year it added a “collaborative fringe event”, inviting its members to help shape its ambition on recycling.

Engaging with people as citizens will help everyone regain agency in the food system – an agency we all crave – ultimately making our food system fairer and more sustainable, and building commercial success in a different way.

#FoodCitizenship, as we call it, is an opportunity to redefine the way you think about your business. You can start now by taking some simple steps within your own business. First, keep your consumer alarm on. Notice and start challenging the assumptions that come with thinking of people as consumers. Adapt your language to citizens who participate, create and shape, instead of just consumers who demand, choose or receive. And remember: we are all citizens, and you have the power to give us our collective agency back.

Anna Cura is the project coordinator of the Food Ethics Council

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