The quandaries of consumer-based labor activism: A low-wage case study

Andrew Ross

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This essay takes anti-sweatshop activism as a case-study of a labor movement that engages consumer politics with mixed results. It reviews the success of the media-honed strategies deployed to raise public concern about substandard workplace conditions in the global garment industry, and summarizes corporate efforts to redeem their tarnished image through the public relations vehicle of 'corporate social responsibility'. The record of attention to labor abuses with the history of the consumer movement confirms the existence of a longstanding dialogue between advocacy organizations oriented to the politics of production and consumption respectively. But there is also a history of missed opportunities on the labor side to question the dominant materialist lifestyle of a consumer civilization. This shortcoming is highlighted by the rise of the anti-consumer movement, which evangelizes sweeping changes in lifestyle, trading, and modes of livelihood, and sees ethical consumption as little more than a way to greenwash the status quo. The essay argues that anti-sweatshop activists (who give short shrift to foundational challenges to the prevailing system) and anti-consumerists (often insensitive to the livelihoods that are tied to servicing the goods economy) would each benefit from integrating more of the others' philosophies and goals. Concerns about the unsustainability of a consumer civilization can and should be addressed at the point of production. On the other side, anti-consumerists ought to consider production workers and labor-based organizations as likely allies rather than as hapless victims of false consciousness.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)770-787
    Number of pages18
    JournalCultural Studies
    Issue number5
    StatePublished - 2008


    • Anti-consumerism
    • Brand-busting
    • Consumer boycotts
    • Labor movement
    • Sweatshops
    • Union organizing

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Cultural Studies
    • Anthropology
    • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
    • General Social Sciences


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