I wanted to examine a point that Prof. Groening brought up in his lecture: Appadurai states that consumers do not derive political agency from their purchases. To quote Appadurai, the consumer “only asymptomatically approaches the form of a real social agent,” as he or she is constantly exposed to global advertising, “the key technology for the worldwide dissemination of a plethora of creative, and culturally well-chosen, ideas of consumer agency. These images of agency are increasingly distortions of a world of merchandising so subtle that the consumer is consistently helped to believe that he or she is an actor, where in fact he or she is in best a consumer” (16). Appadurai wrote this almost twenty years ago. Today, the internet and its numerous product rating sites (ex: Yelp, Epinions, Goodguide…) put unprecedented knowledge in the hands of the consumer – so much so that, in the case of Goodguide, the consumer is able to access a seemingly all-encompassing rating system of production practices and impacts.
Goodguide defines its mission to “help you find better products that represent your values, avoid products that are harmful to your health, the environment, or society – and enable you to take actions to help improve the world.” They go on to highlight the novelty of such information, saying “unless you’ve got a Ph.D, it is almost impossible to find out the impacts of the products you buy. Until now” (http://www.goodguide.com/about). Goodguide creates a hierarchy of products and, in order to accurately do so, they consider all openly available information including: the company website, recalls listed by the FDA and USDA, EPA/DOL fines, penalties, or rewards, emissions data, union press, and other news sources from the last three years. They finalize a product’s health, environment and society score to create a hierarchy of consumer options.
Could one say that, in 2009, the consumer is, in fact, more than a simple chooser? Yes, he or she is still subject to brand and advertising. Nonetheless, could sites like goodguide be a step closer to consumer agency?