Could a small shift in thinking – from Consumer to Citizen – make a big difference in our food system?

Our work at the New Citizenship Project is an ongoing inquiry both into the limits of the consumer mindset that currently dominates so many aspects of society, and the enormous opportunity of moving beyond that and thinking of ourselves as citizens – active participants in society – instead. Over the last year, we’ve been working with a group of organisations from across the food system to investigate what this new way of thinking might unlock. The further we’ve got, the more excited we’ve become. This post is a taster, but you can join us at the launch of our forthcoming report Food Citizenship: how thinking of ourselves differently can change the future of our food system to explore these ideas in full.

In conversations about food, from business to government to NGOs, the word all too often used to describe people – ourselves – is ‘consumers’. It’s easy to think this is just a word, but in reality this label serves to entrench deeply unhelpful dynamics in our food system by telling us that, as individuals and as organisations, our role is limited to consumption: that our power to shape the food system is limited to choices between products, and the signals these choices send through the system.

The impact of this must not be underestimated. This situation drives the perception that most people don’t care about the damage caused by our existing food system, and this perception in turn serves to perpetuate existing behaviours through that system, at every level. Brands and retailers respond to calls for change with – ‘If consumers don’t demand it, why should we do it?’ The role of government becomes limited to protecting consumers from the most outrageous extremes. Even NGOs are trapped, the available strategies narrowing down to appeals to individual self-interest that are ultimately self-defeating, to behaviour change by stealth, to increasingly shrill and internally competitive attempts to get us to care, and to increasingly restricted attempts to influence governments that see no evidence they represent the people.

While we are stuck in this mindset, we will not change the system. As Einstein put it, “We can’t solve the significant problems of our time with the same level of thinking that created them.”

The task, then, is to move to a new level of thinking. The opportunity lies in realising, first, that the role of the consumer, and the associated commonplace that people are led by self-centred motivations, are not fundamental human truths: they are simply part of a story we tell ourselves, and a dying one at that. Second, that a new story is emerging to replace it. This is the story of ‘the citizen’ – a story that is best understood in contrast both to ‘the consumer’ and to the story that came before: ‘the subject’.


Subject, Consumer, Citizen

In the early days of the 20th century, we were ‘subjects’: the story was that if we all did as we were told by our betters, the best society would result. Coming out of the second world war, this story was replaced by ‘the consumer’. We gained the power to choose and the right to complain. As a shift from ‘the subject’, this was a liberating raise in status. The new story drove huge improvements in material standards of living across the world.  What’s coming next is ‘the citizen’: as yet fragile and not fully formed, in the story of the citizen we are gaining the power not just to choose, but to shape the choices on offer; we are starting to work together in interdependence, seeking not just what’s best for ourselves as individuals, but as communities and societies.

Once you start to look at the world through this lens, you see the change happening in every aspect of society, everywhere. In politics, it is the shift from representative democracy – limited to the occasional consumer choice of the vote – to the participatory democracy of Taiwan’s Gov Zero movement, Better Reykjavik’s civic forum, Portugal’s nationwide participatory budget, and Mexico City’s crowdsourced constitution, for example. It is the shift in perception of the role of business: from exploitation to empowerment, from shareholders to stakeholders, from profit to purpose. Perhaps most importantly, in local communities, it is the shift from ‘consumers complaining’ to ‘citizens reinventing structures from the ground up’.

Back to food

At the New Citizenship Project, we believe it is time for those of us who are working for change in the food system – whether from within businesses big or small, in the public sector, or for NGOs – to pause, step back, and reassess what we are trying to do. In their recent Food Issues Census, the Food Ethics Council reflect that “by most indicators, the challenges faced by the food system are getting worse, not better.” We are working harder than ever, but ultimately, we are not winning.

We have come together with the FEC, and with six organisations active across the UK food system – from the Coop to the RSPB – to explore what impact the false and limiting idea of “the consumer” is having; to envision what it might look like to root our work in a bigger, more truthful idea of humanity; and to discover how we as individuals and organisations working for change in the food system might act differently right now to create the future we want.

The work begins with revisiting the perception that people don’t care. We absolutely do – almost all of us. But quite naturally, when we are repeatedly told that the power we have to create change is limited to choosing between options we find barely distinguishable, and to changes in our behaviour that we often quite rightly see as incommensurate with the scale of the challenges, we tune out. It is not that we don’t care, but that we cannot let ourselves care.

This is where citizen-thinking begins: the assumption – in stark contrast to the consumer mindset – that people are naturally disposed to care, but need to have meaningful power in order to sustain that care. The challenge for organisations across the system is then to give us that power, and to make it meaningful, creative and joyful to express it. This is already happening in small ways across so many organisations and in so many places, but what if… What if government could run a national conversation on the future of food with the same kind of creativity that the big retailers develop their advertising campaigns – so we became policymakers, not just consumers? What if brands sought our involvement, not just our spend? What if NGOs celebrated the citizen movements already happening, and gave us ways to join in, drawing on approaches like citizen science, and helping us be participants – not just consumers?

The fundamental strategic shift on offer here is deeply positive: rather than seeing our task as to mediate the impacts of perceived human nature, it becomes instead to foster and channel true human potential. Our ambition in our forthcoming report is to make this new approach – what we call Food Citizenship – tangible and real, and to equip all those working for change in our food system with a new set of tools and approaches to apply in your work. We believe we’re ready to start a new conversation in the food system with these ideas, and we’d love you to join us in the beautifully appropriate setting of Borough Market to get that conversation started.

If you would like to join in the conversation, you can purchase your tickets here.

4 thoughts on “Food Citizenship

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