What’s the big deal with the word ‘consumer’? Collective missions for a fairer world  

Last month I was delighted to host the Food Ethics Council’s Business Forum for a session on exploring and embracing the food citizen shift. We were joined by Helen Quaye from Co-op, Guy Singh-Watson from Riverford and Louise Ziane from Toast Ale, three brilliant speakers from three brilliant businesses that are pioneering ways of involving people as citizens, rather than just targeting consumers at the end of a food chain.  

Co-op, Riverford and Toast Ale are three very different businesses, operating with different approaches, customer bases and scales. But all three hold a commitment to working collectively to create a food system that is more resilient, accessible and fair for people, animals and planet.  

Many of us are thinking more about the story behind the food we buy and eat. We are increasingly engaged in ideas of fairness, ethics and decency. For food businesses and brands, this is a critical opportunity to take steps (small or large) to work collaboratively and dynamically with each other and develop relationships with their communities. Firstly, for the good of their relationships with customers, partners and suppliers, nourishing trust and building resilience in hard times, and secondly, for the good of wider society and a fairer, more sustainable future for all.  

What’s the big deal with the word ‘consumer’?  

An important part of this shift is in the language we use as individuals and businesses. The word consumer tells a really limiting story, of human being as things that simply consume, and transact with one another. This story doesn’t capture any of our humanity, or empathy or creativity.  

But with all the deep challenges we are currently facing in terms of affordability and availability of foods, is it really a priority to be talking about language, and changing the words we use? It is. Because the consumer story limits our agency in shaping the food system we want to see. It disengages us from our power by painting humanity as more concerned with self-interest than collaboration and empathy. There is a lot of research out there showing how the word ‘consumer’ is incredibly damaging to our wellbeing and sense of self.  

The Citizen Shift  

Happily, there is another way. A shift that can change how we feel, behave and see ourselves in the world. Choosing to use the word ‘citizen’ is not trivial. It’s huge. It’s the Citizen Shift. This is a way of seeing and being in the world that tells us that people are best understood as citizens. The more we see and hear the word citizens – the more we feel the potential of it, and the potential of ourselves to make change.  

Food citizenship is about applying the citizen shift to transition the food system towards a fairer future, built on the belief that people care about other people, about animals and about the planet. Progressive food businesses must engage with this belief. People want, need and expect more than to simply be called consumers by the businesses and brands that play a role in their lives. And people will form strong attachments with the businesses and brands that find ways to genuinely facilitate participation, debate, challenge and collective action among their communities.  

Collective missions and opportunities to participate  

We heard about why it is important and constructive to open up ways for people in communities to be a part of the mission. To move away from targeting them as consumers, and see them instead as food citizens with much to offer, like time, loyalty, knowledge and opinions. Of course, if you open the door to people to hear their views, you will hear some challenging things. But the very act of asking has opened a channel of communication. It has created a two-way relationship. This can evolve into opportunities for active participation in strategic decision making, product design, problem solving and more. These will add up to big changes in how people feel about your business, and a genuine connection that is built on trust.  

It was also incredibly heartening to hear examples of how businesses like Co-op, Riverford and Toast Ale are triggering the collective in the way that they work. Operating in pursuit of a collective purpose allows for richer, more hopeful stories about the food system to be told. Stories about brands sharing their knowledge and expertise, rather than hiding away behind corporate walls. One example we heard was an organisation doing hard, expensive research and development into compostable packaging, then sharing the results so others could use what they’d learned. 

Small steps and big strides 

Many businesses believe in the power of people and want to engage and empower citizens. They want to create a food system that is resilient and fair for people, animals and the planet, but may feel stuck about where to start, or how to continue, and deeply frustrated with the external barriers to how they want to operate. None of us is alone in this and it does not have to be all or nothing. There is significant, immediate value in taking small steps, as well as big strides. We need both on the road to a food citizen world.  


Photo above from the Business of Food Citizenship panel in October with Signe Johansen, Albert Tucker, Jon Alexander and Beth Bell. Thanks to Rob Kidd for taking the pic.