Purity Politics? A Civil Project to Purify Consumption

Tad Skotnicki, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

This paper provides a comparative historical genealogy of a contemporary consumer phenomenon: the tendency to present “ethical” goods as also high quality. Studies of ethical consumption suggest that this elision of ethics and quality results when businesses target distinction-seeking and desiring consumers. Yet by comparing the purity claims of pioneering consumer activists, the paper reveals this elision of ethics and quality as a civil project, not merely as a feature or result of cynical marketing campaigns and niche market segments. Drawing on primary source archival materials from late eighteenth century abolitionists and turn-of-the-twentieth-century consumer activists, the author demonstrates how these activists participated in an ongoing civil project to purify consumption in liberal capitalist democracies by eliding a) the treatment of the laborers, b) the quality of the labor, and c) the quality of the goods. To claim that goods were pure, in many instances, was also to claim that the laborers and the labor conditions behind those goods were as well. This civil project, further, entails both public and private ways of arguing for the elision of ethics and quality, as well as craft and modern visions of ethical labor. Rather than endless transformation, this paper presents a way to identify meaningful continuities in consumption as a capitalist social form.

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 Presented in Session 228. Tastes and Consecration