It is a great pleasure to introduce Laura Miller’s blog this month. Laura’s first book, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago 2006), was a path-breaking account of the dual forces (commercial success and cultural integrity) that affect booksellers. Her new book, Building Nature’s Market: The Business and Politics of Natural Foods (Chicago 2017), promises to be equally compelling. Written just as the President tweeted his displeasure with Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s merchandise, the blog takes up the question of consumption and politics. Laura’s work speaks to two of the issues that are most common in the research of section members: food and the politics of consumption. Please comment!
– Juliet Schor
The Place of Industry in the Natural Foods Movement
By Laura J. Miller
I am guessing that world events have left most of you, like me, rather breathless — and anxious — lately. As we debate matters such as the rise of authoritarian governments, the meaning of populism, and the most effective forms of collective action, it is worth recognizing how issues pertaining to consumption are useful for understanding the topsy-turvy political landscape in which we now find ourselves. We can consider, for instance, the significance of the high-end department store chain Nordstrom deciding to discontinue the Ivanka Trump line of merchandise in order to avert a boycott by (mostly affluent) customers who oppose the policies of the new Trump administration. Or we can anticipate the destabilizing effects of a tariff on imports which, if carried out, would threaten the supply of cheap consumer goods that Americans of all political stripes have come to expect. What both of these examples remind us of is that consumption is especially good at highlighting how political commitments and alliances can occur in unexpected and paradoxical ways.
In my book, Building Nature’s Market: The Business and Politics of Natural Foods (published later this year), I approach the relationship between consumption and politics by looking at a movement in which businesses engaged in the production and sale of consumer goods have not so much reacted to citizen pressure to take particular stands as they have actually taken the lead in advocating for social and cultural change. The United States natural foods movement, which began in the early part of the nineteenth century, originally urged Americans to adopt a vegetarian diet consisting of simple, unadulterated foods with direct origins in nature. But by the latter part of the nineteenth century, and continuing up through the present, this movement has been closely intertwined with a natural foods industry whereby people committed to spreading a natural foods way of life have also sought to make a living, and increasingly, generate profits for a larger group of shareholders, by selling a wide variety of packaged and complex foods. Over the course of the twentieth century, the leadership of the natural foods industry was central to transforming natural foods consumption from a culturally marginal activity associated with religious minorities, immigrants, the elderly, and the infirm, to a hip lifestyle associated with the young, the fit, and the affluent. In recounting this history, I argue that it should not be understood as a simple story of cooptation. Instead of acting as a singularly deradicalizing force, the natural foods industry actually reinforced the natural foods movement’s radical rejection of medical and other cultural authorities, and at times faced significant state repression as a result.
However, this case also shows that the involvement of private industry is likely to change a social movement in significant ways. One way in which this occurs stems from the market’s bias towards flexibility. In the natural foods field, this flexibility has promoted great fluidity in the meanings attached to a natural foods lifestyle. To attract those customers who eat some natural foods but without making them central to a full-fledged philosophy of life, businesses try to avoid making demands that consumers conform to standards of purity as the price of entry. Unlike organizations dedicated exclusively to political activity, where adherence to specific values is more likely to be carefully policed, businesses assure consumers that no one is keeping score, and individuals can create a natural foods lifestyle to fit their own preferences. Therefore, in contrast to the nineteenth century, natural foods are for most followers today less a coherent philosophy and way of life with strict mandates than a set of individual choices that are justified by reference to personal preference, and that are easily taken up and put aside depending on the situation. In these circumstances, the integrity of the natural foods concept, and the values that have long motivated the movement, are endangered.
As the natural foods case shows, the lines between a consumer, a producer, and an activist are not hard and fast; individuals can move between these positions and sometimes occupy them simultaneously. To ignore this process and assume that only the economically disinterested are fit for political advocacy is to shut out people with sincere moral desires to advance a cause. Yet, to be so flexible as to allow any participant to define for him or herself what principles do or don’t matter for a cause is to risk sapping it of all coherent meaning. In the months ahead, with political actions and participants likely to take a greater multiplicity of forms than we have seen in a long time, we may well face similar questions about the benefits and trade-offs of political alliances and positions that do not follow traditional alignments.
Laura J. Miller is Associate Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University. Her most recent book, Building Nature’s Market: The Business and Politics of Natural Foods, will be published in 2017 (University of Chicago Press).