Ethical consumerism and the decommodification of digital labour: possibilities and pitfalls

Authors: Kelle Howson*, Oxford Internet Institute
Topics: Economic Geography
Keywords: ethical consumerism, ethical certification, digital labour, gig economy, Fairwork
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/8/2020
Start / End Time: 3:20 PM / 4:35 PM
Room: Colorado, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Can existing instruments designed for decommodifying work and rebalancing power in global networks be applied to digital production networks? This paper sets out some preliminary suggestions regarding the possibilities for ethical consumerism to drive fairer value and governance distribution in the platform economy. The ethical consumer movement is now familiar. It emerged beginning in the 1980s, driven by increasing awareness of the uneven economic geographies of global trade. Its basic mechanisms, particularly ethical certification, are often theorised as means of defetishising commodities, by re-embedding production within the territorial and social conditions of its origin, and ascribing value to these conditions.

However, they have been criticised for a tendency to themselves become commodified and fetishised. Commentators have pointed out that as a solution based on market logic and individual choice, ethical consumerism is inherently contradictory. It attempts to temper the ills of neoliberalism while accepting its key tenets. Nevertheless reflexive consumer demand has seen some successes in rebalancing power in production networks, and remains one potentially powerful tool for evening global development. In the context of a rapidly transforming global labour market, what potential does ethical consumerism offer for tackling the new asymmetries in digital production networks? This paper draws on the large literature surrounding ethical consumerism and certification, to suggest some possibilities and limitations of these levers for improving livelihoods and work standards in the platform economy. Digital value networks provide opportunities and present new challenges for reducing the symbolic distance between workers and consumers.

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