With the upcoming UK General Election, I inevitably reflect on my civic role and power. Voting seems to be the most obvious way to exercise our civic duty. We engage with our inner citizen, (hopefully) review the evidence, and make a conscious decision as to what we believe in and how our vote should contribute.
But what about everyday life? How often are we encouraged to engage with that inner citizen? When are we ever spoken to as active members of society?
“Special offer!” “Buy one, get one free!” “Daily deals!” “Grab it quick before it goes!” All of us, whether we’re out shopping, watching TV, reading magazines and newspapers or checking social media, are constantly being addressed as consumers.
Language has tremendous power. It does more than just communicate information. It engages us in many ways, leading to a multitude of conscious and unconscious responses. So, what is likely to happen to us when we are repeatedly addressed as consumers?
Research has shown that the simple fact of addressing people as ‘consumers, rather than ‘citizens’, makes them less likely to care about one another, act collectively, or actively participate in society. However, this ‘consumer’ language is deeply embedded in society, and increasingly, people are beginning to see it as a problem, because addressing people as consumers can be a barrier to creating wider changes in society.
And boy do we need to change society. The food and agricultural sector faces unprecedented issues, and a systemic change is needed to move us forward. It is crucial to engage with people’s inner citizen and encourage them to participate more actively on issues that they care about, but don’t feel able to change - from environmental degradation and climate change, to social inequalities and health impacts. If we want a systemic change in the food sector (and beyond!), one of the things that needs to be addressed is the language used when communicating with people. We need to move ‘beyond the consumer’ and into the new era of the citizen.
Since September 2016, the Food Ethics Council has been working in partnership with the New Citizenship Project (NCP) on its #citizenship project ‘Future of Food’. The project brought together six different organisations (the Co-op, the Food Standards Agency, RSPB, National Trust, FAI Farms and Cook Foods) who together have been exploring the ‘Beyond the Consumer’ mindset. The inquiry aimed to test what happens when the food system makes the shift from a consumer to a citizen mindset, going beyond engagement to involve people, and recognising the multiple roles citizens can have in the food system.
I have had the opportunity to be part of the process as a ‘harvester’ (no pun intended!), listening and participating in the process over the past eight months. What excites me most is seeing that EVERYONE, can start making the #citizenshift.
I have had the pleasure to meet many passionate people during my years working in sustainability, and it is my experience that those working in our field very much care about the issues we are all facing. What we often lack is a sense of agency, leaving us feeling like we are swimming against a current too strong for us as individuals. Our efforts have been in finding a common voice to fight this wave against us. Perhaps what we choose to advocate for isn’t so much the issue, as the challenges are too numerous and diverse. Perhaps instead we should focus on how we communicate with others, to ensure we engage everyone at the right level.
How do we do that? The Future of Food project will be sharing its learnings at Borough Market on Wednesday June 28th (8.30am-10.30am) If you also want to join the movement, please join us! Tickets are available here.
So practise your civic duty (register to vote – deadline 22nd May 2017!), and after going to the ballot box, join us at Borough Market! Because engaging your inner citizen isn’t just for election day. It’s for life!
 The New Citizenship Project, 2015, This is the #citizenshift: A guide to understanding and embracing the emerging era of the citizen