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Is it time to replace the term ‘consumer’ with ‘citizen’? Here’s where I’m at on the issue…

Last week I had one those moments when something catches your attention because it alludes to another half-remembered thought somewhere in your mind, but you don’t immediately connect the two together.

I was half-listening to radio 4 while eating my lunch, and one of the guests used the word ‘consumer’ then quickly corrected herself and replaced it with the word ‘citizen’.

At the time I barely absorbed what she was saying, but it stuck at the back of my mind and later it reminded me of a post that I’d seen on here featuring an interview with Jem Fawcus, CEO of Firefish, where he explained that one of his pet hates is the term ‘consumer’ because it can be such a reductive term.

I find a lot of common ground with Jem’s position. I’ve always felt somewhat ambivalent about using the term ‘consumer’ but I have never got as far as giving it up.

There are three reasons why:

1. I’ve struggled to find a more suitable replacement.

I do use the term ‘people’ sometimes, but it always feels a little too broad. While I agree that labeling can be restrictive, I do feel that some precision in language can be valuable.

Words like ‘consumer’ describe an active social role, like ‘mother’ or ‘colleague’ or ‘friend’ whereas ‘people’ feels more like a passive category.

This is obviously a negative reason for not using an alternative to ‘consumer’ and comes off as a bit wishy-washy, I know, but there is a positive reason for sticking with ‘consumer’…

2. For me the term isn’t inherently pejorative.

My academic background in anthropology has involved reading a lot of anthropologist Danny Miller’s work on consumption (and also being truly blessed to have him as my PhD supervisor) and this meant that from my perspective being a consumer was about much more than commercial transactions.

What Danny’s work has shown is that for most people consumption is embedded in virtually every aspect of people’s lives in deeply meaningful ways, including political and environmental concerns, even if it often begins with a purchase.

In this way being a consumer isn’t reductive, it simply describes the process by which most people in the 21st century make and make sense of their lives.

In this sense I use (or at least I feel I use) ‘consumer’ as an empowering term – it’s not just about ‘buying stuff’.

And finally there is also a more practical element to this…

3. For commercial brands I feel that the term aligns with their priorities, which is in most cases ultimately about selling things.

I think it’s also fair to say that I’ve never worked for any commercial clients who have seen consumers simply as ‘buyers of stuff’.

They too recognise the broader meaning of the term at least in as much as brands seek to align with the customer’s values and beliefs.

So the term ‘consumer’ is broad enough for me to use it in both its narrow sense and also in its broader sense. Yes it is about buying stuff, but it is also about how buying stuff is just the tip of the iceberg of what it means to be a consumer.

Even if I have always had niggling doubts about it, this has always felt like justification enough to continue using the term.

But the way the term ‘citizen’ was used in the Radio 4 programme has caused me to consider it as a credible alternative.

The guest’s exact quote eludes me, but what she said was something along the lines of ‘we’re not just consumers anymore, we’re more like citizens now because we are becoming more/have become more aware of wider global issues – like the environment, sustainability, inequality, etc.’

What struck me about this was that it put the concepts of 'citizen' or 'consumer' into historical context; that is, referring to people as consumers made sense in the past, but as people become more actively engaged with wider issues it’s no longer as relevant.

And this triggered a further thought about people’s relationship with brands.

It’s not just people who are changing. Brands are also increasingly appealing to customers in ways that go beyond the conventional brand-consumer relationship. Many brands themselves are adopting more citizen-like perspectives – they are more focussed on society, on rights, on participation, on the long-term, and on inclusion, for example.

Rather than being ‘consumer brands’ then, are they actually becoming ‘citizen brands’?

In the past there have been attempts to subsume the term ‘citizen’ into ‘consumer’ – at the moment however it could be said that the process is in reverse, that ‘consumer’ could be folded into ‘citizen’.

People aren’t about to stop ‘buying stuff’ any time soon, and it’s very unlikely that consumption will cease to be a part of our world, but if brands are genuinely becoming more citizen-like in their values and, importantly, their behaviours, then it stands to reason that our definition of consumption – and therefore our use of the term ‘consumer’ - should genuinely change.

I’m not 100% sold on ‘citizen’ yet, but it’s definitely something I am now going to consider using more often.


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