The Financial Crisis and Consumer Citizenship

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 30. May 2011 - 15:16
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

The Financial Crisis and Consumer Citizenship

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

paper presented at the

Sixth International Conference of the Consumer Citizenship Network
Berlin, 23-24 March 2009


The concept of consumer citizenship evolved in a period of economic growth and unsustainable consumption. The financial crisis has changed the context radically, creating a wider range of consumer circumstances.

The globalized economy rests on an unlimited growth paradigm, despite warnings about unsustainability. Maintaining growth has meant living beyond available means, accumulating debt at governmental, corporate and individual consumer levels. The banking system collapsed from loss of confidence in debt repayment, producing recession and undercutting consumption. The system has accumulated excessive financial, social and environmental debt.

Today consumer education must address different classes of consumers:
- those who can still afford the consumer society, ethically challenged by their relative wealth;
- those forced out of the consumer society through dispossession, unemployment and loss of savings;
- the poor whose dream of joining the consumer society is now shattered;
- poor victims of economic and environmental catastrophes, paying the biggest price for problems they did not create.

Responding to these groups requires alternative more ethical visions of society and human purpose, shifting emphasis from "consumer" to "citizenship". This includes detachment from material consumption once basic needs are met, finding true pleasure in voluntary sharing. The economic system should become more altruistic and cooperative, aiming for poverty reduction and employment creation. Consumption should be reoriented towards the more intangible dimensions of civilization: culture, art, science, human consciousness and spirituality. Such consumer citizens will depend less on variations in the material economy, directing their priorities and interests towards a broader vision of human prosperity.


The concept of consumer citizenship evolved in Europe in a period of continuing economic growth leading to excessive consumption that is environmentally unsustainable at the planetary level. The main driving forces for this effort at consumer education were the environmental problems produced by pollution and excessive production of waste, and health problems linked to consumptive lifestyles, together with some concern for the imbalance between industrialized and developing countries. Consumer citizenship education has focused on consuming less and consuming better in societies defined as wealthy in global terms.

With the sudden emergence of a major crisis in the financial system, starting in the United States, the major consumer country and largest economy, but spreading to all parts of the world and extending to the whole economy, the context has changed radically. A deep recession (commentators are still mostly avoiding the term depression) is affecting the whole world and unemployment is rocketing. The British finance minister has described it as the worst recession in 100 years (The Guardian Weekly 13.02.09, p. 12), and governments are taking emergency measures of a scale previously unimaginable. In late February, the head of the European Central Bank said "We live in non-linear times: the classic economic models and theories cannot be applied, and future development cannot be foreseen"  (quoted in Seager 2009).

The problem may become much worse. A number of European countries are on the brink of insolvency (Spiegel Online 2009). The crisis began with a loss of confidence in the ability of the banking system to honour its obligations resulting in a collapse of credit. Excessive and "toxic" debt in the banking system has been transferred to governments in an attempt to restart the system. There is now a real risk of a loss of confidence in the ability of governments to repay their debts, which would result in the collapse of the whole global financial framework underpinning trade and commerce, with unimaginable consequences for the functioning of an increasingly integrated global economy. The only hope is a rapid replacement of an economic system that has proven fundamentally flawed by a new global system with effective governance and proper regulation, while addressing the ethical lapses that have been revealed. This new and still evolving situation has profound implications for consumer citizenship. The following reflections are intended to launch the discussion.


It is important to understand first what went wrong with the economy that caused it to collapsed so readily and unexpectedly. The modern globalized economy has been driven by a growth paradigm that refused to consider any limits, despite decades of warnings about its ultimate unsustainability. The main driver of economic growth has been consumption, and anything that would increase consumption was good for the economy: planned obsolescence, aggressive advertising and marketing, encouraging addiction, carefully orchestrated changes in style, etc. The new information technologies and media have globalized this and made it more effective, so that everywhere people want to live the western consumer lifestyle. Whenever the economy has slowed, there are calls for increased consumption. Citizens in the industrialized countries have come to expect steadily increasing purchasing power, and the prospect of a decline with the recession has triggered strikes and people in the streets.

However, maintaining this growth often required living beyond the available means. Consumer debt has risen steadily, helped by instruments such as credit cards. The average American has 6 credit cards with a median total credit card debt in 2008 of $6,500. The U.S. banking crisis began because of unwarranted mortgage lending for house purchases to people without the means to repay the loans, combined with encouragement to borrow against property for consumer purchases. Growth in consumption turned into a giant pyramid scheme. Debt was accumulated at the governmental, corporate and individual consumer levels. Business cannot function without credit. Investors borrowed to leverage their speculative positions. The American government allowed a steadily growing current accounts deficit as it borrowed 70% of the world's savings to maintain its role as a superpower and the lifestyle to which its population was accustomed, to the greater profit of the business sector. 

While there were a few warnings, even from leading economists, that this could not last, life was too good, so no one wanted to believe them. The inevitable collapse of the banking system due to a generalized loss of confidence that these levels of debt could ever be repaid has driven the world into deep recession despite major efforts by governments to inject cash and restore confidence. It is the accompanying collapse in consumption that requires consumer citizenship to rethink its messages.

More worryingly, financial debt is only part of the problem, as there has been a similar world-wide accumulation of social and environmental debt. The increasing warnings of a possible collapse of civilization need to be take seriously (Dahl 2008b).


Faced with the present and probable future economic challenges, the underlying concepts of consumer education in Europe need to be re-examined to explore how the approach can be broadened and be made more effective for the wider range of consumer circumstances now present in Europe as well as in developing countries. These could be grouped into different classes of consumers for whom the approach to consumer education needs to be very different:
• those who can still afford the consumer society, but who face the ethical dilemmas of being the "haves" surrounded by "have nots";
• those who have been forced to drop out of the consumer society through dispossession, unemployment and loss of savings, and have suffered the trauma of finding previous consumptive pleasures now beyond their reach;
• the poor who have dreamed of joining the consumer society, but now find that dream shattered;
• the most disadvantaged of the poor who are often the first victims, who never contributed to the problems but now must pay the biggest price.

For those who are reasonably well-off or materially comfortable, existing arguments for healthy, more energy-efficient and low carbon lifestyles need to be complemented with a stronger ethical dimension of responsibility for global environmental impacts such as climate change, and solidarity with those paying the price. They need to come to a recognition that sustainability and their own future welfare may require wealth redistribution and thus reductions in their own purchasing power and consumer choice. They should come to see the advantages of voluntary simplicity and more emphasis on social relationships and community, so that they realize that they gain more than they give up in this transition.

The newly unemployed and those who have lost homes, savings and pensions need to learn how to get by and meet basic needs on minimal revenue, which means efficient consumption focused on basics. Too many people fall back on fast and unhealthy food, become increasingly sedentary, and make poor consumer choices because they do not have the right knowledge and skills. Obesity is more prevalent among the poor in industrialized countries. Consumer education needs to teach how to live well even when poor.

Those who have always been poor usually know how to get by, although consumer education can probably bring improvements. What is more important is to counteract if not to replace the sales pitch for the Western consumer lifestyle portrayed in the media and advertising with alternative visions of society that are more appropriate and sustainable. Consumer education could become a kind of social and cultural vaccination against the siren call of advertising, building awareness of how one is manipulated into buying unnecessary or even damaging things. This of course will be deeply subversive to the present economic orthodoxy, but that orthodoxy has now discredited itself, and more discerning consumers will help the transition.


In this context, the new response of consumer citizenship to these different groups needs to propose alternative more ethical visions of society and human purpose, with a shift of emphasis from "consumer" to "citizenship". This requires a spirit of detachment from material consumption once basic needs are met, finding true pleasure in voluntary sharing, social relationships, and intangibles like culture and spirituality. It is at this basic ethical level that the approach to the different consumer groups finds its basic unity. Justice and equity are equally relevant to the rich and the poor, even if their expression in action will be different in each case.

A first step can be to reveal the hollowness of the present consumer society in ethics, values and meaning, so that those within it do not regret the sacrifices they are called on to make, and those who have dropped out of it into poverty or who never could do more than admire it from a distance give up their attachment to materialistic desires and turn their attention towards alternative visions of the society of the future, and actions that are accessible to everyone.

For example, a recent Bahá'í text contains the following critique:
"Consumer culture, today's inheritor by default of materialism's gospel of human betterment, is unembarrassed by the ephemeral nature of the goals that inspire it. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate, and the rationale unapologetic. Emboldened by the breakdown of traditional morality, the advance of the new creed is essentially no more than the triumph of animal impulse, as instinctive and blind as appetite, released at long last from the restraints of supernatural sanctions. Its most obvious casualty has been language. Tendencies once universally castigated as moral failings mutate into necessities of social progress. Selfishness becomes a prized commercial resource; falsehood reinvents itself as public information.... Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride - even violence - acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value. Ironically, as words have been drained of meaning, so have the very material comforts and acquisitions for which truth has been casually sacrificed." (Bahá'í World Centre, 2005, p. 10)

One new challenge for consumer education is the fact that the years ahead will likely see either an unprecedented economic disaster or a rapid evolution towards an alternative economic system in which the concept of consumption will be very different from that of today. The growth paradigm on which the present economy has been based was founded on four fundamental drivers: population growth, the energy subsidy from cheap fossil fuels, discovery and exploitation of new natural resources, and technological innovation. However the world population should plateau around 2050; oil production is expected to peak shortly and climate change requires a rapid transition to renewable energy; the planet has now been quite thoroughly explored and its resources overexploited. This leaves only innovation as an economic driver, and this will produce a different kind of system. It is not yet possible to imagine what that might be like. However, at an ethical level, it is possible to suggest some of the design principles that will have to underly this new economic system to make it socially and environmentally sustainable.

In a sustainable society, the goal of wealth creation should be to make everyone wealthy, which would give everyone access to reasonable levels of consumption to meet basic needs. The economic system therefore needs to be reoriented to become more altruistic and cooperative, aiming for poverty reduction, employment creation, and providing the means to advance the more intangible dimensions of civilization: culture, art, science, human consciousness and spirituality. Consumption of these intangibles does not have to be limited and escapes from the economic concept of scarcity; the more knowledge is shared, the more valuable it becomes, not for a specific owner, but for the whole of society. If each individual sees his/her reward in service to others rather than self-acquisition, then consumption becomes merely acquiring the capacities and tools necessary to be of service, rather than an end in itself. The economy will be driven not by maximizing consumption but by the fulfilment of all the human potential for wealth creation, including in that concept much more than material wealth.


It is important that consumer education not be founded primarily on a negative critique of the consumer society, but that it propose positive alternatives such as those outlined above. Where such concepts would have been rejected as idealistic if not utopian only a year ago, the economic world has now been stripped of its certainties and shaken to its roots, and does not know where to go next. This is the perfect opportunity for a wide public debate on the alternatives, and consumer citizenship provides an excellent framework for such a debate in an educational context.

It is also important to go from general principles and values to specific actions. This is a constant demand in discussions of environmental sustainability or responding to climate change (Dahl 2008a). Just as the economy is driven by many individual acts of consumption, so many small acts of individual responsibility can sum up to a significant positive change at the global level. Class discussions can focus on choices that are immediately relevant. For example, material signs of identity or belonging to a group are an important characteristic of youth culture, but they do not have to be particular clothing styles or brand names cultivated by the manufacturers for commercial ends.

Another advantage of values-based consumer citizenship education is that it is more adaptive and flexible in times of rapid and perhaps turbulent change. Education about particular consumer choices becomes less relevant if those choices are no longer available, whereas values are equally relevant in new contexts.

With the major challenges we now face, new partners are joining in the effort to change lifestyles at a large scale. The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and UNDP are working with all the major religions to prepare action plans on climate change and the natural environment for presentation before the Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009 (ARC 2008). These are intended to be seven-year plans for generational change, and will give a major push to values-based responses to our present unsustainability.

One challenge is to measure the effectiveness of education aiming to form or implement values, as is often the case in consumer citizenship. A project has just begun with European Commission funding for a partnership of academic institutions and a variety of civil society organizations to develop values-based indicators of education for sustainable development. Five organizations are involved initially, but a larger number will be invited to join as the project develops over the next two years (ESDinds 2009). The results will certainly be of interest to the partners in CCN.

These are only small actions relative to the scale of the problems facing the world, but they have the potential to leverage much larger effects because of the power of action at the level of values. Using such approaches, the new consumer citizen will be better protected from the ups and downs of the material economy because his/her real priorities and interests will be directed towards a much broader definition of human prosperity.


ARC. 2008. UN/ARC: The Seven Year Plan. Alliance of Religions and Conservation. (consulted 1 March 2009)

Bahá'í World Centre. 2005. One Common Faith. Báhá'í World Centre, Haifa.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon, 2008a. The ethical challenges of global change as a motivator for consumer citizenship, p. 21-32. In Alexandra Klein and Victoria W. Thoresen (eds.), Assessing Information as Consumer Citizens. Consumer Citizenship: Promoting New Responses, Vol. 4. Hedmark College, Hamar, Norway, Consumer Citizenship Network. Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference of the Consumer Citizenship Network, Tallinn, Estonia, 5-6 May 2008. Electronic version at

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2008b. Preventing Overshoot and Collapse: Managing the Earth's Resources. Paper on the introductory theme of the 2008 UNEP/University of Geneva/Graduate Institute Environmental Diplomacy Course, August 2008.

ESDinds. 2009. The Development of Indicators & Assesssment Tools for CSO Projects Promoting Values-based Education for Sustainable Development. University of Brighton, UK.

Seager, Ashley. 2009. Torrent of bad news ends hope of 'quick' recession. The Guardian Weekly, 27 February-5 March 2009, p. 1-2.

Speigel Online. 2009. Can countries Really Go Bankrupt? Speigel Online 30 January 2009.,1518,604523,00.html (viewed 2 February 2009)

Last updated 25 March 2009