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The Ethical Consumer: Narratives of Social and Environmental Change in Contemporary American Literature

  • Author(s): Waldo, Amanda Evelyn
  • Advisor(s): Carruth, Allison B
  • et al.

Consumers in the U.S. have increasingly (and often paradoxically) turned to their consumption as a space from which to address social and environmental problems that range from sweatshop labor to global warming; the diverse consumption strategies that they have embraced –boycotts, local and organic food, fair trade, downshifting and more – are all a part of a larger movement and discourse called ethical consumption. A flood of recent novels, memoirs and nonfiction books make this activist, productive, expressive kind of consumption their central theme (and in the case of several of the memoirs, their organizing conceit). The authors of these works have suggested interesting expansions of the ethical role not just of commodity consumption but of media consumption as well: the imaginative literature of ethical consumption models ethical consumption for its readers, and it sees itself shaping attitudes about consumption that will in turn shape economic, social and environmental realities in the world. The ambition of that project (and the enthusiasm with which readers have taken it up) lends a sense of urgency to my own. My dissertation looks at representations of ethical consumption in this growing body of imaginative literature in order to understand how and on what terms it intervenes in consumption. I argue that the language and forms that these texts use to imagine ethical consumption matter: that they privilege particular perspectives, communicate ideological investments, and shape the interpretation of events in ways that inflect their interpretation of both the practice of ethical consumption and the real-world problems that ethical consumption responds to. I frame the contribution of literary criticism in terms of its interrogation of those forms.

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