Consumers are people, too

May 21, 2012 11:49 am
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Consumers are people

Words matter. They set the tone; they frame the story.

In articles and discussions of food, food business, and food politics, there’s one word I keep encountering again and again: Consumers.

When it comes to food, I propose it’s time to stop using this word. Let’s instead start using the word “people.”

Why? Because it will humanize the conversation.

Using the word “consumer” to refer to “people who eat,” makes food impersonal. But of course food is intensely personal by its very nature.

“Consumer” implies “optional,” or a specific sub-category of people who buy a certain type of item. “Consumer electronics,” for example, aren’t used or purchased by everyone, because they’re not mandatory (and they’re also different than “business electronics”).

But here’s the thing: Everyone eats.

A consumer is a statistic, lacking the richness of the human experience. A consumer is something that fits into a business model, a tally on a company’s spreadsheet. A number.

Consumers buy products; people eat food. Consumers don’t put dinner on the table for their families, people do. Consumers don’t lead unique, varied, and productive lives, experiencing the richness of being human — people do!

So next time you’re reading an article that uses the “c” word, stop and consider why the writer chose that word. Perhaps their motivations and perspective will become just a little bit clearer.

Corollary: Consider, too, the difference between “producer” and “farmer.”

Photo by David Blackwell.

8 Comments on "Consumers are people, too"
  1. Comment left on:
    May 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm
    John Keogh says:

    I think the reason the discussion is framed with words like “consumer” and “producer” is because it makes it that much easier to try and slot everything into a Producer/Consumer economic model. We live in a era obsessed with understanding everything in economic terms. Heck, we even try how the environment works using economic models!

    The question I try and ask is – is this even the right model for us to be using in the first place?

  2. Comment left on:
    May 21, 2012 at 2:10 pm
    LiztheChef says:

    I’m OK with “consumer” but appreciate your important point. And that photo absolutely rocks.

  3. Comment left on:
    May 21, 2012 at 7:38 pm
    Bethann says:

    As someone who spends all day working with words, I really appreciate the semantics of this post! Re-humanizing and re-animating (literally) our foodscape is an essential part of retaining actual life in our food (and by extension our society and ecosystems).

    Well said.

  4. Comment left on:
    May 21, 2012 at 7:46 pm
    Dennis says:

    Excellent observation and point.

    Yes, “consumer” dehumanizes the person and the experience. And the label now goes beyond the consumption of food but is widely used in other areas: One who receives/uses social or mental health services is no longer a person, but is referred to as a “consumer.

    Hmmmm, if you are an avid consumer are you a “devourer?”

  5. Comment left on:
    May 22, 2012 at 9:13 am
    sippitysup says:

    On yet another layer consumer implies that were are literally using something up. Of course in many ways we are. But when it comes to food that sort of consumption is a horrible model. GREG

    • Comment left on:
      May 24, 2012 at 9:36 am
      Jane says:

      Well said, Greg. If it’s done right, eating should be contributing to an ongoing, self-sustaining cycle, not just consuming something until it’s not there anymore.

  6. Comment left on:
    May 26, 2012 at 5:42 am
    Evilcyber says:

    I think you are a bit overreacting to the word “consumer”. It’s a role we “play” from time to time, much like we also play the role of parent, child, sister, brother, motorist, reader, viewer etc. Even among the more than six billion of us, when we play these roles, there are common traits. Giving these similarities a name is just giving them a handle.

  7. .
    May 7, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    [...] post ‘Consumers are people too‘, makes the same point again from a marketing rather than a research angle: ’Using the word [...]

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