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Fine – The ‘system of provision’ approach

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In contrast to the consumer-producer representation of individual product markets in mainstream microeconomics, Ben Fine (2013) takes a ‘system of provision’ (SOP) approach. Rather than starting with a market for a good or service, this approach begins with a commodity. This highlights aspects of production processes, distribution and retailing, and how they fit together for particular commodities, as well as the range of uses for the commodity. Consequently links across markets are also identified. Beyond the purely economic perspective, consideration of culture and meaning can also be included. It has been used to analyse the dairy system and sugar system (see below), as well as other SOPs such as housing, clothing (including fashion), and energy. To illustrate:

[T]he rise of supermarket retailing had ensured the availability of a wider range of healthier low fat milks, once the uniquely protected doorstep delivery was effectively abandoned. But with the agricultural system supporting production of high fat milk, the cream had to go somewhere. And so it did, into fancy cheeses and desserts, and manufactured foods, all equally readily available in the multi-product supermarkets. Indeed, those at the forefront in the purchase of healthy milk tend to be equally prominent in the consumption of high cream products as well!

A similar story can be told for sugar, with reduction in direct consumption from the sugar bowl or in home-baking being compensated for by its incorporation within manufactured foods (alongside salt and unhealthy fats), sustaining its level of consumption per capita. Thus, analysis of the dairy and sugar systems indicated that healthy eating programmes for the consumer would tend at most to redistribute consumption, and most likely towards those on low incomes, poor diets in the first place, and least able or willing to respond to health messages… (Fine, 2013, p. 221)

This perspective is important for understanding consumer politics. Hence:

The minimalist, economic model directs itself at restoring consumer sovereignty through correcting market failures. More extensive is the model of consumers as an interest group, capable of being represented in negotiations. This, in turn, can be taken further with consumer groups actively engaging in political campaigning. (Fine, 2013, p. 239)

It could be questioned whether a single economic model could be equally applicable in all countries and at all times. Once a political dimension is considered, the one-size fits-all assumption is even more strained:

[A]ccording to the SOP approach, the cultures, practices and causes and consequences of consumer politics will be as diverse as the SOPs themselves. It follows, then, that state regulation of and through consumption is both diverse and not rigidly determined in light of the politics of consumption, especially in the United States, with increasing emphasis there and elsewhere being placed on both corporate and consumerist deployment of the media and communication for which high profile US branding and campaigning are universally unavoidable. (Fine, 2013, p. 239)

Fine also raises an important aspect of political reality, namely the compromises in terms of objectives that have to be made in order to obtain the required level of political support:

The history of consumer politics is one of trading universal appeal against broader objectives and narrower interest groups. (Fine, 2013, p. 241)

This is more than just an academic issue. Consumer politics is evolving in relation to a growing range of issues, including fair trade, animal welfare and, “concerns the ethics of consumption itself, ranging from sustainability of the environment to the working conditions and wages of sweatshops and child labour” (Fine, 2013, p. 241).

Fine, B. (2013). Consumption matters. Ephemera: Theory and politics in organisation, 13(2), 217-248.

Commentary added 11th November 2014

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