Consumers are people, too

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.

A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

Welcome to Eating Rules!

Hi! My name is Andrew Wilder, and I think healthy eating doesn’t have to suck. With just three simple eating rules, we'll kickstart your journey into the delicious and vibrant world of unprocessed food.

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May 26, 2012 5:42 am

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.

May 22, 2012 9:13 am

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

Reply to  sippitysup
May 24, 2012 9:36 am

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.

May 21, 2012 7:46 pm

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?”

May 21, 2012 7:38 pm

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.

May 21, 2012 2:10 pm

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

John Keogh
May 21, 2012 12:31 pm

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?