Support for Ethical Consumerism and Welfare States in the Global Economy: Complements or Substitutes?

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This paper explores attitudes about alternative paths to promoting labor and social standards in the global political economy: public welfare states protecting workers and social standards through policy and regulation, versus private ‘red consumerism’ protecting standards through consumer buying-power and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Scholarly debate has emerged over whether these public and private realms reinforce or undermine one another, but has lacked empirical traction to systematically judge such relationships. This paper provides such traction by analyzing European public opinion towards welfare redistribution and towards using consumer power to protect labor and social standards. It matches public opinion data on attitudes towards such issues to measures of existing public and private social protection. The analysis of public opinion suggests that red consumerism is more popular in settings with already-generous public protection, including strong social-policy programs and labor regulation. But the tendency of trade competition and other economic risks to spur a citizen's support for welfare-state redistribution is diminished where CSR activity and ethical consumerism have stronger footholds. While ‘red’ ethical consumerism and CSR activities may be facilitated by generous existing social policies, they might well erode citizen support for those policies.