Eco-chic: constructing class identity through food choices

set of organic fresh eco labels

Yesterday I wrote about the ways in which maternal foodwork reinforces privilege:

Those engaged in intensive maternal foodwork may claim — and may even believe — that they are improving their children’s health, but the primary purpose of intensive foodwork is to demonstrate privilege.

In other words, rather than rejecting consumerism, women who embrace intensive foodwork (organic food, homemade baby food, and even breastfeeding), represent niche consumerism, the consumerism of the privileged.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Are the stories we tell about “good” mothering — breastfeeding, homemade baby food and organic produce — just another way to assert privilege, ensuring that ONLY privileged women can qualify as “good” mothers?[/pullquote]

As Cairns et al. write in The Caring, Committed Eco-Mom: Consumption Ideals and Lived Realities of Toronto Mothers:

…The realm of eco-consumption is also shaped by dynamics of social class, given the considerable financial and cultural capital required to achieve the performance of the discerning, environmentally-conscious consumer… [W]e argue that eco-consumption is one contemporary form of caring consumption that North American mothers are encouraged to perform – a resource- and knowledge-intensive mothering project that operates as a gendered form of class distinction.

In other words, the difference between feeding children McDonald’s and products from Whole Foods isn’t so much a difference in healthfulness, it’s merely a convenient shorthand for class distinctions and aspirations. It’s not a coincidence that poor women and women of color are more likely to choose McDonald’s and well-off, white women are more likely to shop at Whole Foods. It’s just one of the many ways that well-off white women use to flaunt their privilege and distinguish themselves from poor women and women of color.

The authors explore “caring consumption,” a form of consumerism beloved of natural parenting advocates:

…[E]co-mothering is idealized as a pleasurable consumption project easily attained alongside other maternal commitments, such as protecting family health. North American lifestyle magazines offer a seemingly endless array of “‘simple’ and ‘easy’ ways for women to ‘go green’” while fulfilling caretaking responsibilities.

But far from being easy or pleasurable:

… [T]here are three key points of tension that characterize the lived experience of mothers who strive to fulfill the Eco-Mom ideal… tensions in how 1) information, 2) time and 3) money factor into mothers’ consumption choices. These tensions make eco-consumption problematic for the Canadian mothers in our study, as they require investments in resources that vary by class …

Access to information, time and money vary dramatically by economic and social class. Ultimately eco-consumption is yet another way that the privileged leverage their privilege to display their privilege.

The authors explore these constraints individually.


Many mothers described engaging in ongoing research to better understand the health and environmental implications of their food shopping…

Access to knowledge is mediated both by cultural capital (e.g., knowing which sources to read and trust) and financial capital (e.g., using smart-phone applications to guide one’s purchases).

And yet:

Lamenting how “complicated” shopping has become, Matilda remarked, “I don’t think my mom sat there and thought, ‘it is local, is it organic, is it ethical, am I supporting factory farms?’ I mean, she just went and bought food.”

Of course she didn’t. She probably didn’t have time or the money to do that.


In addition to the challenge of navigating a sea of contradictory knowledge claims, the mothers in our focus groups experienced time as a major constraint in their efforts to live up to Eco-Mom ideals…

…[M]others in our study described spending significant time devising meal plans and shopping lists. They then ventured to multiple vendors in order to access food that satisfied their standards for health and ethics, and also suited family members’ diverse preferences.

Indeed, mothers fetishize inconvenience as yet another way to distinguish themselves from mainstream women who aren’t privileged:

In addition to the time requirements of planning and specialty shopping, eco-mothering also demands that women eschew ‘convenience’ foods designed to make feeding children easier, such as pre-packaged lunch items.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to money:

Fulfilling the Eco-Mom ideal presumes the regular purchasing of expensive items such as organic produce and grain-fed, hormone-free beef, and women spoke openly about how one’s class position enabled or constrained these practices…

Others critiqued the status displays associated with the Eco-Mom ideal … [E]co- food is often sold in classed spaces (like farmers’ markets), catering to values that are more readily practiced by privileged consumers.

Breastfeeding has similar time and financial constraints to eco-mothering. It requires privilege to have the time, financial spousal support, maternity leave and/or a job that allows for frequent pumping breaks without which women cannot sustain exclusive breastfeeding. Poor women and women of color are much less likely to have such privilege and that makes the contemporary emphasis on exclusive breastfeeding doubly problematic. Not only do these women lack the time and money to engage in exclusive breastfeeding, they are berated by privileged women precisely because they lack privilege.

The authors conclude:

…[E]co-mothering operates as an elite mode of caring consumption by reproducing and reinforcing class and gender distinctions… The idealized version of caring consumption emphasizes that mothers find care work satisfying, empowering, and effective. In practice, eco-mothering  … was often confusing, tiring, expensive, and typically a gendered burden…

Each point of tension, moreover, was intensified by dynamics of social class, serving to further underscore the ways in which eco-mothering acts as a distinctly classed form of caring consumption that mothers strive to perform.

What’s the take home message?

Privileged women need to ask themselves whether the stories we tell about “good” mothering — breastfeeding, homemade baby food and organic produce — are just another way to assert privilege, ensuring that ONLY privileged women can qualify as “good” mothers.