Every January, hundreds of politicians, CEOs, scientific experts, and celebrities gather for their annual meeting in the exclusive Swiss ski resort of Davos to “improve the state of the world.” Yet, the World Economic Forum’s influence on society and consumption is surprisingly little understood. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research addresses this gap.
“The World Economic Forum claims that it is solving some of the most vexing issues of our time such as poverty or youth unemployment. But what are the solutions and how do they affect our lives?” write authors Markus Giesler and Ela Veresiu (both York University).
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To answer these questions, the authors undertook the first ethnographic analysis of the World Economic Forum. For eight years, they conducted in-depth interviews with Davos delegates about their activities, their beliefs, and their self-understanding.
The interviews revealed that Davos delegates understand themselves as an enlightened elite guided by ethical considerations and called upon to preserve the common good from populist temptations. At the heart of their forum activities is the solution of global issues through a four-step moral reform process. First, Davos delegates shift the issue at hand to the level of individual consumption (for example, inequality is not the result of unregulated markets but rather stems from consumers’ unethical choice-making). Next, Davos delegates promote the idea that the only way to teach consumers ethics is greater market inclusion. Third, governments are encouraged to enable the creation of new markets to foster this inclusion. Finally, inequality is no longer a matter of balancing between rich and poor but rather a matter of how responsibly the poor act as consumers.
“Previous portraits of Davos delegates as uprooted jetsetters or global networkers easily overlook their influence on society. Our findings reveal that the forum actively shifts the burden for the solution of problems from governments and corporations to individual consumers, with significant personal and societal costs, ” the authors conclude.