Norah MacKendrick, "Better Safe Than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics" (U California Press, 2018).


Consumers today have a lot of choices. Whether in stores or online, people are inundated by an abundance of options for what to buy. At the same time, the products we consume seem to have more and more ingredients, additives, and chemicals in them that put our health at risk, and even their packaging could be harmful to us. How do consumers make sense of the choices they have to make to reduce their own and their family’s exposure to everyday toxics? In her engaging and insightful new book, Better Safe Than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics (University of California Press, 2018), sociologist Norah MacKendrick shows readers how today’s regulatory environment in the United States came about, how so much of what we consume remains unregulated, and how environmental health groups, food retail stores, and consumers have adjusted to these realities. In an age of deregulation, when individuals are forced to take on an increasing amount of risk with decreasing support from societal institutions, MacKendrick argues that many consumers today are practicing what she calls “precautionary consumption,” or a pattern of “green” or non-toxic shopping to try to ward off the harms of conventional modern products. The burden of such an intensive, resource-consuming approach to shopping, however, falls disproportionately on women, who remain charged with the responsibility of caring for the household (shopping, cooking, cleaning), and especially mothers, who still do the lion’s share of child raising. Furthermore, MacKendrick questions the ability of precautionary consumption to truly achieve environmental justice and equitable forms of widespread regulation, so that the burden for preventing exposure to everyday toxics doesn’t fall on the individual, and especially not on the groups bearing excessive responsibility to do so (women, mothers) or receiving a disproportionate amount of the harm (the poor). Examining everyday toxics from a variety of angles, MacKendrick’s book is an impressive analysis of how many of us shop today, why we do so, and what we can do to achieve greater equality.
Richard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He is the author of Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy (Princeton University Press, 2017), about the transformation of low-status occupations into cool, cultural taste-making jobs (cocktail bartenders, craft distillers, upscale men’s barbers, and whole animal butchers), and of Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City (Princeton University Press, 2014), about growth policies, nightlife, and conflict in gentrified neighborhoods. His work has appeared in such journals as City & Community, Poetics, Ethnography, and the European Journal of Cultural Studies. He is also the editor of Ethnography and the City: Readings on Doing Urban Fieldwork (Routledge, 2012), a co-Book Editor at City & Community, and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Metropolitics, Work and Occupations, and the Journal for Undergraduate Ethnography.

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Richard Ocejo

Richard E. Ocejo is professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

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