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Noticing inconspicuous consumption
Elizabeth Shove, Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University
Alan Warde, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University
From the Reader distributed for the Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability Summer School 1999, Lancaster University. For table of contents with links to all of the other papers of the reader, click here.
Paper presented at the ESF TERM Programme workshop on Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability, at Lancaster University, April 1997
Consumption comprises a set of practices which permit people to express self-identity, mark attachment to social groups, accumulate resources, exhibit social distinction, ensure participation in social activities, and more things besides. The sociology of consumption has, in the last decade, made progress with respect to the analysis of consumer culture in its aesthetic dimensions (i.e. issues of style and taste) leading to an improved and more precise understanding of some of the social mechanisms which might impel people to consume ever increasing quantities of goods and services. This paper seeks to identify and evaluate the environmental implications of some of the more important of these mechanisms.
At least six different mechanisms which potentially escalate the level of consumption have been isolated. These are:
Social comparison: A good deal of ink has been spilt discussing the process of emulation whereby lower classes seek to imitate the practices of their superiors, implying that there will be no cessation of demand for particular goods until the lower class has the same possessions as the higher. Once it is acknowledged that in such a system the higher class will constantly be seeking new items to mark its social status, then perpetual demand for new products appears inevitable (see Hirsch, 1978, on positional goods). Fresh desires replace previous ones, novel items replace established ones. This is not a cycle of replacing that which is worn out, but one of inevitable obsolescence, driven by a mechanism of invidious social comparison. This is not a very persuasive general explanation of consumption, but there is no doubt that processes of group demarcation have been maintained through appropriate patterns of consumption. However, there are many ways of marking social boundaries.
Creation of self-identity (Identity): Many social theorists maintain that ‘people define themselves through the messages they transmit to others through the goods and practices that they possess and display. They manipulate and manage appearances and thereby create and sustain a ‘self-identity’. An answer to the question: "what sort of person is s/he?" is now likely to be answered in terms of lifestyle or form of visible attachment to a group rather than in terms of personal virtues or characteristics. To the extent that people can, relatively freely, re-design their selves by purchasing new outfits and forming new associations - a part of what Bauman and others have described as an emergent neo-tribalism - then a high level of demand for new, or rather different, goods is likely to pertain. The consequence is not necessarily the encouragement of extensive production. The symbolically significant is essentially arbitrary, since meaning can be derived from many languages. Personal identity might be expressed through a disciplined asceticism, through a rejection of glossy material culture (as in the culture of grunge, or the behaviour of the significant minority of the British population who are averse to shopping, see Lunt & Livingstone, 1992), or through adoption of green consciousness and commitment.
Mental stimulation (Novelty): Some social-psychological accounts of consumption explain that people seek new products and new pleasures because they are stimulating; to play new games, try out new items, explore new material objects, learn new tastes, all these are ways of averting boredom. If people will neither forego interesting entertainment and equipment, nor mend and make do, nor be content to repeat already known pleasures and satisfactions, then wants become infinite. While some accounts re-affirm the power of stimulation as a mechanism promoting consumption, others have seen it as potentially exhaustible. Hirschman (1982), for instance, suggests that the desire for consumer durables is terminable, precisely because people find them capable of delivering only a low level of contentment much inferior to the pleasures of social participation.
The Diderot Effect (Matching): McCracken (1988:118-130) recalls an essay by the Enlightenment philosopher Diderot ‘Regrets on parting with my old dressing gown’. Diderot was given a new red dressing gown as a present. Because it made other items in his study seem shabby, Diderot gradually replaced his desk, his curtains and other elements of the previous clutter so that they might complement his scarlet robe. In the end the room was transformed, but Diderot reports finding the effect discomforting. As McCracken observes (1988: 127), ‘the Diderot effect has clear "ratchet" implications for consumer expenditure. It helps to move the standard of consumption upward and prevent backward movement. Moreover, the mechanisms might come to apply not just to say the contents of a room, but to the entirety of a person’s possessions. At least one of the many interpretations of the term lifestyle is that people are impelled to sustain coherence across all fields of behaviour. It is possible, however, to imagine that the Diderot effect could be appropriated in support of less wasteful consumer practices, by restoring value to durability, by encouraging the matching of those items whose production and distribution is not a threat to sustainability, and so forth.
Specialisation: Featherstone (1991) reflects upon the tendency for the same individual to seek to present him or herself on different occasions in two or more ways, as bohemian and conventional, as romantic and formal. At a more material and practical level, as the number of activities in which one might participate increases, so producers widen the range of specialised products targeted at different groups of practitioners. For example, we can now buy running shoes, training shoes, squash shoes and tennis shoes, whereas the previous generation just bought plimsolls. The constant invention of new activities, or more often the separation of once similar activities into demarcated and specialised fields each requiring singular gear, is a powerful social and commercial impetus to expanded consumption. On the other hand, informalisation has reduced the need to possess at least some stylised uniforms.
Socio-technical systems: Finally we might consider the differentiation of socio-technical systems, to which people become attached and which themselves tend to expect, and even compel, individuals to consume in particular ways. Schwartz Cowan (1983) has demonstrated very effectively how the development of infrastructural systems has the effect of locking households, into particular ways of reproducing themselves on a daily basis. She considers eight technological systems - those that supply us with food, clothing, health care, transportation, water, gas, electricity and petroleum products - which have, through becoming industrialised, played a part in altering the nature, but not reducing the extent of women’s domestic labour in American households. Such systems eliminate, augment and transform practices. These systems require consumption in their own right whilst also encouraging the further acquisition and use of associated products. Households consume water and electricity, but only when both are available are they likely to own washing machines and showers. What is interesting is that although these technological systems structure patterns of daily life and related consumption practices, and although they represent major items of consumption in their own right, sociologists of consumption have paid them relatively little attention.
These six mechanisms are not inevitably environmentally damaging, though all probably tend to ratchet up levels of consumption. However, with the exception of the sixth mechanism, these processes bear primarily on the way that individuals select among the vast array of alternative items made available in the form of commodities. It has often been suggested that there has been excessive focus on the purchase of commodities, ignoring the fact that much of what is consumed is not acquired, delivered or enjoyed in this form because it is provided by the state, the community, and the household. It has also been suggested that too much attention has been paid to items which are often visually striking, subject to fashion and symbolically highly significant, like vehicles, clothes and cult objects. This becomes particularly apparent if we examine the consumption of what used to be described in British industrial statistics as ‘the utilities’. Only at best obliquely and indirectly does the purchase or use of water, coal, gas or electricity confer self-identity, mark attachment to social groups or exhibit social distinction. Yet a sizeable proportion of household income is devoted to these items and together they contribute to the most pressing of the world’s environmental problems. This is made apparent in Figure 1 which comprises a casual and speculative attempt to estimate whether the mechanisms considered above apply to some environmentally critical fields of consumption.
Some of the deductions we might make from this are:
Providing we retain the distinction between the selection of more and less environmentally friendly goods and consider the rate at which they are replaced, the language of mechanisms does help understand some of the conditions for sustainability. However, the table suggests that the six mechanisms do not capture some of the most important features of environmentally significant consumption. They do not fit areas of inconspicuous consumption, like the utilities, very well, and/or they are not especially helpful in terms of understanding the use of appliances, the role of lighting and central heating, or creeping standards of cleanliness.
One clue to a means of addressing these issues might lie in observing a nearly uniform column of "yes" under the socio-technical heading and the realisation that many of the "no" and "maybe" responses relate to issues which are boringly normal, invisible, and enmeshed in a network of related practices and habits. What is needed is a way of analysing the origins of change in mundane routines, for they do change, often rapidly, with instant and wide ranging environmental consequences.
First, we might take greater account of infrastructure both in the sense of urban planning and the role of utilities in the development of power lines and water mains etc., and in terms of the design and organisation of key arenas like kitchens and bathrooms. We need to know more about the processes and decisions, often commercial, which frame the options and possibilities within which people in turn make choices. The distribution of railway networks, petrol stations, and roads make different forms of transport more and less possible, just as the histories of past choices in house building, structure current possibilities within a household.
Second, it is important to appreciate the bunching together of expectations and "choices". What is missing is a way of capturing the gradual and collective development of a sense of comfort, or of tracking shifting standards of cleanliness. We need to understand the evolution of the broad, ordinary sense of what is and is not normal. This is likely to require investigation of the rippling of unintended consequences, the spread of central heating, for example, leading to the decline of hot water bottles and bed socks, whilst also making possible new forms and styles of indoor clothing (Wilhite and Lutzenhiser 1997).
Third, the history of energy consumption highlights how consumers trade between time and resources (whether those be natural resources, or the resources of other people’s time), as they develop alternative ways of coping with different aspects of everyday life (Schipper, 1989). The flip of a switch takes the place of time and effort once spent on chopping logs and clearing out the ashes. This leads toward some big questions about the relationship between resource intensity and the management of time: whose effort and resources are re-distributed in the cause of convenience and what is the net environmental effect?
Finally, and less dramatically, the ordinary examples considered in the matrix suggest the need for a complementary, but more defensive view of consumption, one focusing less on confidence and overt display and more on just-in-case scenarios. The freezer, for instance, needs to be this big just in case all the family show up at Christmas. As a protective strategy, over-sizing has to be understood in terms of the management of social risk, the cost of failure and the sheer fear of being unable to cope. Developing this idea, Wilhite and Lutzenhiser (1997) suggest that it is through catering for the extreme that consumers re-define what is normal: expectations of peak load become ordinary and bit by bit new peaks appear. Although clearly related, the positive or negative formulation of such consumption suggests yet another mechanism impelling higher levels of consumption.
Perhaps these missing themes need reconceptualising. Shifts in socio-technical networks is the realm of inconspicuous consumption, a realm ignored by studies of consumer culture which are enthralled by the significance of immediate visual clues to social meaning.
A distinction should be made between a world of relatively individualised consumer behaviour involving the selection of discrete and visible commodities and a muddier world of embedded, inter-dependent practices and habits, probably better explicable in terms of background notions such as comfort, convenience, security and normality. Taking these aspects of consumption seriously will again shift attention away from an intellectual obsession with the glamorous aspects of consumption towards its more routine, pragmatic, practical, symbolically neutral, socially determined, collectively imposed, jointly experienced, non-individualised elements. Such a distinction might improve the understanding of environmentally significant consumption and provide a platform for an assessment of possibilities and strategies for promoting sustainability, making better use of resources, and racking down levels of demand. In some cases, for example, those which are comprehensible in terms of the six mechanisms, it is possible that environmentally friendly actions and practices, including the restriction of consumption, might acquire their own symbolic significance. High status frugality is a real possibility, as is the valuing of durability and even repair and maintenance. On the face of it there is no reason why some of these mechanisms should not promote green consumption whilst also slowing the escalation of social and physical obsolescence. But for forms of consumption which are more deeply embedded in infrastructures and socio-technical systems, the achievement of energy and resource efficiency is likely to have rather more to do with the way in which collective services are managed and handled, and with systemic shifts in routine habits and practices. Far from being visible or deliberately selected, these developments are largely unseen by those they most affect and by those whose environmental "choices" they so strongly influence. Which is not to say that there are no alternatives, only that they lie outside the rather narrow realm of individualised consumerism.
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