Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability. Funded by the ESF TERM programme











A brief history of the Programme

Reviewed by Elizabeth Shove and Dale Southerton.

The European Science Foundation (ESF), supported by subscriptions from a range of national research councils, funds exchanges, summer schools and workshops with the aim of adding European value to already existing research activity. In 1995 the ESF launched a second social science programme on the environment.

The "Tackling Environmental Resource Management" programme (TERM) invited European social researchers to submit bids in response to four thematic areas, one of which was titled "the comparative dynamics of consumption and production processes".

Elizabeth Shove and Michael Jacobs from Lancaster University, UK; Inge Ropke from the Technical University, Denmark; Hal Wilhite from the University of Oslo prepared an ultimately successful proposal for a three part sequence of events consisting of a workshop followed by a programme of exchanges and a further workshop to report on the results of the exchanges.

The paths of social science researchers working on sustainability and the environment have rarely crossed with those focusing on the theories and practices of consumption. To make the picture more complex, these concerns have quite different meaning and significance in, say, economics as compared with sociology or anthropology. One of the challenges of this programme was, in short, to see what sense the steering group and twenty-five or so workshop participants could make of the opportunity to draw together themes of consumption, sustainability and everyday life and to see what new perspectives and positions would emerge from this broth? Participants were drawn from Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the USA, and came with disciplinary backgrounds in economics, environmental science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, market and consumer research, design and management.

Looking back, it is possible to identify persistent threads. Researchers of all persuasions were concerned to explain how environmentally relevant consumption practices change. Hence parallel interests in historical and cross-cultural comparison and in understanding the co-evolution of practices and complex socio-technical systems. In this respect, the workshop-exchange programme really did explore the malleability of demand and the negotiability of social and cultural practice. In other ways, the clashing of participants and perspectives generated a number of entirely unanticipated sparks: for example, concerning the dual role of consumers as citizens, the significance of convenience and the (consumer and environmental) importance of managing time and space, the different dynamics of demand (or not) in countries as varied as Turkey and Denmark, and so on. The process of debate and exchange also led at least some participants to question and challenge the contemporary relevance of traditional approaches to the analysis of belief, attitude and behaviour.

The links below will take you to ‘historical’ descriptions of past events further down this page. Those descriptions will provide you with links to further pages and papers associated with those events.

The starting point.


The 1995 TERM call for proposals on Theme A, "the comparative dynamics of consumption and production processes". The four themes which make up the TERM programme include:

* A: the comparative dynamics of consumption and production processes

* B: policy-oriented learning and decision-making: environmental management and policy instruments under uncertainty

* C: forms of international environmental cooperation and their development

* D: perception, communication and the social representation of environmental change

The consumption-production split of theme A fitted all of our research interests. It also resonated especially well with discussions in economics, and made some sense from other disciplinary perspectives too. Structured in this way, our proposed workshop themes began with the "dynamics of consumption", focusing on:

Consumption themes:

* concepts of "needs", status and utility;

* challenges to the concept of lifestyle and notions of consumer choice

* issues of collective consumption (especially relevant in the context of environmental debate);

* the relationship between consumption and the organisation of time, work and leisure


Production-related themes:

* durability and energy intensity;

* regulatory and infrastructural frameworks including privatisation of key utiliites;

* various forms of design and design-related market research,

    • and, finally, citizen initiatives and the conceptualisation of consumption on the part of relevant policy makers.


The first workshop 


Once the funding was certain the steering group met to turn the proposal into practice. At that first meeting we edged away from the consumption-production divide, reflecting that it was, after all, the linkage between the two (both conceptually and in everyday life) which really counted and convincing ourselves that such a distinction obscured more than it clarified when it came to generating new ideas about sustainability.

In constructing our own "rules of the game" we sought to create a context in which participants had no option but to confront cross-cutting and unfamiliar themes and in which they would be obliged to think new thoughts. This approach led us to invite contributors to consider:

* the ways in which different social sciences conceptualise and define well being, welfare and the quality of life.

* the shifting boundaries of state and market in the organisation of individual and collective consumption

* the environmental (and other) significance of socio-technical change and the organisation of everyday life.

* questions about time, the speeding up of everyday life, and the distribution of consumption relating to work and leisure.

Exchange proposals

The conclusion of the first workshop comprised a rather elaborate voting process, participants re-grouped around the five most "popular" topics (or clusters of topics). These were:

* exploring the relationship between individual attitudes and collective consumption in different countries

* examining decisions which structure consumers' choices for example relating to the design and funding of infrastructure

* focusing on one environmentally critical object (e.g. the freezer) and its sociotechnical history and future in different countries

* developing a cross cultural comparison of social markers and the meaning associated with high and low (environmental) impact consumption practices

* considering the framing and politics of public decision-making (affecting consumer practice and environmental impact) and public perceptions of policy making.

In the last session of the workshop, sub-groups met to plan possible exchanges and develop outline proposals about what they might do with their time, how they would pool resources, ideas and expertise and what materials they would produce for the second workshop.

The strategy of allowing participants to control the programme in this way, led in the end to four exchange proposals:

* Symbolic meanings of high and low impact daily consumption practices in different cultures (focusing on transport, food, cooking, and air-conditioning)

* Freezing consumption - a review of the history and future of the freezer in Norway, Finland and the UK

* Environmental values, attitudes and behaviour: consumption as a social project

* Environmental innovation in consumption and the development of a sustainable infrastructure (with reference to car-pooling, renewable domestic heating systems, and the re-use of lake water)

By comparison with the initial TERM call for proposals, and even with respect to our own plans, the content of the "consumption sustainability and everyday life" project had changed quite dramatically. The ESF's aims, only a step or two back, were to study "the evolution of society's relations with the environment, its industrial and social metabolism" and to do so "by focusing on the way products and services are produced, and consumed." After just one workshop, those involved in the exchange process have translated these grand ambitions into a series of very specific proposals to examine pressure-cookers, bicycles, fridges, freezers, transport choices, car-pooling and new technologies of house building.

To some extent this radical re-focusing is perfectly understandable. One defining feature of a potential exchange topic is that it offers a recognisable point of reference - it is something to which people feel able to contribute from their various perspectives. Partly because of their seemingly narrow empirical orientation, the exchange proposals promised to allow researchers from different disciplines and countries to work together and in the process spin off new ideas at the interface of consumption and environmental research.

Standing back from the specific cases and topics at stake, the four exchanges were, in a different sense, designed to be "about" a range of more familiar conceptual issues such as the malleability and cultural variety of meaning (and the environmental implications which follow); the ways in which environmentally problematic forms of consumption become "normal"; the relationship (or not) between environmental commitments and everyday practices; and the nature and location of decision-making which determines the structuring of environmentally harmful (or beneficial) options open to individual consumers and households.

To go to the web page first workshop, please click here. It is out of date, but gives a fuller picture of the exchange, and has links to associated papers.



Exchange 1: Social Markers: Symbolic meanings of high and low impact daily consumption practices in different cultures (focusing on transport, food, and hygiene).


Five researchers from Turkey, Denmark, and Norway met twice with the aim of comparing the social and symbolic meanings attached to consumption practices known to have high and low environmental impact. The resulting paper compared the social significance of cycling and driving in Turkey and Denmark, it reviewed the "meaning" of the pressure cooker and of glass food containers in different cultures and social classes, and began to tease apart both the policy implications of these observations and the epistemological differences between broadly social or structural analyses of meaning and those which were at root individualistic.

Those who contributed began with what appeared to be a shared interest in the meaning of consumption practices. However, the raw contrast between Turkey and Denmark had many de-stabilising consequences, highlighting physical and infrastructural as well as cultural variation. To give just one example, though committed to the practice in their own country, none of the Danes would contemplate cycling as a means of transport in urban Ankara. Equally, it was impossible to assume that "cars" had any stable meaning as consumer objects between countries in which rates of ownership varied from 380 per 1000 population to a figure of just 28 per 1000. Other examples suggested a different dynamic of consumption, "western" ways being a constant point of reference in Turkey as compared with a plurality of different modes of being normal in Denmark. In addition, this exchange pointed to the multiple possible logics underpinning "the same" consumer practice: for example, pressure cookers were taken to be modern and convenient by the Turkish middle classes, and to be normal, if not essential in poorer households more reliant on a diet of beans, lentils and chickpeas.

In terms of "environmental" debate, this exchange challenges the transferability of policy messages. Rather than being framed as a matter of individual preference, relevant questions are instead about the social embedding of "normal" practices and the depth of tradition and convention attached to hygiene, comfort, etc. This suggests that opportunities for change - and for the acquisition of new distastes and aspirations - are correspondingly structured.

To read the paper Social Markers: Symbolic meanings of high and low impact daily consumption practices in different cultures, please click here.





Exchange 2: Freezing consumption. A review of the history and future of the freezer in Norway, Finland and the UK.


After space heating and lighting, cold appliances account for the next most significant slice of domestic energy consumption. Freezers also assume a whole infrastructure of frozen food, plus a transport network and a range of shopping habits all of which have far reaching environmental implications in their own right. Furthermore, the freezer has become a "standard" item in a very short space of time, hence the question: "how did this critical energy consuming appliance find its ways into Norwegian, Finnish and British homes and what might we learn about the process of "becoming normal" from a study of freezers?"

The exchange participants (with backgrounds in sociology, design and economics, and consumer research) met to compare the sociotechnical histories of freezing. In Finland the freezer was first positioned as a "modern" device from the USA before being incorporated into a repertoire of home and work-efficiency and promoted as part of a state inspired programme of domestic rationalisation. So called "freezer maids" were, for instance, employed to provide consumer advice about how this device should be used. The Norwegian story appeared to be rather more dominated by the promotional activities of manufacturers, producing and selling the freezer as one amongst a range of other domestic appliances. In both cases the benefits of freezing were defined in terms of beating the seasons (and of beating nature in a number of senses), and domestic food security. In the UK, the proposed benefits of freezing shifted successively from those of rational economy (relating either to the seasons or to opportunities for bulk buying), domestic efficiency and convenience. Observations about the role of the freezer as a kind of "time machine" opened the way for a more searching look at the relationship between environmentally problematic consumer practices and seemingly new domestic demands relating to the management of time and scheduling of daily life.

These comparisons and histories suggest that the freezer locks its users into a particular way of life whilst also promising to free them from such demands. In terms of consumption and sustainability these narratives show how energy-hungry devices like freezers are in part responsible for creating the very "problems" to which they represent an answer. In drawing attention to the growing need for convenience this exchange also raised new questions about the consumption of time, energy and other material resources.

To read the paper Domesticating the Freezer by Pål Strandbakken please click here.

To read Mika Pantzar’s What do we need a freezer for? - The social construction of the freezer use(r) in Finland from the 1950s to the 1980s, click here.

To read Frozen in Time: Convenience and the Environment by Elizabeth Shove and Dale Southerton, please click here.




Exchange 3: Attitudes and Values: Environmental values, attitudes and behaviour: consumption as a social project.


This exchange promised to review literature on environmental consumption in terms of individual motivation, beliefs, values and attitudes. The papers produced by this Finnish-Swedish group illustrated similarities between psychological and economic perspectives. In particular, environmental consumption appeared to present special dilemmas with respect to notions of individual choice, on the one hand, and the possibilities of collective environmental benefit on the other. In theory at least, appeal to non-rational, moral arguments (as justification for particular consumer practices) were of special significance in these circumstances.

The group also made reference to data describing the transport practices of Swedes of different gender and generation. Discussion of this work raised a range of methodological issues about how recorded practices such as these might be explained in terms of economic or psychological theories of choice - after all, people only rarely "choose" their gender. It also prompted doubts about the extent to which particularly environmentally significant forms of consumption (especially those which depend on more or less extensive systems and infrastructures, e.g. transport) can be accounted for within these frameworks of individual choice. This issue was also relevant to the fourth exchange group as described below.

To read Attitudes and Values: Environmental values, attitudes and behaviour: consumption as a social project, please click here.




Exchange 4: Infrastructures, innovation and design: Environmental innovation in consumption and the development of a sustainable infrastructure.


This exchange explored the network of choices, interests and decisions implicit in the design and development of environmentally friendly housing and transport infrastructures. This Finnish-Austrian team (with experience in economics, geography and energy policy) investigated the dual role of consumers as citizens and participants in local and national investment decisions and in the "design" of new technologies. Case studies of car-pooling, renewable domestic heating systems, and the domestic use of lake water generated different ideas about how to model and understand the diffusion and introduction of environmental technologies. By combining ideas drawn from the sociology of science and technology and from economic modelling, those involved began to consider new ways of thinking about the piloting and diffusion of relevant technical systems, paying attention to the range of actors involved, their implicit theories of the future, and the co-evolution of technologies and practices.

To read the paper Environmental innovation in consumption and the development of a sustainable infrastructure, please click here.



Workshop 2


To visit the (out of date) web pages of the second workshop, please click here.

Summer School 1999


links to a page on the last summer school should be available shortly. You can access an index of online versions of the 15 papers that made up the reader fro the summer school by clicking here.


Infrastructures of Consumption and the Environment, ESF Winter Workshop at Wageningen University, November 2000


Utility infrastructures and institutions are undergoing rapid reconfiguration across Europe, fuelling widespread interest in the processes of change and igniting debates over the environmental and consumer issues at stake. With the far-reaching implications of utility restructuring in mind, the European Science Foundation funded a workshop on Infrastructures of Consumption and the Environment, as part of its TERM programme (Tackling Environmental Resource Management; see). The workshop explored diverse interdisciplinary understandings of how energy, water, waste and transport sectors are being transformed and re-connect these to concerns over sustainable service provision.

The event was held in Wageningen University, the Netherlands, from 25th-27th November 2000, bringing together participants from across Europe, including invited experts, young researchers, utility providers and policy professionals, to tackle some critical questions:

  • How is the everyday provision of utility services being transformed?
  • How are ordinary users of utility systems involved in processes of re-organisation?
  • What are the roles of new technologies in influencing changing service regimes?
  • Do these new arrangements offer any opportunities for more sustainable consumption?

To find out more about the Winter Workshop, including access to many online papers, please click here