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Environmental innovation in consumption and the development of a sustainable infrastructure

Pirkko Kasanen & Anne Malin, TTS-Institute, Finland

Karl Steininger & Franz Prettenthaler, University of Graz, Austria


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.


1. Introduction

Human impact on the natural environment is determined by (1) the type and volume of goods used by consumers and (2) the type of production system installed and used to supply these goods. To date most environmental research has focused on the latter. Yet, it is increasingly the daily practices of consumers that determine the environmental impacts of society, including:

  • Decisions on specific actions, e.g. whether to travel by car or public transport
  • The specific system framework available to the consumer, e.g. availability of streets or the frequency and proximity of public transport.


Consumers do have an influence on which system framework develops, especially in relation to less frequent decisions, such as those concerned with household material investment related to the planned organization of personal everyday life. For instance, whether a person or family decides to move to the countryside. All of these decisions shape the future pollution potential of this family. Traditional environmental policy instruments, such as command and control or price instruments, do have an influence on which consumer investment decisions are taken. In most cases, however, they are developed with a view on how to improve decisions on specific actions rather than improving the overall system framework, and given the framework within which a consumer decides how to act is very complex, this is not surprising. A policy agency cannot be expected to know about or influence all the system factors that determine consumer decisions. Therefore, approaches to environmental improvement rest on both the knowledge, experience and innovation potential of individual actors, and on the provision of a consistent framework by central policy actors that allows for individual experimentation.

While it seems obvious that consumers can only act environmentally within the limits set by infrastructure systems, we should recognize that some are more willing than others to find out how far these limits stretch. For example, Pedersen and Broegaard (1997) found that while the green consumer segment is willing to act environmentally by buying organic food, the same people are not paying attention to electricity consumption or trying to conserve energy. The authors explain this in terms of the tendency of people to identify with ‘objects’ and the social contexts of purchasing choices, suggesting it is easier to buy different, ‘green’ products for the same old needs, rather than reduce consumption. In this sense, it may be preferable to build energy or water conserving systems into the infrastructure of consumer’s daily lives, rather than expect them (us) to develop passions about it, or identify with, say, a toilet bowl or light bulb. These material frameworks, in order to spread, usually require some (varying) degree of activity or acceptance on the part of the consumer, but also the coordinated efforts of many other actors outside the immediate or obvious sphere of influence of the consumer.


In this project we work toward answering the following, policy-related questions:

  • What types of driving forces stimulate environmental innovation in consumption?
  • Which factors determine the degree of spreading the innovation?
  • Which public policy elements foster individual experimentation towards sustainable infrastructure development, by encouraging environmental innovation in consumption?
  • What are the intermediate levels between public policy and individual decisions that should be taken into account?

To do this, we discuss the following cases:

  • Car sharing experiments in some European cities
  • Renewable energy systems in private housing
  • Design of houses to enable energy conservation
  • Lake water for laundry and toilet

2. Discussion of Problems & Methods of Investigation


The efforts to spread environmental infrastructure for consumption are associated with a bundle of simultaneous problems about: the actual environmental impact of the innovation, when it is being used, the willingness of consumers to adopt the innovation, and the decisions that are required by a host of other actors. We use some ideas from the approach of Constructive Technology Assessment (CTA) to address these issues (Rip et al, 1995). In order to organize this discussion we break-down the simultaneous bundle of problems into a list of co-existing issues.


  1. Assuming we (think that we) know what kind of technological or organizational developments of infrastructure in consumer’s daily life would be beneficial, in the sense of sustainable consumption, then:
  2. We have to shape these technological and organizational developments into something that the consumer will want and be able to use.
  3. The technology that will fit into the consumer’s life will have to be supported by decision-makers and implementors (e.g. the construction sector or housing company), or the network of actors providing goods and services that complement our innovation.
  4. We also have to find out how the technology, once in place, actually works. Whether it is useful for the consumer in the intended purpose, and whether the environmental improvement is realised in practice.
  5. The experience (point 3) should immediately affect the activity in points (0)-(2).

(1) What will the consumer use?

Issue (1) about consumer’s wishes highlights two kinds of problems. First, it is difficult for a consumer to say - even if asked or allowed to try - whether and how she would actually use an innovation. Second, innovators need to cater for dissimilar users possessing widely different skills and aspirations. According to Akrich (1995), the different forms of user representation generated during innovation processes are of critical importance for constructive technology assessment. For example, to encourage households to conserve energy, application systems are needed which superimpose user representations of personal comfort (entailing high energy consumption) with the careful consumption of energy (Akrich 1995, p168). This is not easy with both explicit and implicit techniques for producing user representations fraught with difficulties. For instance, explicit techniques such as market surveys or consumer testing, are intended to find out what consumers themselves think, but a number of assumptions are already built-in e.g. about which market is expected to expand or the conditions within which the product will be used. With implicit techniques the ‘real’ users are addressed, but the techniques tend to rely on a number of ‘spokespersons’, such as designers who may use personal experience, and expert consultants who might be involved as marketing specialists or manual writers. By adopting such representations, decisions are made concerning the type of user being targeted. For Akrich, implicit methods are most powerful, although different methods correspond to different problems and circumstances. In aligning user representations and sociotechnical networks, the multiplicity of user identities (e.g. as customers, subscribers, parents) and of multi-functional technologies (e.g. multi-media systems that can also deal with contractual arrangements) need to be taken into account. To do this Akrich suggests devising assessment tools that can be used to draw up a chart for each phase of a project, showing all the states of user representation, in order to achieve coherency and convergence among them. It is of particular importance to find ways of ensuring that even those user representations that do not obviously occur to the innovators are taken into account.

(2) What about the other actors?

Usually a whole host of actors including designers, regulators and developers have to be convinced in order to bring an innovation into the infrastructure of a city or home. Downey (1995) suggests that each event (in promoting an innovation) raises a key question about 'positional identity': How does the event reproduce or transform existing positions and, therefore, power relations? Four processes can affect an existing identity by: (1) fulfilling or reproducing some positions; (2) transforming some positions; (3) generating internal tension by reproducing some positions while transforming others; (4) having no relevance to some positions. The concept of positional identity focuses on the relation between who the agent is and who the agent seeks to be. (Downey 1995, p86-87). Other important considerations are the issues on the agendas of organizations, and the co-ordination and timing of the planning stages in construction projects (Kasanen & Persson 1997). Callon (1995) points out that changes in descriptions of actors and technologies involved, depend on the nature of the present coordination rules, which can determine who negotiates with whom and in what order. For other technologies to develop, it is enough to change the list of actors, or sequence of interactions (in Rip et al. 1995, p305-306).

(3) How it actually works

The innovation might be used as intended, forgotten, or used in a way that innovators never imagined. The environmental impact can be studied (e.g. by measuring electricity consumption or water use) and how the innovation is used and experienced can be observed. However, in order to include the unintended ways of use and their impacts (on positional identities and other technologies), it is important to stay imaginative. This might imply going back to the user representation exercise (issue 1).

(4) Feeding experience back to the process

One of the ideas behind CTA is to integrate the anticipation of technological impacts with the articulation and promotion of the technology development itself. This implies that regulatory agencies (‘control’ actors) and technology-promotional agencies (‘promotion’ actors) should work together closely (Rip et al 1995, p3-4). Moreover: "Forceful visions of the future and forceful demonstrations, such as pilots, are important in their own right, and are a way to induce debate and learning" (Rip et al, 1995, p348). Pilot character is indeed common to the cases discussed in this paper and enables us to investigate the potential for interaction between environmental innovations, consumers and sustainable infrastructure.

3. Case Studies of Environmental Innovation in Consumption

Case 1 - Car sharing

The impact of existing infrastructure on car-sharing schemes is argued to be immensely important in consumers choice of sustainable forms of mobility (Prettenthaler and Steininger, 1999). Ideas of car-sharing date back to the fifties (D’Welles, 1951), but actual implementation did not take place until the seventies. While these first projects were generally short lived, the experience gained did provide a basis for the current growth in car sharing organisations. Contemporary car share schemes across Europe are usually run by non-profit organisations, and involve the payment of an entry deposit by members, used to acquire a collectively owned 'car-bank'. Cars are booked for a particular time, duration and pick-up point, serviced by members themselves. Individual use is charged to a monthly balance, based on hours of use and kilometres driven, the rate varying according to type of car and time of day, and includes a small monthly service charge. Such organisations operate on local or national bases, with differences in the legal and administrative structures. Most organisations also cooperate in international networks granting their members mutual car-access at remote travel destinations.


There are two primary motivations for consumer involvement: reduced costs (such as depreciation, insurance and repair, including time and effort) for those who use a car frequently. Second, for private car owners, once the fixed costs have been paid, they are regarded as sunk costs, the remaining variable cost component (e.g. petrol costs etc.) is often relatively lower than alternative costs (e.g. average public transport fares), which encourages the maximisation of car use. With car sharing all costs are distributed across use, and thus marginal costs of each single use are close to average costs. This levels the playing field between public transport and private vehicle use, giving consumers a choice of transport systems. Car-sharing organisations close the gap in modes of transport, with car sharing trips fitted-in between those with taxis and rental cars. Taxis are one bordering segment, preferable for one-way trips, and the fact they come with a driver is reflected in the trip cost. Rental cars, on the other hand are available for a minimum period of 24 hours but allow for extensive car usage. In between, there is the demand for short within-town two-way trips, for say shopping or for medium-distance weekend trips. To meet such demands, car-sharing has evolved as a form of transport, which complements other modes of transport, including public transport, walking, cycling, taxi and rental car trips.


The current development in Austria is that private commercial enterprises have entered the market of car-sharing. One of them is Austria’s biggest car importer. This suggests, that this form of mobility is going to be promoted commercially, and may become a way of marketing the mobility services of company owned cars, similar to existing leasing models. However, car-sharing remains complementary to public transport, and its market potential heavily depends upon this infrastructure.

Case 2 - Renewable energy systems in private housing

The kind of energy systems we are focusing upon are biomass-fueled systems and district heating systems. Biomass systems (where CO2 neutrality is a major environmental advantage), are often considered as somehow "dirty". For modern district heating systems the technological progress in recent years has been extraordinary, resulting in low emission systems. However, one of the problems for international market penetration is the small scale of production units with the industry (in Austria), disintegrated into many small firms. The idea that district heating systems are preferable to central heating of single flats or houses from an ecological point of view is well recognised, but still, this assumption, related to issue (0) of the CTA, needs to be backed by sound argument, especially in the context of a recent study financed by oil-lobbyists, which attempts to make an ecological point in favour of central heating with oil (Lechner 1998).

(0) Which heating system fosters sustainability of energy consumption?

By various sustainability criteria, renewable energy resources are generally considered as "more sustainable" than fossil fuels. But since the public discussion also heavily debates atmospheric emissions, the sustainable alternative of biomass fuel, requires further justification. For most emissions (e.g. carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and methane) biomass district heating (e.g. using woodchips) appears favourable (in terms of kg/TJ use energy) when compared with other heating systems, such as fuelwood, gas or oil. Nevertheless, an evaluation of the overall damage done by all emissions needs to be considered, since for some emissions (like CO, Nox and particles) the biomass district heating system shows higher figures than oil fueled central heating. It is also possible to calculate the external costs caused by the emissions of each system per unit use energy, accounting for the different technical efficiency, and to measure the environmental standing of techniques. Since the energy service that one unit of use energy provides, varies widely depending on the heat insulation standard of the house in which the system is installed, we compared two heating systems in two different generations of single-family houses. The first house is the average post-world war II standard (1950), Austria’s ‘worst’ type in terms of energy consumption, with an average use of 226 kWh/m (Lechthaler et al, 1998) The second type of house contains the legal insulation standard from 1991, consuming 99 kWh/m2. The interesting, but not surprising outcome is, that the old house in combination with the environmentally innovative heating system beats the "low energy house", if the latter is supplied with a fossil fuel heating system. A family with 4 members living in one of the two houses causes external costs from the emissions of their consumption of energy of either 510 Euro (new house) and 1165 Euro (old house), if they use gas in a central heating system or 175 Euro (new house) and 400 Euro per year (old house) if they are connected to a district heating system fueled with biomass. As a preliminary conclusion we can say that a district heating system with biomass, is an ecologically worthwhile infrastructure and renders energy consumption in private houses more sustainable.

(1) Which heating system will the consumer use

The consumer’s choice, if two heating systems are comparable in terms of comfort, certainly depends on availability (infrastructure) and price. In recent years, the combination of consumer preferences for more comfort and the extension of the supply network for fossil fuels (especially gas), along with decreased prices for fossil fuels, have meant that central heating systems based on oil and gas have continuously gained market shares in Austria (Benke, 1997). Central heating systems based on wood, still represent 18% of all working heating systems, while district heating has doubled its market share in the last decade. However, for every region where the gas supply network is complete, there is no chance for this kind of sustainable energy system. Thus, the main determining factor for acceptance of the presented renewable energy systems remains the relative price difference between biomass based systems and fossil based ones. What will be interesting for the future is the development of a single unit called the "pellets heating systems". This is a fully automated version of the still competitive wood-chips firing system but even more comfortable. The demand for storage room is much lower and trucks pump the solid fuel to wood cylinders via a vacuum hose into flats, even if they are on the fifth floor or so. This innovation comes with all the conveniences of systems based on oil and at present, the running costs are exactly the same. Although such a pellets heating system requires a higher initial investment, some federal states are slowly starting to subsidise installation programs. The regional pellets supply is sufficient for most places in Austria, such that transportation does not effect the energy balance negatively.

(2) What about the other actors

As far as planners are concerned, the main determinant for their approval of whether to suggest district heating is the specific thermal wattage demand per area, which should supersede 45-60 MW/km2. Since this number decreases with increased efforts in thermal insulation of buildings, the chances for biomass seem to shrink. One way to react to such developments is the creation of Micro networks rather than full district heating systems. Results of an empirical study carried out in the German town of Regensburg are awaited, where optimal lengths of the networks related to energy demand and further project indicators are being assessed. In general, planners and politicians tend to be more enthusiastic about the chances biomass district heating promises for their respective regions, especially in less industrially developed rural areas, were small plants are associated with new employment and income opportunities for local workers and farmers. For an exact evaluation of the macroeconomic benefits to be gained from a further promotion of this infrastructure technology, we are now developing a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model for the 32 sectors of the Austrian economy, which will simulate various policies fostering the energetic use of biomass. In addition to the environmental assessment of new biomass heating technologies, we believe that developing more sophisticated economic arguments is the best way to convince decision-makers in charge of providing assistance to such sustainability enforcing technologies. As far as decision makers in other European countries are concerned, they might be doubtful of whether the cases could be applied to their own respective countries, but for any country within the EU it appears that the biomass potential is largely under-exploited.

(3) How the system works

Since the "pioneer days" of biomass combustion for district heating, a number of mistakes have been made and some networks currently exist which are not economically efficient. More recently, planning for technology especially for the optimization of the network size, tube size and type (in order to prevent unnecessary pumping costs), allows such systems to be run economically, with the average subsidy to initial investment costs being roughly 30% (Kinzer et al, 1998).

Case 3 - Design of houses to enable energy conservation

In the design of low energy buildings, a number of aspects related to the everyday functioning of the living space should be taken into account, alongside the consumption of energy for heating is the energy required for water heating, lighting and the operation of household appliances. Cold storage appliances require certain conditions in order to function energy efficiently (Malin, Reisbacka & Rytkönen 1993). The choices made by households about how to arrange laundry, drying and dishwashing are also dependent on the plan of the apartment and may have a significant effect on the energy consumption and other households environmental impacts.


Our study will be carried out in the context of an ecological building project (Leppäviita in Espoo, near Helsinki, 1997-2000), and has a number of goals:

  • To guide planners, developers and residents toward energy efficient and environment friendly planning
  • To develop infrastructure and solutions for ecological living, which match the residents’ needs in flexible ways
  • To investigate, how the use and the user of a building can be affected by planning the building in an energy efficient way
  • To prepare information material concerning the use of an energy saving apartment


It is necessary to pay attention to the user representations employed in the planning process to improve the functionality of apartments. User involvement can be of different degrees: planning by households with some professional guidance; resident participation in professional planning; or representative resident groups participating in the planning process. It should be remembered that a household making their own plans cannot provide all the necessary user representation, partly because it is difficult to translate even one’s conscious needs into designs and partly because the apartment may serve subsequent households (see problem 1 above). It is also essential to involve the entire planning chain so as not to miss possibilities for energy efficient solutions – ecological innovations can have implications on how the other parts of the building are designed. Therefore, we will study the way in which energy saving measures advance in the chain of decisions (problem 2 above).

Ecological solutions will be planned for the following functions or spaces:

  • common spaces
  • cold storage, making use of natural cold, choice and installation of efficient appliances
  • making use of different temperature zones in the building/yard for different kinds of storage
  • waste management
  • laundry and drying, including appliances, spaces and different temperature areas
  • storing and maintenance of hobby and outdoor clothing and equipment.

We plan new, innovative, decentralised module solutions for functional common spaces of various purposes and the planning will be carried out in cooperation with architects. We shall develop not only guidelines for the space planning, but also guidelines for the planning process, in order to ensure that ecological solutions are taken into account at the right moment during the planning sequence. Finally, the study will investigate various approaches to planning, participation and the ecological solutions that will be experimented with, including the observation of their functioning (problem 3 above).

Case 4 - Lake water for laundry and toilet

TTS-Institute is now carrying out a study of an experiment in the Ylöjärvi housing fair area (built for summer 1996). The houses in the experiment receive regular municipal ground water for most uses, but also water from the nearby lake to be used for laundry, toilets and watering lawns. The study concerns the experiences of the users of this system, who report the frequency of lake water equipment usage, eventual problems with the equipment, and other observations that might be relevant. A study team observes the condition of the washing machines at regular intervals. So far there have been no particular problems or negative feedback. However, it is interesting to note that it was very difficult to get permission for this experiment from the relevant regulator, the housing department of the ministry of environment. The basic rule is that all water coming into residential houses through a municipal system should be safe for drinking, and the lake water is not guaranteed safe. It was a condition for the permission that the lake water using systems be limited to uses where there is no risk of anybody accidentally drinking the water.

4. Conclusions


Although the results are so far only preliminary, it appears that pilot projects may be important in creating forceful visions. They also seem to be the only contexts so far where it is possible to create the kind of coordination among designers and decision-makers that is essential to make use of the innovative possibilities.



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