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







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Introducing Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability

Elizabeth Shove and Dale Southerton

Introduction to the Reader distributed for the Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability Summer School 1999, at Lancaster University. For table of contents with links to all of the other papers of the reader, click here


This introduction outlines the steps and stages which have led to the 1999 Lancaster Summer School and the production of the Reader.


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 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; Gert Spaargaren, from Wageningen University, the Netherlands; and Hal Wilhite from the University of Oslo responded to this invitation and prepared an ultimately successful application 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 proposal was to take an international and interdisciplinary approach to themes of consumption, production and sustainability. This required some organisation for the paths of social science researchers working on sustainability and the environment rarely cross 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 goals of the workshop-exchange programme was to see what sense participants from Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, the UK and the USA, and from economics, environmental science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, market and consumer research, design and management, would make of the opportunity to think about consumption, sustainability and everyday life. What new perspectives and positions would emerge from this broth?


In reflecting on the themes and topics which have come to the surface, the following sections track some of the selections and decisions which give the summer school and the reader its present orientation, and which we hope provide a platform of ideas for future development.


A starting point


The 1995 TERM call for proposals invited applications under four headings:

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 co-operation and their development

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


As applicants we four, Elizabeth, Gert, Michael, Inge and Hal, read and interpreted the headings and paragraphs of the call for proposals and gave them a meaning of our own. Theme A was the one which best fitted our research interests and disciplinary orientations. Initially structured around consumption and production processes, our proposal promised to explore the "dynamics of consumption and production" under the following headings.


Consumption-related 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

Our application was successful and once the funding was certain the steering group of four 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" – and now that we had the funding! - 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.


The first workshop was designed to lead to a programme of exchanges in which a selection of workshop participants developed themes arising from the workshop discussions, met, worked and wrote together and reported back on the results of these experiences at a second workshop, organised the following year. One of the tasks of the first workshop was to identify suitable topics around which to organise the exchanges. This was a difficult process in which participants listed what were for them novel and exciting topics, and tried to cluster those themes into manageable subjects which would fit the requirements of an international exchange. The list below represents the first shot at condensing and grouping themes around which exchanges might be organised:

  • 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 turn these themes into viable exchanges and develop 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 exchanges


The strategy of allowing participants to take control of the agenda in this way led in the end to four exchanges on the following topics:

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

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

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

  4. 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 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 to 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" 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.


The second workshop


The second workshop involved almost all those who had attended the first event. The purpose was to report back on the exchanges and review the work undertaken in the intervening year. The outlines below provide a really brief summary of each 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.


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.


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. Though the members of this Finnish-Swedish group never actually met to exchange their ideas, they produced a collection of papers which 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 relevant to the fourth exchange group as described below.


4. Environmental innovation in consumption and the development of a sustainable infrastructure


This exchange explored networks 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.


The workshop-exchange programme


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. Others held fast to the paradigms of consumer behaviour and individual choice. Not everyone was happy.


Yet the programme had achieved many of its ambitions: for two years in a row we had drawn together a group of researchers mixed in terms of discipline, nationality, age and experience, but willing and able to work together in ways which proved to be productive and stimulating. Encouraged by this, and by finding ourselves with a cohort of people keen to work together in the future, the steering group met again to plan the event you are now part of: the summer school.


The summer school


To get this far we – the re-formulated steering group (Elizabeth Shove, Hal Wilhite, and Gert Spaargaren continued to be members, Mika Pantzar joined, Inge Ropke chose to drop out at this point, Mike Jacobs had become director of the Fabian society and so had to drop out earlier) - had to write another application for funding, and in doing so mesh our ambitions and ideas with those outlined in the ESF call for proposals. A summer school has its own practical characteristics: it lasts for a week, it is designed to attract new researchers, PhD students, and policy makers, and there is an expectation that presentations will be given by recognised experts in the field. Viewing this event as a development of the workshop-exchange process, the summer school steering group had to figure out which themes might fit this bill, which touched on questions of policy as well as academic interest, and which represented live nodes of intellectual and theoretical activity. Having allowed the workshop and exchange participants to set their own course we, the steering group, took back the reins and made our own selective decisions.


One critical choice was to set debate about attitudes, beliefs and behaviours to one side and design a summer school programme which was unashamedly concerned with the structuring of consumption - whether through cultural practices and routines, through histories of infrastructures or the designs of objects, homes and transport systems, or the organisation of time. As we said in the summer school proposal the aim is to "examine questions of sustainability and consumption with the help of established social scientific theories regarding the organisation of everyday life and the mediation of lifestyles and choices through social institutions and socio technical infrastructures".


In writing the summer school programme we also had a chance to go back and rescue themes which had not received as much attention as we hoped when planning the first workshop. The session on time and convenience belongs in this category.


Equally, we wanted to make the most of the work we had already done, especially through the exchange programmes. And we wanted to frame all of this in terms of social theory. And we wanted to attract policy makers to the event so what we might promote and explore the practical implications of our more systemic approach to consumption practices. And, and, and….


The structure of the programme, the design of the afternoon workshops, and the content of the reader reflects this mixture of goals and interests and is of course also influenced by purely practical considerations: whose papers were ready on time, what can you fit into a week and also allow time for playing monopoly, going to the pub, visiting Lancaster and so on.

As is the way of designers and planners we hope we have done a good job and that the reader, the morning sessions, the afternoon workshops and the evening discussions will have the combined effect of summarising existing theories and perspectives, highlighting relevant research, identifying opportunities for policy, and sparking off yet more new ideas.


The reader


The reader consists of a selection of unpublished articles and papers, some prepared for the first workshop, some based on the exchanges, some written for the purpose of the summer school, and some given at other conferences and workshops. Most have been edited, sometimes savagely so, by Heather Chappells, Elizabeth Shove, and Dale Southerton. We apologise to the original authors for the damage we have done and for the ideas we have deleted.


We hope that participants will read most if not all this material before the summer school. That way we will have something in common before we begin. That way too, participants will get a clearer idea of the themes and issues which underpin the exercises and discussion sessions.


The workshop sessions


The afternoon sessions and practical exercises are designed to allow participants to explore themes and issues introduced in the morning and relate these to their own research and/or policy and practical experience. They are also supposed to be interesting and enjoyable, and to involve the use of glue, crayons, maps, cameras, and notebooks.


The programme


The programme begins with big questions: how is it that consumption practices change? What different perspectives have been taken on this issue within economics, sociology, anthropology, management and marketing? What new theoretical approaches are being developed, and what use can be made of classical and contemporary ideas and arguments.

The second theme, cross cultural meanings and practices, considers the diversity of cultural meanings associated with consumption practices and reflects on the practical implications of cultural diversity and convergence for the design and implementation of environmental policy.


Also looking at changing practices, the third theme – the manufacturing of demand – reviews relationships between consumers and the environmentally problematic devices, technologies and services they have come to take for granted. Rather than viewing consumption as the end point of production we want to investigate the manufacturing of demand and the ways in which consumers are constructed along with the goods and services they are expected to require. Such an approach involves us in thinking about how standards of comfort, convenience and cleanliness escalate and what this means for the environment.


Theme 4, consumption, sustainability and the ordering of everyday life, provides an opportunity to consider the temporal dimension of consumption. Discussions of work-spend cultures and of trends towards over-work co-exist alongside speculation about downshifting and de-materialisation. Between these extremes we see a new time-related agenda developing around the speeding up of ordinary life and the implications, causes, and consequences of this for mobility and transport, and for the proliferation of energy intensive technologies and arrangements which promise to release time or increase flexibility.


In keeping with our emphasis on the structuring of consumer "choice", the final theme considers practical and theoretical issues relating to the design and use of infrastructures, for example, of housing and transport; and the provision and management of utilities such as energy, water and waste. This provides further opportunity to reflect on "systems of provision" and the privatisation and collectivisation of environmentally important areas of consumption.


In inventing these paragraphs and the sessions which go with them we have had our moment as planners and agenda setters. What happens next depends on you!



reader table of contents