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The Ecological Modernisation of Domestic Consumption

Gert Spaargaren, Wageningen University, The Netherlands

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

The text originated from a guest lecture at the workshop on Ecological Modernization at the University of Helsinki, 10-12 September 1998.



1. Introduction


Ecological modernisation theory has become one of the leading perspectives in environmental sociology. Being a sociological theory, it is broader in definition than for example, political sciences, including the role of actors in bringing about environmentally induced social change. During the last decade, we have been developing the ecolmod approach, both on the formal and the substantial level. Formally, ecolmod is within the approaches of general sociology and the environmental sciences. Situating within such theoretical discourse allows for the confrontation assumptions embraced by the demodernisation theories of the seventies, neo-Marxist approaches in the seventies and eighties (for example, the treadmill-theory of Allen Schnaiberg) and the constructivist approaches in the eighties and nineties. All of these confrontations have highlighted specific aspects of the ecological modernisation approach, and contributed to this evolving theory since its initial formulations to its present shape. Elsewhere we provided an overview of the ways in which the ecological modernisation theory has been developed during the last twenty years (Mol and Spaargaren, 1998; Spaargaren, Mol and Buttel, 1999). The aim of this contribution is not to dive deep into all of the theoretical assumptions and controversies, but to point out a few crucial and at the same time disputed elements of the theory (section 2). The main emphasis however, will be on a specific elaboration and illustration of ecological modernisation theory, by looking at the role of citizen-consumers in bringing about more sustainable ways of life (section 3).


2. Some basic characteristics of ecological modernisation theory


One of the confrontations ecological modernisation theory has deliberately sought has been with ecology, biology and the natural sciences. The premise of this contention is based upon the conviction that the environmental crisis is a 'real' crisis, dealing with real, objective, physical properties of social systems. In this sense, physical properties that have been changing over time, confront us with a challenge that has to be taken serious in order to avoid distorted social reproduction. Objectivist or realist position on ecological modernisation theory has resulted in some severe criticisms, and significant disagreement from some constructivists. Debates concerning whether environmental problems do in fact exist, are not the objective of this paper, although it is important to qualify that ecological modernisation theory is not the specific realm of some naïve technical scientists, believing that the environmental crisis can be reduced to physical properties and technical engineering. Instead, the approaches of environmental scientists and policy makers who work with substance-flow and energy- related definitions, are precisely the approaches being challenged. By taking substance flows into consideration from a sociological point of view, the objective is to bridge the gap between the technical and social environmental sciences. This is not an easy task given the gulf between over-socialised constructionists and under-socialised environmental (e.g. climate change) experts and policy makers, who tend to overlook the fact that there are people, social systems and human behaviours attached to all the changing substance flows. Ecological modernisation theory as developed by sociologists, stresses the fact that the environmental crisis is a thoroughly social crisis in term of a series of problems in our dealing with the sustenance base. These problems are argued to stem from the organisation of production and consumption in modern societies.

Ecological modernisation theory focuses on the ways in which substance-flows-management can and 'should' be organised in modern society, arguing that such management or control pertains both to technological and social devices, and mechanisms. The fact that science and technology (both in hardware and software dimensions), receive a prominent position within ecological modernisation theory, has triggered some lasting misinterpretations which sometimes result in characterising the ecological modernisation approach as technocratic or a technological fix approach. Indeed, environmental reform in the ecological modernisation school, would mean resorting to the ultimate power of new technologies that ‘solve’ environmental problems without any real or profound social changes (Hannigan, 1995: 184).


The probable root of this misunderstanding is because within ecological modernisation theory, environmental technology plays an important role. The development from (compartmentally organised) end-of-pipe technologies in the early seventies to ('integrated') preventive technologies in the late eighties, is in fact one of the key elements of ecological modernisation theory because these later technologies, have great potential for more sustainable organisation of production and consumption. In the technological fix criticism, it is also implicitly or explicitly argued that ecological modernisation theory lacks the 'radicalism' that characterises demodernisation and 'treadmill' perspectives on environmental change, and leads to an association with calls for 'green capitalism'. This is understandable to some extent, given that ecological modernisation theory does not plea for a dismantling of 'capitalism' altogether. Instead it focuses on the industrial mode of production and consumption regarding this cluster of institutions as the main cause of environmental problems. Taking on board issues like innovation, diffusion of new technologies or management techniques as applied in industrial organisations, it deals with themes like Fordist versus post-Fordist production regimes and their implications for the environment.


Compared with treadmill-analyses or de-modernisation perspectives, ecological modernisation theory is indeed less ‘radical’, largely because it does not begin from the a-priori assumption that a more sustainable organisation of production and consumption in modern societies is impossible because of their capitalist character. It also does not oppose ‘growth’ in all respects and on all occasions. In these respects ecological modernisation theory resembles some of the major assumptions of the Brundtland-report, although it is more precise in developing criteria or sets of criteria that can and should be used to make judgements on the sustainability of production-and consumption cycles. Reflection on the basic characteristics and possible (theoretical and political) uses of these criteria is one of the prime occupations of ecological modernisation theory. During the past two decades, sets of criteria have been developed for discussion within governmental and academic circles, that allow for a discussion on the ecological rationality of certain technologies, production arrangements and even complete sectors of (chemical) industry. These ecological criteria have been and still are, gaining (albeit very slowly) an ‘independent’ existence in the sense that they cannot be reduced to economic or political criteria alone. On the level of formal theory, one can conceive of this fact in terms of a separate sphere which comes to exist alongside the spheres of the economy, culture and politics, as Figure 1 illustrates.


Figure 1: Growing independence of the ecological sphere



It is important to note that fashionable concepts such as the PPP, win-win, or dopple-nutzung, are not the kernel of this approach as is often claimed in (business) circles that reduce ecological modernisation simply to an ‘efficiency-revolution’. Such 'fashionable concepts' are however, significant in highlighting the existence of new principles that can be added to basic understandings of what a more sustainable way of organising industrial production and consumption might look like. Principles of recycling, prevention, green GNP, energy extensivation and the use of sustainable energy sources, are today, elements of everyday discourse. Substantially, the monitoring of major or relevant substance and energy flows are becoming increasingly prominent, for example instruments like Life Cycle Analyses, environmental performance indicators, and environmental quality (ISO) norms (Van Koppen, 1998).


After the monitoring then comes the ‘monetarisation’. In terms of Joseph Huber (1985), the 'ecologising of the economy' goes hand in hand with the 'economising of ecology'. The relation between economic and ecological rationalities must be explored precisely, ecological modernisation theory arguing that the independent set of ecological criteria should be used alongside other, standing economic criteria, in order to adequately judge the productivity or performance of industries and technologies. In this respect, ecological modernisation theory is not arguing for ecological criteria to be used as absolutist, ultimate or sine-qua non criteria. As Huber reminds us, one should not forget, when introducing eco-balancing and annual reports on environmental performances within companies, or with ISO-environmental norms and different forms of eco-bench-marking, that economic parameters remain crucial for the overall survival of a company. However, this ‘relative independency’ argument also works the other way around: when talking about economic aspects of sustainability one should not place outside the discussion, everything that sometimes, somehow, could be of potential harm to the company.


So far for the ecological modernisation approach as a general theory of environment induced social change. It will be evident that the overall approach described so far transcends and cross-cuts some of the disciplinary boundaries that are upheld in the present academic world. Without embracing a full blown interdisciplinary perspective, ecological modernisation theory can profit from specific inputs from the technical, the economic and the social science disciplines. Already one can see, at least at the international level, that some connections between research groups are developing and that there is the recognition that within the 'factor-four' tradition, multidisciplinary is becoming something of a rule instead of the exception. Sociologists can and should make a specific contribution to this broader research field, by focusing on two basic aspects that are not fully and automatically recognised within other disciplines. First: the importance of the role of human agency in bringing about more sustainable production and consumption arrangements. Second, the re-evaluation of production-consumption arrangements from a consumer-oriented perspective.



When studying production-consumption-cycles, sociologists should not loose sight of human agency, particularly within de-materialisation projects where human agency runs the risk of disappearing in huge data-sets and very holistic system theoretical modelling. All production-consumption cycli consist of social practices, which can and should be studied on two levels (the micro- and the macro), without accepting a micro-macro division of labour that would draw very rigid dividing lines between those two approaches. On the conceptual level, the structurationist-argument of the duality of structure (Giddens, 1984), still appears the most valid solution to the micro-macro divide (an issue returned to later). More recently, the 'Post-Fordist- turn' has established a perspective which recognises the crucial position of consumer (group)s in structuring production-consumption-cycles, under the condition of (late/ reflexive) modernity. The concept of consumer-society is therefore, no longer seen as a starting point for merely criticising over-consumption but instead it is recognised as the key-concept to a better understanding of the dynamics of industrial societies.


By elaborating on these two general questions, environmental sociologists can contribute to shaping and improving environmental policies related to different target groups. This target group approach implies the recognition that society cannot be ‘regulated’ any longer from one centre c.q. or central government in a uniform way, but instead should take into account horizontal forms of policy making, in which target groups take active part in the self-steering toward sustainability. On the other hand, target-groups were initially selected with reference to their environmental performance only, without taking into account the really different social dynamics that exist between and within such groups. In this way, it has taken a long time for policy makers to recognise that consumers are very different from producers, retailers or farmers, not only with respect to their environmental characteristics and dynamism, but also in terms of the social characteristics 'behind' their environmental performance.


The different social roles and institutions connected to the different target groups, require an approach that is not only different with respect to the environmental policy targets set. They also demand a theory of environment induced social change, which takes these broader social dynamics into account at the conceptual/theoretical level. Put in a rather simple way: there is not one factor 4 (or 10), or one dematerialization-route with an accompanying theory, but many routes with different sets of social actors and involving different social mechanisms. At a general level, crucial principles such as ’monitoring of substance flows’ and the subsequent need for a ‘monetarisation of these flows’ remain valid. However, the concrete forms through which this can be achieved differ for variable target-groups and within different geographical configurations. It is on these 'middle-range-levels' that we can and should focus, when developing ecological modernisation theory for the future.


3. A consumer led perspective on ecological modernisation


It is crucial for the future development of ecological modernisation theory that a consumer-led perspective on ecological modernisation is taken on board. In this section the basic approach and questions that result from the above 'middle-range' perspective will be outlined (see Spaargaren & Van Vliet, 1998, for more details). Figure 2, visually summarises the leading principles of this consumption approach. First, domestic consumption is taken as a specific type of social practices (Warde 1990). Secondly, the concepts of sustainable consumption and sustainable lifestyle are more embracing categories, as not all consumption practices are best explained or investigated from a home-bound perspective only. In theoretical terms: the time-space organisation of daily life is for an essential part, but not exclusively connected to the home as locale or physical setting. For example the production-consumption cycles in the food-industry (with a specific role for retailers) cannot only be investigated from a domestic consumption perspective. This is because they are not only connected to the home-bound practices of storing food and preparing meals, they also imply complementary roles for consumers, such as shoppers, dreamers, airmile savers.

Yet, it can forcefully be argued that home-based social practices are an important issue for environmental scientists, because it is here that 'our relation with the sustenance base, our daily interaction with nature on a routine base, is shaped'. Consequently, lay-perspectives on the environment and ecological modernisation get some of their specific characteristics here. As stated earlier, it is important to transcend micro-macro divisions in studying these practices by taking on board some of the core concepts from Giddens' structuration theory. The notion of the duality of structure should be 'handled' in practical research, by working with two types of perspectives or angles on the very same sets of social practices: the perspective of strategic conduct and of institutional analysis. When working from the perspective of strategic action, the focus is on the reasons and motives of agents, their lifestyles as connected to 'narratives' of the self, or statements of self-identity. This actor-related perspective emphasises the fact that however pervasive and immobile some social structures or institutions seem to be, they are always produced and reproduced by knowledgeable and capable human agents who are able to provide comments, reasons and even some explanation for what they are doing, and how they are doing it. The general principle of treating people as accountable human agents, is particularly relevant when considering issues of 'green lifestyles' and consumption patterns. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that the concept of lifestyle plays an important role in the study of the 'greening' of consumption as strategic conduct. In this sense, lifestyle is embraced rather than rejected as a vague concept. Such vagueness or 'multiple definition question', surrounds all of the core concepts of sociology (like for example the concepts of power, agency, time and ideology).

Figure 2 : Domestic consumption practices and the duality of structure




Taking serious the motives and interest of human agents, does not have to imply that as a consequence of choice at the micro level, we should forget that actors are not isolated 'single units' or individuals, but co-actors or co-civilians. This embeddedness of social action is taken as the primary point of departure, when taking on board an institutional perspective on for example domestic consumption practices. When using this perspective, we are focusing on the rules and resources underlying domestic practices. In other words (borrowing from the sociology of consumption again), we are looking at the systems of provision and modes of access related to the consumption practices under study. For Otnes (1988), this focus circulates around the socio-material collective systems, which are involved in the process of 'serving and being served' in daily life. We are looking at those systems that are an essential part of the sustenance base, in that they are crucial to the material underpinning of our daily lives. For this to be a substantial degree, consists of the delivery of goods and services which are involved in our handling of, and dependency from energy, water and waste.


Theoretically, the argument is that domestic consumption can and should be studied both on the micro and the macro level, without creating something of a 'division' between the two approaches. Taking domestic consumption as a focus also means developing a consumer-oriented perspective on production-consumption cycles. Empirically, we have a myriad of lifestyles and domestic environmental arrangements, with different modes of provision and access both within and between different countries. Furthermore, we are dealing here with a very important potential for the greening of modern industrial lifestyles, because the expert-systems involved in the provision of energy, water and waste, are at the same time crucial institutional actors, or target groups within environmental policy. Here there are some sectors of modern society which are going through a period of massive and profound transformation, caught in catchwords like liberalisation, privatisation, and third party access (TPA).


These arguments play an important role in developing a current research programme, DOMUS, which elaborates upon some of the topics discussed above. DOMUS refers to an EU-funded project carried out in three countries, Sweden, the UK and the Netherlands, and has three main objectives (Spaargaren, 1997; Van Vliet, 1998). First, to assess the impact of EU politics on the sectors and institutions involved in the provision of energy, water and waste to households. Second, to make an inventory of all the current environmental innovations (both in the technical and the social sense) carried out, implemented or pilot-tested at the grass-root level, in addition to those of official agencies or expert-systems. Finally and most crucially, the objective is to produce (and consume) a description and assessment of the ways in which civilians, domestic consumers c.q. citizen-consumers, are involved in these innovations and the ways in which the relations between consumers and producers are changing.


The programme is now well under way and so far it seems possible to further elaborate the ecological modernisation theory, with respect to this specific domain. Some of the core concepts of ecological modernisation, have been reformulated with reference to the specific dynamics of the different systems of provisions. For example, there are many innovations which are connected to a more precise monitoring of the substance flows that are developed and introduced, primarily from a so-called demand-side-management (DSM) perspective (Shove and Chappells, forthcoming). DSM strategies are not only developed for environmental reasons but also as important carriers for ecological modernisation. At the level of 'monetarisation', we can see product (and tariff) differentiations arising in the market for reasons not only of sustainable development, but for the need to compete as newly privatised companies with new products in seemingly saturated markets.


When it comes to consumer involvement, the project has already indicated that there is a basic negligence of the crucial role of citizen-consumers in the development and use of utility sector induced innovations. This is true both on the empirical and theoretical level. Experts in the energy, water and waste-sectors are very much occupied with the guaranteed supply and efficient functioning of the systems in terms of technical characteristics. Moreover, in the sociological literature concerning citizenship participation in policy making, this category is lacking. To compensate for this lack of attention, we propose to think about the issue of how to organise consumer involvement in terms of two basic modes: in-use-involvement and sub-politics.


In-use-involvement refers to involvement in the functioning of socio-material collective systems. Here we can profit from some of the notions of the sociology of science and technology, especially as developed by Callon (1986), Cowan (1983), Cramer en Schot (1990) and Schot (1992). Particularly, the project has yielded some excellent empirical examples of very similar technological systems, being organised sometimes with and sometimes without consumer involvement. In the coming phases of the project, questions regarding the forms and level of consumer involvement that people actually want, or should be want, in the process of becoming engaged in the greening of their lifestyles and domestic consumption, will be addressed. When dealing with these questions in some detail, we try to move away from questions concerning the ‘acceptance of innovation’, for example the one-dimensional question of 'how much money do they want to pay for it?' By being more precise on both the (material, social and cultural) efforts and rewards that come along with certain innovations, the project contributes to theories of ecological modernisation within this specific domain of social life, resulting in more sustainable systems of provision and informing upon more sustainable lifestyles for domestic agents.


On the other hand, lifestyle is not just an individual affair, citizenship involvement also relates to the ways in which people become engaged, not just with their own energy, water, and waste handling devices and arrangements, but also in terms of what they have to say about the way in which these environmental arrangements are developed by experts (both within companies and agencies). In respect to this mode of influencing broader process of policy-making, it can be argued that some of the traditional institutions for policy making have become obsolete (see also Offe 1986; Beck 1992, 1994). In this period of reflexive modernity we should indeed opt for new kind of arrangements and involvements which Beck and Giddens refer to as 'sub-politics'.


It can be a stimulating experience to think through and investigate the concrete form of sub-politics that could come along with, and support the ecological modernisation of domestic consumption in the futures of some European countries. This engagement with the material underpinning of our daily lives, could very well contribute to both theory and practice of policy making in reflexive modernity, a point not especially well elaborated by the authors that introduced these notion into sociological thinking. This is an important consideration for environmental sociologists, because it connects to some of the themes that represent long-standing debates within environmental sociology. In this respect, the DOMUS research project should throw fresh light upon questions of:

  • Is small (still/ again) sustainable? Due to technological developments as well as changing attitudes from the side of expert systems, there seem to be greater possibilities for 'decentral' systems, (re)connected to the central grid in a flexible way. These technological developments are closely related to changing power-relations between producers and consumers. One of the interesting aspects of this changing relationships between the decentral and the central, is the question whether the Schumacher adagium 'small is beautiful' is still valid in this respect.
  • Does environmental innovation contribute to new forms of communitarianism? In the debate on the limits to privatisation, some philosophers argue that new forms of sub-politics should also be assessed with respect to the contribution they can make to new forms of solidarity that could develop with new environmental arrangements.
  • Is it possible to speak about the (enhanced) 'authority of the consumer vis a vis nature'? Within the sociology of consumption, there is discussion concerning the empowerment of the consumer. When connected to the liberalisation and privatisation tendencies within European utility sectors, this could turn into something like the consumers having a lot of choices on how to organise their relationship with nature/ the sustenance base. This could lead to the paradox of the greening of lifestyles being a result of an enhanced form of anthropocentrism?




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