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Symbolic Meanings of High and Low Impact Consumption in Different Cultures

Guliz Ger, Hal Wilhite, Bente Halkier, Jeppe Laessoe, Mirjam Godskesen, Inge Ropke (edited by Elizabeth Shove)




This paper is the result of a collaborative inter-disciplinary investigation of similar consumption practices in contrasting cultures. By focusing on the meaning and symbolic importance of a handful of consumption practices, some which have significantly negative environmental implications, others of which are more sustainable, we generate new insights into the processes through which meanings are constructed. These observations are relevant since they have a direct bearing on the question of whether and how consumption practices might change in ways which ultimately favour environmental sustainability.


This enquiry highlights the symbolic aspects of consumption. Though initially preoccupied with production and the diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies, organisations such as the OECD (1997) have begun to discuss changes in consumption patterns. This trend makes it all the more important to recognise that such practices are not only ‘practical doings’, they also express symbolic meanings and generate social signals by which we shape our identity, confirm or challenge cultural conventions and construct images of ‘the good life’. These meanings are collectively shared and negotiated and influence choices and practices, by motivating or impeding them.


If this analysis is correct, and if policy makers and others are to promote sustainable consumption, it follows that they must also create desirable social markers for environmentally-friendly practices. In order to do so, it is necessary to understand the emergence of high and low impact activities and the cultural meanings currently associated with such practices. The research team chose to focus on three fields of daily consumption - food, transport and hygiene - and to investigate the symbolic meaning of three devices: air conditioning, pressure cookers and glass storage containers.


Within these fields we identified low impact (relatively environmentally friendly) and high impact (relatively environmentally non-friendly) practices. For each, we explore their symbolic aspects in different cultures: in Denmark, Turkey, Norway and Japan. This comparison reveals that the same practices have very different symbolic meanings. It also clarifies the importance of the socio-cultural context with regard to the shaping of meaning and the possibilities for influencing that process.


Symbolic meanings and consumption practices


Before considering specific cases of consumption, we reflect on how others have conceived of symbolic meanings. Should we, for instance, think of symbolic meaning as a filter which somehow mediates between "natural" drives and cultural practices (cf. e.g. Berger & Luckmann 1966; Olsen & Köppe 1981, p.170) or is it better seen as a force in its own right? Our answer to this question is rather pragmatic in the sense that we agree with both suggestions, but give priority to the latter.


There are other questions of orientation. Should we highlight the part which symbolic meanings play as stable collectively shared frameworks of interpretation? Or should we emphasise their unstable and dynamic qualities, recognising that they are constantly transformed and reproduced through daily negotiation generated by the need to manage new or conflicting experiences and tensions between different (sub)cultures? Again our response is pragmatic: symbols are about sense making. We generate and make use of symbols in order to orient ourselves, cognitively as well as emotionally. They are a part of our culture and psychology, constituting a socially constructed filter which mediates between the social conditions of life and sensuous-emotional psychic structures. According to Thomas Ziehe, the cultural dynamics of modern societies reflect asynchronous change in our societal-structural conditions, our collectively shared symbolic means of interpretation and our psychic structures (Ziehe 1980; 1989)


Rather than getting drawn into further debate of this kind, our aim is to see how consumers confirm or negotiate symbolic meanings through the way they behave and are encouraged to behave by the mass media. In this narrow sense, we take symbolic meanings to be social signals which influence consumption practices; the shaping of social identity, and our understanding of what constitutes a good life. Our view, then, is that consumption is constitutive of identity (Campbell 1987; McCracken 1988) and that possessions help provide an extended sense of self (Belk 1988). Consumers use goods to construct and communicate their identity, to relate to people and groups, to mark social differences, to seek comparative status, and to pursue emotional and aesthetic pleasures. Identity construction and expression rest on the quest for difference: "a need is not a need for a particular object as much as it is a ‘need’ for difference (the desire for social meaning)" (Baudrillard 1970/1988: 45). Consumers draw from all available global and local, new and old sources as they use products to position themselves in local, age, gender, social class, religious, and ethnic hierarchies. In this process of identity construction they face tensions: to be like others yet also to be different (normative, normalcy versus individualising). In transitional societies they also face tensions in their attempt to face the future (modernity, progress) rather than the past (poor, rural, backwards, traditional) whilst maintaining their roots and habits. Day in, day out, practices reflect the negotiation of what it is to be religious yet modern, to be sensible and thrifty whilst demonstrating success and respectability, and so on.


The routine negotiation of identity through consumption begs further questions about the meanings of objects and practices. Consumption practices become established and acquire meaning over time. The meaning of an object, such as a car or a category such as organic foods, or a practice such as biking, reflects perceptions and judgements about how and in what ways it differs from or is similar to alternatives, and where, when, how, and by whom it is owned; consumed; or engaged in. Such perceptions are shaped by actual experience as well as by seeing the object in use or the practice performed, either first hand or in the media. Diamonds, for example, came to be a gift of love only as a result of decades of Hollywood film scenes and of indirectly promotional photographs of celebrities wearing necklaces and rings, all of which were engineered by the De Beers monopoly at the beginning of the century.


In this as in other cases we observe a double dynamic. On the one hand objects and practices express identity by demonstrating membership of a certain social group. At the same time they express difference and distance. Some signals will be inclusive, because they confirm the ethos and ideals of a mainstream culture. Others will be exclusive, showing distance from this dominant culture, and confirming membership of a contrasting sub-culture. High and low impact consumption practices are affected by this double dynamic. This is relevant for much depends on the direction of change (for instance, does the adoption of environmentally friendly consumption practices imply deviation from or conformity to a dominant culture) and the relative positioning of high and low impact practices within a wider landscape of convention, culture and value.




Consumption and the environment


The following examples show how environmentally relevant consumption practices are positioned within different cultures, how the symbolic meaning of such practices is established, and how it might change. The descriptions which follow are informed by the theoretical stance outlined above - by a focus on the negotiation of meaning through practice; a recognition of the role of consumption in marking and signalling inclusion and distance, and an acknowledgement of the cultural malleability of significance and practice.


The first example concerns the re-definition of comfort in Japan. In this case we see how the symbolic meaning of air-conditioning evolves, with immediate consequences for energy consumption. This is an especially instructive example in that it shows how social conventions and pressures underpin the diffusion of an energy consuming technology which certain users initially experience as unpleasant and which is still thought to be bad for the health. The second and third examples are from Turkey. Contrary to the first case, our investigation of the pressure cooker suggests that symbolic meanings which lack any obvious relation to the environment may nonetheless promote environmentally friendly consumption practices. On the other hand the case of the glass containers, our third example, shows that objects and practices which are symbolically associated with environmentally friendly consumption may have the reverse effect in practice.


Japanese air conditioning

In 1967, air conditioners were found in only 3 per 100 Japanese households, by 1993, there were over 150 per 100 households, a fifty fold increase in less than 30 years. In spite of dramatic improvements in technical efficiency, air conditioning is now driving peak energy loads in all the major urban areas of Japan, putting upward pressure on the dimensioning of energy supply. This rapid change is mainly due to changing building practices - modern buildings and their ventilation systems do not lend themselves to natural cooling. Adoption of air conditioning has also been accompanied by new ideas about what it is to be a modern Japanese family. The air conditioner is one of a number of household appliances which have become indicators of success and well-being. They are installed as a matter of course in new apartment buildings, but they are also retrofitted in older buildings and single family dwellings, including traditional dwellings which are well-suited for natural cooling. The pressure to air condition is even more striking given the distaste which most Japanese consumers have for artificially cooled air, and the widespread notion that it is bad for your health.


Research reported in Wilhite et al (1996) revealed some of the symbolic dimensions of changing interpretations of comfort. In an ethnographic study conducted in Fukuoka, interviewees indicated that they did not like the ‘feeling’ produced by artificially cooled air, often associated with a perceived risk of catching cold. So why had they installed air conditioners? One clue is that the women tended to use air conditioners only when the husband came home from work, that is at the time when the home should be at its most socially appropriate (cosiest) for the family. In this sense, the air conditioner and conditioned air contribute symbolically to a shared sense of well-being which cuts across more traditional notions of comfort. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that some people are purchasing air conditioners as outward symbols to the world around them. For example, an older couple living in a traditional Japanese house expressed exasperation that their daughter (who had moved away from home) kept pressing them to buy an air conditioner, despite their insistence that they were comfortable in the summer heat, and concerned about the aesthetic damage which an air conditioner would cause. Aware of her parents’ objections, she continued to press ahead with the project, motivated by a desire to provide visual evidence to friends and neighbours that she was acting responsibly and taking care of her parents in an appropriate manner.

Looking outside the home, rigorous marketing has systematically underlined the symbolic association of the air conditioner with the modern family. Wilhite et al (1996) analysed a comprehensive sample of Mitsubishi print advertising covering the period from 1965-1995. In addition to emphasising the novelty of the technology and its contribution to increased comfort, one message was particularly prominent in the early period (1965-1978): the air conditioner would be quiet and unobtrusive, and would not disturb the traditional aesthetic of the Japanese home or lifestyle. This strategy changed abruptly in about 1970, when images stopped showing traditional home interiors in favour of modern, Western-style ones. What it meant to be Japanese was redefined in these images and represented in terms of a home full of modern appliances (among them the air conditioner) along with other Western items (e.g. coffee tables equipped with whiskey, glasses and ice). These Western-grounded images dominated until 1990, at which point we see the re-emergence of a Japanese style, the housewife relaxing while multiple appliances accomplish household chores and the air conditioner keeps her cool.


This example reveals the interaction of multiple mutually reinforcing types of symbolic consumption. We have, for instance, noted the role of air conditioning as a marker of familial solidarity and as an element in the collective ideal of a cosy home. We have seen how it also functions as a signal to the outside world that all is well within and that the family is well-off and keeping up with conventional notions of the good life. Finally, we have seen how symbols of modernity from the world around are directed inward at the household, signalling the social appropriateness of certain consumption practices. The key point here is that such symbols are not mutually exclusive, but are in fact closely coupled. Each is evolving individually, but each influencing and being influenced by the others.


Pressure cookers in Turkey


Pressure cooking is an example of a consumption pattern which has a low environmental impact and very positive symbolism, at least in Turkey. Pressure cookers are seen to be modern, practical, time-saving, and convenient, and have been widely used for over 30 years. Poorer families, who consume a lot of ‘dry’ foods (beans, lentils, chick peas), view the pressure cooker as an important functional device.


"Cooking a dish in a regular pot takes hours. But in the pressure cooker it is done in 30-45 minutes. It takes very long, especially for dry things (beans, lentils, chick peas, etc.,.) to cook in pots. And it uses up a lot of gas. In the pressure cooker cooking takes much less time and gas" (F37)


The pressure cooker is significant not just in that it saves time, but also in that it is viewed as an efficient technological device and one which should be part of any modern kitchen. A weekly television cooking programme, sponsored by the manufacturer Tefal, depicts the versatility of the pressure cooker in an unambiguously modern setting in an affluent household. Mothers of married women are also very influential role models in Turkey. Themselves subject to social pressure, from the media and from friends and neighbours, many middle class mothers buy pressure cookers for their married daughters, so ensuring that they are properly equipped for their future role as cook and homemaker. Casual conversations about which appliances are "a must", are also critical since even in poor areas, neighbours drop by to talk about the latest goods on the market and suggest which purchases their friends should make. Economic deprivation does not stop households from acquiring and showing off appliances such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, toasters, or dishwashers. These devices are a sign of respectability and decency and, in this context, the pressure cooker, along with a range of other goods, is a marker of modernity.


This example again shows how symbolic meanings overlap. Familial solidarity, neighbourhood cohesion, notions of a decent and respectable kitchen, all these work together to reinforce the view that the pressure cooker is an essential item for those leading modern, time-pressured lives. That the pressure cooker is also an extremely energy efficient device is beside the point. In this instance, environmentally friendly consumption is driven by the same sorts of pressures and conventions as those which underpin the environmentally problematic diffusion of air conditioning.


Glass containers in Turkey


Among the Turkish middle and upper classes, glass is viewed as a better quality material relative to tin or plastic jars, containers, or cups. There is a widespread belief that glass is healthy and natural, making it the preferred environmental choice for storage containers. It is thought to be more hygienic, less hospitable to germs, and easier to wash than either metal or plastic. Glass containers are also regarded as pleasing to the eye, and as something which can be displayed around the kitchen. The popularity of glass is linked to many years of television advertising by the state owned glass manufacturer. Slogans such as "glass is life" and "the essence of glass is nature and nature’s friend is glass", are promoted along with images of the production process involving earth and sand. In addition, glass products are typically packaged in recycled cardboard featuring the recycle logo, pictures of trees and the inscription "lets protect the environment". Here we see an explicit, and apparently successful, attempt to promote a commodity on environmental grounds. Whether or not glass containers are actually more environmentally friendly than alternative storage systems is not the issue. What counts here is the fact that they are presented as such and that this becomes part of how glass is interpreted and represented.


These three examples: air conditioning in Japan; the pressure cooker and the glass container in Turkey, show, first, that symbolic meaning can work for and against the environment; second, that environmentally benign practices need not be seen or understood as such and, third, that environmentally positive signals can be attached to products and practices regardless of their actual environmental impact.


Comparing low and high impact consumption practices


In the next part of the paper we take a more comparative stance and review different interpretations of similar consumption practices with examples relating to food, transport and hygiene. These examples have the further effect of drawing attention to the structuring of opportunities, as well as the construction of meaning, and the relationship between the two. In each case we consider opportunities for substituting low for high impact consumption practices, and reflect on the symbolic challenges such transformation would present.


The growth of consumption is problematic from an environmental point of view, but some consumption practices are more problematic than others. If we chose to consume ever more theatrical performances, lectures, massage treatments or hours of child care the environmental effects of growth would not be very detrimental. While some types of consumption - such as air travel - are inherently problematic, in other fields, such as local transport, food consumption, and cleanliness, there are opportunities to choose between high and low impact alternatives. In the following sections we consider the part which symbolic meaning plays in structuring choices between high and low impact options. It is, of course, important to note that these "alternatives" are not strictly equivalent, and especially not in terms of their cultural significance. Investigating the sense that there are "alternatives", and examining perceptions the possibilities and problems of substitution is part of the story which follows.



Organic and manufactured food in Denmark and Turkey


Despite much discussion of food-miles and the environmental costs of producing different types of food it is hard to offer a definition of high or low impact food consumption. For the purposes of this discussion, it is enough to compare the symbolic status of locally produced, organic food at one end of the scale, and of highly manufactured convenience foods at the other. Food is subject to many layered interpretations with the following aspects being just some of the qualities which acquire meaning and significance in this context.

  • Common sense rationality influences the selection of different foods (Mortensen, 1990, 116-21). For example, in Denmark, the fact that non-organic foods are generally cheaper than their organic alternatives means that they are more commonly consumed.
  • Hedonism and the experience of enjoyment (Featherstone, 1990:13-15) - meaning that you eat exactly what you want, when you want it. Hedonism can also have take an environmental form, as when consumers view the consumption of organic food as a sensual treat and take pleasure in the experience or at least the association of better quality, taste and texture (Halkier, 1997),
  • Being busy is a sign of having an active and time-scheduled daily life – in a context where shopping and cooking are designed not to take up too much time, semi-manufactured goods seem to be necessary.
  • The proliferation of processed foods promises emancipation from household chores especially for women. Media and advertising reinforce these symbolic meanings.
  • Signs of being modern and Western are important especially in Turkey. Processed foods are associated with a sense of decency and self-respect that comes from not depriving ones family of the good life as seen on TV or as lived by ones more affluent neighbours.
  • Naturalness is valued by consumers who long for authenticity and a life which is closer to nature. Organic and non-processed food are perceived to be natural, to be the real thing, as well as being healthy and clean, and thus offering a means of protecting oneself from a hostile, manufactured environment (James, 1993).
  • Valuing health relates to consumer concern generated in the wake of expert discourses and ideals of beauty. Again organic and home made foods are typically seen as being better for you (Lupton, 1996:143-44).
  • Ideals of social responsibility influence the consumption of food as of other commodities. In making socially responsible choices, consumers lay claim to a moral co-responsibility for tackling present and future societal problems of sustainability, what Bauman (1995) calls the ethics of responsibility.
  • Green lifestyle is valued by consumers identifying themselves as members of a network and/or associational group of environmentally friendly people.
  • Competence relates to the valuing of abilities in everyday life (Giddens, 1990:144-46). This can be translated into the practices of, for instance, cooking meals from scratch and using raw materials instead of semi-manufactured goods and ready made food.


Though these meanings and interpretations are incredibly complex, comparison between Denmark and Turkey is immediately revealing. To give just one example, the concept of "organic" food (which barely exists in Turkey despite the fact that much produce would qualify as such) is the subject of a state controlled labelling scheme in Denmark. This in itself raises questions about the framing of choice. If organic food is not labelled as such in Turkey does that mean it does not exist, or at least that it cannot exist in the consumer’s repertoire of possible symbolic significance? Equally, have the Danes created a new kind of food, and a new vocabulary of meaning with their labelling schemes?

The literal availability of commodities is a critical factor and, as we noted earlier, deliberate efforts to change the symbolic meaning of different types of consumption are unlikely to have much impact if consumers confront a limited range of options. In simple terms, choices are not the same in different societies, nor is there a comparable distribution of high and low impact "options" from which to select.


Manufactured food makes an interesting comparison with the "organic" category. In the latter case, extra information is required to distinguish between organic and other produce. By contrast, the use of manufactured global foods such as packet soups or the reliance on packaged convenience foods is in certain circumstances, directly and immediately relevant as a signifier of modernity.


As these examples suggest, food is also subject to simultaneously conflicting interpretations. The recently urbanised middle classes in Turkey look down upon peasant soups, the home made qualities of which are, for different reasons, valued by the elite and the poor alike. Of course there are also important differences in terms of flexibility and control: the elite may value the ability to switch between packaged and home made foods or to create a "rural" meal whereas such consumption is a mundane necessity for the poor who have no other option. More generally, the proliferation of meaning surrounding food is such that consumers have the opportunity to mix symbols of naturalness with those of social responsibility, assembling different elements together to form a personal bricolage of practice in a way which permits individuality whilst also offering a measure of social acceptability (Gronow, 1997:170-71; Simmel, 1991:69).

Cars and bikes in Turkey and the Nordic countries


Transport is a significant environmental problem and an arena in which consumers are both the senders and receivers of symbolic meaning. By choosing to cycle or by selecting one rather than another type of car, individuals convey information about themselves just as they interpret the social meaning of other peoples’ transport practices. What different options and practices actually mean depends on the social context, a point which is graphically underlined by the following observations about car ownership in Scandinavia and Turkey.




Having a big, expensive car is a conventional symbol of high social status all over the world. In a cross-cultural study, in Turkey as well as in eleven other countries, cars were found to be one of the most desirable objects (Ger and Belk, 1996). When comparing the Danish/Norwegian and the Turkish situation we found that in the Nordic countries you must have a special car to signal high status - a Skoda is not a signal of wealth. In Turkey any car will be a significant status symbol, but of course a special car is a symbol of even higher status. Looking at statistics this cultural difference is easily understood. In Denmark there are 380 cars per 1000 inhabitants, in the US the number is 574 while in Turkey there are only 28 cars per 1000 inhabitants. Where car ownership is common, in Denmark and even more in the USA, complex typologies of consumer and product characteristics evolve. Consider the following passage from Wilhite and Lutzenhiser (1998), who discuss the social and symbolic aspects of owning and using cars in North America, as represented in the popular Car and Driver magazine:


"The prospective buyer is counselled to drive something 'special' as befits his status, but to be careful to locate the choice at the appropriate price level vis-à-vis his and others' incomes. Since the buyer's wife probably drives a sports-utility vehicle, he should choose a four-door sedan. However, the car cannot be 'flashier' than those of his superiors in the corporate hierarchy, nor should it be too 'sporty,' since it must convey a serious image and be large enough to occasionally transport four persons from 'three-martini lunches' to the golf course - in executive style, of course. Having settled on nine vehicles in the class ('nine ways to express to yourself on the way to the top'), the review goes on to compare their features. The weight and size of each car, as well as the performance expectations of its middle-aged driver, dictate that it will have at least six cylinders and probably a turbocharger. As a result, fuel economy is quite low - from 0,1 - 0,14 litre/km. All of the cars, however, are equipped with a full range of sensors, controls, and elegant finishes (although not too elegant, since some materials and design features are reserved for 'luxury' cars). In addition, the cars are over-sized, 'just in case'".

As this extract illustrates, cars, like food, are laden with potential meaning. They are literally the vehicle with which to convey values important to American identity and status. These include features such as ruggedness and the ability to survive extremes of weather and terrain (including inhospitable urban territories); family values and the ability to afford a large vehicle, and the valuing of size itself as something which is inherently reassuring. In addition, cars provide thrills, assure freedom of mobility, offer quiet spaces, exhibit machismo, and display social status. No wonder that the car has starred in countless 'road movies', in which heroes or heroines (Thelma and Louise) join forces with their vehicles to defy authority, defeat the bad guys and/or find true romance. When considering the symbolism of high and low impact consumption, we would have to conclude that the bicycle simply does not carry this weight of meaning.


In Denmark the bicycle is a very common mode of transport being used for 39% of trips in central Copenhagen. Almost everyone in Denmark owns a bicycle and perhaps because of this, cycling doesn’t signal high or low status. It is like wearing blue jeans - everybody does it to the point that it is both unremarkable and conventional. There is even some evidence that cycling has positive associations. Being healthy is an important part of being a modern person and you can signal this to others by being a regular cyclist. As with car driving, there are also symbols of sexuality connected to cycling. In this case it is not a question of status and mastery of a big machine; but of being connected to nature and in control of your own body. Danish girls on bikes often feature in tourist brochures, being used to symbolise the cosy and romantic atmosphere of Copenhagen. Like cars, bicycles are symbols of freedom and independence. Finally, cycling is considered to be a politically correct practice in Denmark. It is a low impact mode of transport in many ways. It is almost non polluting, cyclists don’t cause many accidents for other people (but they are often injured themselves) and bicycles don’t make much noise. A Danish study (Magelund, 1997) suggests that car drivers sometimes choose to ride a bike for environmental reasons.


Again there is a significant contrast in the way cycling is viewed in Turkey. Rather than being seen as an environmentally friendly form of commuting, cycling for leisure is growing in popularity and is increasingly associated with modernity, freedom, fun and fitness. However the prospect of cycling as a means of transport within cities is simply ruled out on the grounds that it would be too dangerous.


Further comparisons can be drawn with respect to public transport. Relative to standards of public transport in Nordic countries, buses in Turkey are crowded, with long queues at uncovered bus stops, journeys are slow, and punctuated by many stops. The images evoked are those of being pushed around, of smelly crowds and of discomfort. By contrast, the newly constructed metro connotes contemporary urbanity, modernity, Westernisation, progress, time-saving, speed, convenience, and cleanliness. In other words different meanings are attached to different forms of public transport in the same country, just as the same form of transport can have very different meaning in another culture. It is not just the means of transport which is at stake, but also the way it is used, as illustrated by Turkish and Norwegian experiences of car sharing. In many Turkish villages, the most successful son has a car and drives his parents, brothers and their families around, or lends them the car. Sharing is part of good community practice and filial responsibility. An ethnographic study of car sharing in Oslo revealed quite different motivations (Wilhite, 1997). For some members of the car sharing scheme the decision to join the collective was an environmental one. They were concerned about increasing car traffic, or about local pollution, and were willing to put up with the loss of freedom associated with car ownership for this reason. For others, resolving practical needs was a more dominant motive. Being tired of parking and maintenance problems or not being able to afford a car and running costs, were the key concerns for this group.


Comparison with the institutionalisation of car-sharing in Turkey is instructive. Rather than conferring status, membership of the Norwegian car-pooling arrangement denied drivers the ability to claim the vehicle as their own. Certain respondents admitted to the satisfaction which car ownership had previously given them, one man going so far as to discuss the (unpleasant) sense of 'non-identification' with the shared car he was obliged to drive. Though the main reasons for car sharing were practical and idealistic, rather than symbolic, those families who had made the transition from car ownership to car sharing were excellent informants regarding the symbols and meanings they had left behind. Possibly the most important of their observations on this point related to being normal or rather, a desire not to signal abnormality.

Signalling change


The question which arises at this point is whether some of the strongly positive symbols connected to high impact practices (like driving large, fast cars) could be transferred to low impact practices (such as cycling). Alternatively, could the symbolic value of low impact practices be strengthened? It is difficult to imagine how the values of car driving – power, independence etc., might be transferred to other modes of transport. Having said that, there are circumstances in which bikes offer greater independence (for instance in traffic jams), and in which values once attributed to cars like flexibility and convenience might be transferred to cycles. Though such is the case in Denmark, the potential for cross cultural transfer is limited. It is true that when cars are slowed by traffic jams, bicycles have more to offer. The limiting factor is that although cars travel very slowly in big Turkish cities cycling is still not a viable alternative because it is still too dangerous.


To summarise, cycling can become a positive symbol of individual health, of environmental commitment, and of social responsibility. There are signs that this is the case in Denmark. However, the chances of transferring these cycling images to Turkey are slight. In the Turkish context, the promotion of cycling is likely to depend on "selling" this mode of transport as a form of leisure associated with a new Western way of life.

Washing and cleaning in Japan, Norway and Turkey


The following observations about washing and cleaning in Japan, Norway and Turkey highlight the malleability of meaning and practice and illustrate contrasting interpretations of what it is to be normal.


A cross cultural study of Japan and Norway (Wilhite et al, 1996) revealed strikingly different attitudes towards the relationship between hot water and cleanliness. Urban Japanese, who are extremely meticulous about their appearance, do not wash clothes in hot water. Norwegians, who are not as particular as the Japanese, use very hot water. In this curious reversal, in the country where outward appearance is more important in signalling cleanliness and hygiene, less resource intensive washing practices are the norm. When it comes to bathing, the picture is inverted. The Japanese use enormous amounts of time, water and energy in the bath, while the Norwegians take showers and so consume much less water and energy. The Japanese bath is of symbolic importance for the family: one after another family member bathes in the same bath water, usually commencing with the male head of household and ending with the female. Each goes through cycles of showering outside the tub and bathing, and water is constantly reheated. The bath is a kind of ritual which satisfies the individual’s need for self-indulgence and reaffirms family solidarity.


Urban Japanese are not particularly concerned about the neatness or cleanliness of their homes. Compared to Northern Europeans and North Americans, they rarely dust, wash, tidy or vacuum. Part of the explanation is that relative to Western countries, people are not home very much. Men and women both work long hours, and seldom entertain at home. Norwegians, who are very sensitive about the cosiness of their home interiors, entertain at home, clean, wash and dust more frequently. Thus the symbolism of Norwegian family life is grounded in the home (not the bath, as in Japan) both in terms of valuing the ideal of a cosy evening together and as a means of signalling well being to those who visit.

In Turkey, 'dirty' symbolises poverty and backwardness while 'clean' symbolises distance from poverty, modern civilisation, and respectability. Many poorer homes do not have indoor plumbing or bathrooms, and running hot water is a luxury even for some of the middle classes. Whilst young and affluent adults like to use plenty of water in bathing and cleaning, older generations and middle class families have a tendency 'not to waste'. For the latter, thrifty cleaning is part of what makes a good housewife. Wasting (water, food, or electricity) is regarded as a sin. With a higher standard of living, the virtue of thrift gives way to the enjoyment of abundance, and the use of water becomes associated with cleanliness and wealth: just think of advertising images of water flowing freely all over the body. The Turkish middle classes take showers (young adults talked about relaxing under the shower for 45 minutes) whereas the poor who do not have showers, pour water over their body from a large vessel. In this context, lavish use of water is associated with pleasure as well as cleanliness. The pleasures of washing were also associated with images of hammams: spaces for bathing, relaxing, entertainment, and socialising which families, historically, visited once a week. Hence, water connotes relaxation as well as cleanliness. Turks are very concerned about the cleanliness and neatness of their homes. A good housewife keeps her home clean and tidy for her family and guests and there is generally a close association between cleanliness and the aesthetics of the home: the more water used the cleaner the result.


These examples suggest that cleaning practices have deep cultural roots and that although what it means to be dirty, and the rituals and expectations surrounding cleanliness vary widely this issue is one which is firmly anchored in convention. Which is not to say that there is no change. As we have seen, there are generational differences of approach. In addition, standards are modified by the introduction of new technologies such as showers, washing machines, and dish washers.


Discussion and conclusions


A common theme which emerges from all these cases is the changing definition of what it is to be modern in Turkey and Japan, and of what it is to be normal in North America, Denmark and Norway. Throughout, the pattern is one in which the life which people aspire to or expect relies on an increasing number of appliances and environmentally problematic services relating to mobility, hygiene, and increasing standards of indoor comfort. The availability of these services, and the technologies which make them possible symbolise normality and/or modernity. We have shown how this is the case for air conditioners in Japan, for cooking practices in Turkey and Denmark and for car ownership in several countries. In some ways, not having these things, and thus running the risk of being seen as backward or abnormal, may be an even stronger force for consumption.


The comparative studies clearly position North America as a critical reference point. Today, in Turkey, having any car parked in front of the house conveys a powerful message about the status of the owner. In North America, a parked car no longer says "enough". Indicators of status are instead revealed by the make, model, and maybe even the number of cars on the forecourt. In time, the same may be true for Turkey too. As many have argued, the ethos of consumption is increasingly global (Featherstone 1991; Miller 1995). Global marketing, advertising, information technology, media, tourism, and the export of popular culture (MTV, computer games, television, videos, films, music, comic books) turn the world into a global marketplace. Global brands symbolise the modern - new, exciting, Western, high quality. In less affluent societies, abrupt exposure to global products and communications brings a naive trust in novel and foreign goods and practices (Ger 1992, 1997; Shultz 1994; Sklair 1991). Desirability of modern, progressive and Western ways and the good life manifests itself in views such as "show us what you yourself do in the West, then it will be a fashion here too." With such a strong ethos of consumption and modernisation, consumers in transitional societies like Turkey tend to perceive a single "Western"/American route to modernity, progress, and the good life. Guided by that vision of the single way ahead, many feel they have no option but to devote themselves to the task of catching up.


Consumers have their own yardsticks with which they measure levels and patterns of sufficient consumption. The moving mark of what is enough and pleasurable is negotiated in moral terms. Consumers legitimise their own high levels or aspirations of personal consumption with reference to a repertoire of justifications and excuses. Justifications include pleasure, connoisseurship, instrumentalism, or altruism while excuses tend to focus on external forces, including arguments about the way of the modern world, or the need to make up for past deprivation, or to reward success. Paradoxically, the prevalence of these defensive vocabularies highlights the extent to which the ethos of consumption is legitimised.


By contrast the value or ethos of environmentalism is weak. If low impact practices are to spread, multiple visions of modernity must become salient. Likewise, interpretations of sufficient consumption must multiply and diverge. Furthermore, if alternatives are to compete with dominant practices, they must be laden with attractive symbolism. Unless the image of low impact practices attains the attraction and allure of consumption, that is the symbolism of being joyful, passionate, exciting, fun, sociable, modern, and progressive, not more than a few deliberately alternative consumers will turn to it.


Yet it is important to qualify this picture of inevitable escalation. Counter values are at play as well. In Turkey, for example, the values of collectivism and community co-exist alongside those of independence and freedom. For sure, the latter are more commonly associated with the young, and so with the future, yet there is evidence of a revival of localism: of people, even young people, wanting to return to their roots; of consumer resistance and the pursuit of difference through the deliberate mixing of the traditional and the modern, the foreign and the vernacular, the new and the old (Ger and Belk 1996). Despite rising individualism, responsibility and care remain important cultural and social commitments.


Examples from Denmark also illustrate divergence from the North American model. In this case, being natural, showing social responsibility, and behaving in a politically correct, yet "alternative" manner appear to be more important than in other countries, both in practice and in symbolic terms. In short we see a plurality of ways of being normal in Denmark which shatters the simple normal/western/modern equation outlined above.


Rather than being a culture in which people are either traditional or modern (as in Turkey) the Danish situation seems to be one in which identity making is subject to ambivalence and negotiation. Individuals assemble their own lifestyles and ambitions from a range of equally viable alternative models. More than that, there is a positive valuing of certain low impact practices such that modernity now implies a more reflective lifestyle and the partial abandonment of western materialism - at least symbolically, if not in reality. Though modernity is a common aspiration, exactly what that means varies from culture to culture. Modernity, in Denmark, involves a partial rejection of precisely those values which currently constitute modernity in Turkey.


Yet we can, perhaps, detect another sort of trajectory. In the late fifties and the sixties, the material and cultural situation in Denmark was in some sense similar to the situation in Turkey today. Rapid material and technological growth gave rise to a cultural modernisation with materialism and consumerism as the catch words. The reaction from the post-war generation in the late sixties and the seventies generated, among many other things, the rise of a new environmental movement. Compared with other western European nations, the new environmentalism in Denmark arose as a part of the youth revolt of the late sixties, and was thus as a part of an alternative political culture (Jamison et al. 1990). At this point, adoption of low impact consumption practices represented a symbolic means of rejecting traditional materialism (Laessoe 1990, pp. 76-90). Reactions from the dominant political culture were relatively mild and open (Gundelach 1986) and in time young environmentalists were integrated into new environmental departments in universities and in government agencies and municipalities. Such institutionalisation and professionalisation fostered a consensus-oriented form of environmentalism within the wider society(Laessoe 1990, pp 110-119; Laessoe 1991). This historical background helps explain the proliferation of government initiated programmes for citizen participation in local environmental improvements, new non-radical, professional environmental organisations and a growth in environmental journalism in the mass media during the nineties.


Turkey, Japan, Norway, and the USA each have their own history of environmentalism and in each case environmental commitments and values are differently embedded in the wider culture (Kempton, 1995). We know relatively little about how these beliefs evolve and how global cross cultural currents sweep across otherwise nationally specific values and consumer preferences. Whether Turkish citizens will, in time, come to resemble the Danes (at least in terms of their commitment to green consumerism) remains an open question. Yet it is also a question we need to put in a wider context. Although the Danish environmental movement succeeded in raising awareness and stimulating active support for practical initiatives on the part of individual citizens it failed to challenge any of the structural or infrastructural issues at stake. In other words, it promotes a green reformation of consumption practices, but does not question increasing levels of material consumption (Laessoe 1995).


This point reminds us that the availability or not of environmental options, or the nature of the urban transport system, structures consumer choice in rather profound ways. The value of being in harmony with nature may well encourage consumption of organic foods and cycling, but have relatively little impact on changing patterns of car use or the development of public transportation systems. But if low impact choices and options are readily available, the question remains, how can they be made to seem positively attractive and unambiguously desirable?


If the good life is associated with hedonism, refinement, empowerment, independence, modernity and freedom, how can low impact practices be related to these values? In short, what symbols are attached to which practices, and how might this be changed? Might it be possible to attach positive symbols to low impact practices by trading on the ambivalences and already recognised drawbacks of high impact alternatives? Examples might include highlighting the stress of driving, or the much better taste of home-made food. In advocating such a strategy we introduce a kind of jiu jitsu principle as a means of cultural and symbolic transformation.


Like the jiu jitsu fighter who tries to turn the energy and force of his opponent to his own advantage, we suggest that it may be possible to apply the symbolic meanings of high impact practices to low impact practices. If low impact practices are associated with symbols derived from scientific analyses of environmental effects, and if they are strongly identified with being "green", it becomes difficult to relate them to the normal practices, relations, experiences and symbols of everyday life. But by relating low impact practices to existing, positive symbolic meanings, there may be opportunities to side-step the rather top-down approach of promoting environmentalism as a value in its own right.


From a strategic point of view we recognise that we run the risk of over emphasising symbolic meaning and inadvertently drawing attention away from other important factors which structure consumption practices. Instead of relying on a narrowly motivational approach, and instead of assuming that more information will inevitably result in more environmentally inspired action, we suggest that better knowledge and understanding of the symbolic meaning of consumption practices is useful and relevant as part of a multi-faceted strategy. That is as part of a strategy which reflects the totality of consumer dynamics and which consciously combines analysis of symbolic meanings, with an understanding of infra-structural, technological, economic and product regulatory factors. Strategy in this sense is about organisation of structural development and of cultural learning. Increasing interest and motivation has no effect if it is not followed up by resources, support and structural improvements which make it possible, sensible, and normal for consumers to change their routines, habits and daily consumption practices.


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