FOCUS: New Directions in Sustainable Consumption

FOCUS: New Directions in Sustainable Consumption

This special issue focuses on sustainable consumption. We consume resources as part of the practices that make up everyday life—showering, doing the laundry, cooking or driving. But this consumption is only possible through the systems of production, distribution and exchange which enable our use of goods and services. Thus in talking about sustainable consumption we are talking about the social organisation of consumption that underpins the environmental impacts of our everyday lives.  Contributions to this issue, edited by Dale Southerton and Dan Welch, represent some of the research of the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI), as well as contributions from other colleagues in academic, business and policy communities. This special issue has as its focus questions about how societies can transition to sustainable systems of consumption and production.


Dale Southerton and Daniel Welch

In the words of climate scientist Wallace Broecker, who published his first article about the impact of fossil fuel pollution on the atmosphere in 1957: “The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks.” The ever bigger sticks with which we have been poking the angry beast, ever harder, are the environmental impacts of daily lives lived by the global consumer class. Everyday life in the wealthy consumer societies of the global North has become relentlessly more environmentally costly, even as we have become increasingly aware of those costs. And ever more millions have come to join the global consumer class, particularly in the Asia–Pacific region (see Alison Browne and colleagues’ contribution on China, and Hal Wilhite’s piece on India for further discussion). The interlinked sustainability crises – climate change, loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, and the declining fecundity of soils and seas ­- pose profound challenges which our political and governance systems appear ill equipped to deal with.

Since the 1990s the social sciences have engaged with these issues under the rubric of ‘sustainable consumption and production’, or simply ‘sustainable consumption’. The 1992 ‘Rio Earth Summit’ (UN Conference on Environment and Development) was the watershed for international sustainability policy. The conference called for “a better understanding of the role of consumption and how to bring about more sustainable consumption patterns” (UNCSD, 1992: 4.23). The previous focus of global environmental policy on population growth in the ‘developing world’ was replaced by “sustainable production and consumption” for the global North, and, less well remembered, “sustainable livelihoods” for the global South (UNCSD, 1992).

Over the course of the 1990s the conventional attribution of responsibility for environmental impacts to producers was increasingly supplemented by a focus on the role of consumers. Sustainable consumption became an organizing theme for environmental policy making, especially in Europe, and a legitimate area for social scientific research. The 1994 Oslo Symposium defined sustainable consumption as “the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimising the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations”. While this growing emphasis on consumption can be seen in the context of the growth of post-Fordist consumer society and an increasing cultural emphasis on consumption activities (Welch, 2015), a growing proportion of environmental impacts could be directly or indirectly related to the consumption of private households (Michaelis, 2003).

Following the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the environmental un-sustainability of the economic system, and what we would call the socio-technical systems of production and consumption that underpin everyday life (energy, transport, food production and distribution, etcetera), came ever more strongly to be framed as sustainable consumption. And there was a certain divergence between social science concerned with sustainable consumption, and sustainable consumption and production more broadly. While focus on the consumption of the global North as the central cause of the ecological crisis was welcomed by many, this shift in emphasis has been far from unproblematic. Sustainable consumption defined as minimizing the environmental impacts of goods and services militated towards a view of consumption as a purely economic activity that can be modified through top-down approaches – primarily through information provision, such as eco-labelling and price and incentives – in which consumers are seen as the principal agents.

Social scientists and policy makers challenged this simplistic view from early on – the OECD, for example, broadened the definition of consumption beyond market choices to use, disposal, and non-commodified goods and services. And in 2002 the UN Environment Programme identified developing a more appropriate framework for thinking about production and consumption as a strategic area of research (Fuchs and Lorek, 2005). However, mainstream policy initiatives, such as the 2008 EU Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan, often continue to be framed in terms of improving the environmental impacts of products and increasing the demand for more efficient goods. Demand – ‘consumer choice’ sending market signals for sustainable goods and services upstream to producers – comes to be seen as the motor of change. Critics of this framing of sustainability, on the other hand, accuse its advocates of collusion with a consumerist value system, or the capitalist economic order, culpable for the ecological crisis in the first place (Jackson, 2009). Debate has therefore tended to become polarised, between on the one hand critical social scientists and social movements calling for radical change to the economy and society, and, on the other, mainstream public and business policy approaches advocating incremental reforms to the status quo.

The reformist position is dominated by a focus on technological innovation on the production side and understandings drawn from economics and social psychology on the consumption side. These assumptions and understandings frame the problems of sustainability transitions in particular ways – suggesting plausible and possible initiatives and targets for intervention, whilst excluding other options (Spurling et al., 2013).

While technological innovation is clearly part of the equation in transitions towards sustainability, the reformist position tends to frame it in terms of a ‘technological fix’. What this framing fundamentally misunderstands is that technological and social changes mutually condition one another: social practices and technologies co-evolve (McMeekin & Southerton, 2012). Current interventions, successful in their own terms, include for example increasing the energy efficiency of white goods. But improved refrigeration technology may simply lead to the use of increased refrigerated space at the same cost, as the contemporary trend in the UK for giant American-style fridges attests. Efficiencies also spur innovations in products and services, and the creation of whole new markets, that themselves increase demand and thus drive increased environmental impact (Sorrell, 2009) – just think of information and communication technology (Røpke and Christensen, 2013).  Moreover, increased efficiency may inadvertently naturalize less sustainable conventions, norms, expectations and thus needs: such as the need for Internet access to participate fully in modern life. Our expectations of comfort, convenience, connectivity and mobility seem to be continually ratcheting up (see Shove, 2003; Urry, 2004).

The example of mobility, furthermore, reflects a general tendency in the mainstream position of catering to the demands of an imagined future which simply extrapolates from the present, without considering the possibility of profounder changes in social and infrastructural organisation (Spurling et al., 2013). The ambitious goals of decarbonising road transport through widespread adoption of electric vehicles, for example, simply caters to contemporary expectations of private transport use rather than thinking through how we might change societal patterns of mobility (related, for example, to commuting or out of town supermarket shopping). Jessica Paddock and Alan Warde’s contribution to this issue  provides a provocative illustration of considering profound change with respect to food consumption.

Mainstream approaches have, increasingly, recognised that technological innovation alone will not achieve the scale and pace of transitions towards sustainability required by the urgency of the environmental crisis (Anderson and Bows, 2011), and it is in this context that ‘behaviour change’ has gained prominence in public and policy debate. Critical accounts of sustainable consumption commonly note how ‘behaviour change’  has generally been framed in terms of individualised behavioural choices, or worse still has come to place responsibility for the systemic issues of sustainability on the choices of consumers in the market place. Politically and ethically, focusing on individuals’ behaviour offers a constrained space of possibilities, defined as aggregate effects of individualised choices. And this tendency to place responsibility on ‘the consumer’ separates out individual consumption choices and acts of purchasing from the social and political context of consumption (Rumpala, 2011).

Framing the complex issues of sustainability in terms of individuals’ behaviour has two key effects. Firstly, it systematically underestimates the constraints of conventions and norms, and institutions and infrastructures on individuals’ behaviour, and fundamentally overestimates the degree to which much routine behaviour is the result of voluntary deliberation (Southerton et al, 2004). In other words it misunderstands behaviour, as Dale Southerton and Jo Mylan’s contribution to this issue illustrates.

Secondly, it obscures systemic issues. Take, for example, the problem of household food waste. Our research into household food waste (Evans and Welch, 2015) – aspects of which are discussed in Jennifer Whillan’s article in this issue – suggests it is best understood as a product of household dynamics and routines, cultural expectations around cooking and eating, and the social organisation of food consumption. And the latter involves factors as diverse as retailer practices, changes in the labour market, technological development, global food prices, and the historical shift from a producer to a consumer society. Crucially, from a more systemic perspective, where the problem occurs is often not where the causes and drivers lie – and thus where the solution is best sought (Evans, 2014). In the case of household food waste, for example, retailers’ promotional practices, or the quantities in which the food industry makes ingredients available to consumers, may indirectly drive waste in the home. The causes of household food waste are, therefore, complex, and the task of intervention involves more than simply persuading individuals to behave differently. Responsibility for food waste reduction is distributed throughout the food production-consumption system. Sustainability policy and interventions, therefore, must move beyond the individualisation of responsibility inherent in most ‘behaviour change’ approaches and instead recognise distributed responsibility.

The reduction of sustainability debates to a firewalled understanding of production and consumption, where the connection amounts to little more than the challenge to encourage individual consumers to adopt eco-innovations, has deeper implications for how societal change is understood. It focuses disproportionate attention on simple cause-and-effect models of change that fail to recognise the multiple processes, and tensions, that lead to change or apparent inertia. In doing so, change or its opposite comes to be located in singular ‘mechanisms’ responsible for success (change) or failure (inertia) – markets, policy interventions, firms – thus directing attention away from debates about more fundamental, or ambitious, visions of how societies could otherwise be organised.

John Urry’s (2010) call for social scientists to articulate accounts of societal change without reduction to simple cause-and-effect models of behaviour (whether that is individual, household or business behaviours) is apt:

“[Sustainability] is not a question of changing what individuals do or do not do but changing whole systems of economic, technological and social practice. Systems are crucial here and not individual behaviour” (ibid.:1.12).

Causes are complex, and moreover (whether cultural conventions or economic incentives) causes are themselves always part of wider systems. Sustainability transitions entail co-evolutionary changes in technologies, markets, institutional frameworks, cultural meanings and social practices.

Taking this challenge seriously, the research of the Sustainable Consumption Institute  calls for the reconfiguration of socio-technical systems and daily life practices in domains such as mobility, housing, food, and energy provision and use (Geels et al, 2015). For an example of what such a reconfiguration might look, see Mike Hodson and Andrew McMeekin’s piece on sustainable transport in this issue.

From the perspective of reconfiguration, we find the common dichotomy between ‘reformist’ and ‘radical’ positions in the landscape of sustainable consumption and production research unhelpful. Transitions to sustainability will necessarily involve both incremental and radical changes. Given the scale of infrastructural, socio-economic and cultural changes necessary, transitions to sustainable production-consumption systems will always be long term processes, even if they are initiated by, or have within in them, abrupt change. This is not to deny that transitions to sustainability require radical institutional change, nor that, in the context of the urgency of climate change, these changes need to be rapid. Rather, it is to acknowledge, as Roberto Unger has put it, that:

“The history of modern social ideas has misled us into associating piecemeal change with disbelief in institutional reconstruction, and a commitment to such reconstruction with faith in sudden and systematic change. The most important expression of this prejudice is the supposedly all-important contrast between two styles of politics. One style is revolutionary…the other reformist. ” (2005: 31-32)

This is to be open to the “transformative ambition” of gradual, radical transformation. And it is worth reflecting here that for Western Europe the radical transformation of the political economy from post-war capitalism to the current neoliberal order has largely followed such a pattern (Streeck and Thelen, 2005).

Recognising that societies are dynamic, the reconfiguration approach seeks to identify and explain the multiple and inter-related processes of change (and inertia) that shape current ways of life. These processes are comprised of elements, including: cultural understandings and conventions (of, say, a good meal or of comfort); infrastructural and technological arrangements (to stick with examples in this special issue) such as food production, retail, distribution and the organisation of domestic kitchens, or energy infrastructures and the heating of homes; and differences across social groups with respect to their access to economic, cultural and social resources. And each of these elements are subject to, in many different ways, the policies of governmental organizations, businesses (including the innovations they promote and develop, as well as their vested interests), and non-governmental organisations which seek to frame or influence the activities of both. These are fluid elements and actors that interconnect to configure the current organisation of systems of consumption and production in any domain of activity. And it is these elements and actors that need reconfiguring if the challenges of climate change and sustainability are to be met.

The reconfiguration approach, which many of the contributions to this issue of Discover Society are consistent with, emphasises five critical observations. These are that sustainability transitions require:

  • A focus on the inter-connections between domains of practice and their constituent actors. For example, this approach places centre ground the interactions between patterns of mobility and eating (not least because, for example, a large proportion of the greenhouse gasses embedded in food consumption comes from private car use to collect food).
  • Recognition that societies are dynamic, that change in any domain of activity is inevitable, and that those trajectories of change are identifiable. This does not mean that reconfiguration equates with knowing the future, but that trajectories of change can be identified and harnessed.
  • Simultaneously accounting for economic, cultural, technological and political changes, while recognising that the speed and scale of change in any one area varies. Technological change is often incremental but can also be radical; cultural changes can appear slow but may be profound.
  • Acceptance that societal change cannot be engineered. Policymakers cannot steer transitions at will, because these are open, uncertain and contested processes, involving multiple social groups and co-evolution between various systems, many of which are outside the immediate control of policymakers. However, governance should provide direction and coordination of the interactions across the elements and actors that constitute systems of production and consumption.
  • The presentation of, and public debate about, a range of ‘visions’ for the societal organisation of systems of consumption and production – for example, visions of the way we organise eating, heating and cooling, or mobility. Doing so creates the opportunity to move beyond the stalemate of reform or revolution to instead consider the options for how we live today and how we might live sustainably in the future.

This special issue of Discover Society highlights different aspects of this approach, as well as the landscape of sustainable consumption policy and practice more broadly.

Together, these contributions highlight some of the cutting edge social scientific approaches to tackling the problem of climate change with respect to sustainable consumption. Social science, and particularly sociological, approaches with the capacity for understanding complex processes of societal change, have an important role to play in tackling the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change. The contributions to this issue represent insights that are often missing from the usual debate – such as on household composition, media and everyday life, time, gender, cultural and economic globalisation, and socio-technical innovation. This special issue joins a collective call to reframe the sustainability debate to take better account of the ways in which societies are organised today, and to offer fresh insights into how ways of life can be reconfigured in sustainable directions.


Further Reading
Anderson, K. and Bows, A. (2011) “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369: 20-44.
Fuchs, D. and  Lorek, S. (2005) “Sustainable consumption governance: a history of promises and failures” Journal of Consumer Policy 28 (3), 261–288.
Geels, F., McMeekin, A., Mylan, J. & Southerton, D. (2015) “A critical appraisal of Sustainable Consumption and Production research: The reformist, revolutionary and reconfiguration agendas” Global Environmental Change 34: 1-12.
Jackson, T. (2009) Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Routledge: London.
McMeekin, A. & Southerton, D. (2012) “Sustainability transitions and final consumption: practices and socio-technical systems” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 24(4): 345-361.
Michaelis, L. (2003) “Sustainable consumption and greenhouse gas mitigation” Climate Policy 3 (Suppl. 1), S135–S146.
Røpke, I. and T.H. Christensen (2013) “Transitions in the wrong direction?”, in E. Shove and N. Spurling (Eds.) Sustainable Practices: Social Theory and Climate Change. London: Routledge.
Rumpala, Y. (2011) “’Sustainable consumption’ as a new phase in a governmentalization of consumption” Theory and Society, 40, 669–699.
Shove, E. (2003) Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality. Oxford: Berg,.
Sorrell, S. (2009) “Jevons’ Paradox revisited: the evidence for backfire from improved energy efficiency” Energy Policy 37, 1456–1469.
Southerton, D., Chappells, H. & Van Vliet, B. (Eds.) (2004) Sustainable Consumption: The Implications of Changing Infrastructures of Provision. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
Streeck, W. and Thelen, K. (Eds.) (2005) Beyond Continuity: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies. Oxford: Oxford University Press
UNCSD (United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development) (1992) Agenda 21
Unger, R. (2005) What Should the Left Propose? London, Verso.
Welch, D. (2015) “Sustainable Production and Consumption”. In: James D. Wright (editor-in-chief), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol. 23. Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 839–844.


Dale Southerton is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute, The University of Manchester. Previously he was Director of the ESRC funded Sustainable Practices Research Group (2010-2014). His research examines processes of consumption and societal change, with particular interest in sustainability, time, and everyday practices. He is the Editor in Chief of the three volume Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture (Sage, 2011), and has published widely across the social science disciplines on matters of consumption. Daniel Welch is a Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute. His research interests, beyond sustainable consumption and social change, include theories of practice, sustainability communications and cultural economy. Recent publications include: Welch, D. and Warde, A. (2015) “Theories of practice and sustainable consumption”, in L. Reisch and J. Thøgersen (eds) Handbook of research on sustainable consumption, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing; and Welch, D. (2016) “Social Practice Theory”, in F. Spotswood (ed.) Behaviour Change: Past, present and future. University of Bristol: The Policy Press.


Acknowledgment We could like to thank David Evans for numerous fruitful discussions leading into the development of this piece, as well as his leadership of the ESRC/SCI ‘Households, Retailers and Food Waste Transitions’ project through which some of the key ideas presented here were developed.