The Environmental Threat of Small Households: Six Reasons to Think Again

The Environmental Threat of Small Households: Six Reasons to Think Again

Luke Yates

Household sizes are diminishing over most of the world, and the number of people living alone has increased massively – in the UK from 12% of households in 1961, to 29% in 2001 and 2011. Smaller households are associated with economic development and rising affluence, changing family structures, longer life expectancies and increased mobility. The causes and implications of the shift are far-reaching, with particular questions about how patterns of social interaction differ for those living alone (Jamieson and Simpson 2013). Commentators have also begun to name shrinking households among the major problems facing climate change mitigation efforts, as larger households consume fewer resources per person due to economies of scale. What underpins the dramatic differences in the resource intensity of households, and how much of an environmental problem is it?

Economists and environmental scientists note significant disparities in resource consumption per-person when comparing households of different size. One study of electricity consumption in the UK suggested that one-person-households used as much power as did the average family in cooking and laundry. Similar findings have been found for many practices, across a huge number of cities, regions and national contexts, and for a range of environmental indicators including the energy expended in the production of goods purchased (‘indirect’ energy), domestic waste, production of CO2, biodiversity and land use. The argument is that the additional resources needed for the global increase in numbers of solo-living households is among the central challenges facing climate change mitigation efforts. But while methods are robust and findings merit social scientific attention, their importance and policy implications should be contextualised in a broader understanding of consumption. A wider discussion is therefore in order.

First of all, the mechanisms underpinning household differences in domestic economies of scale are something of a black box. The assumption appears to be that in small households people do things alone, and in larger households, people do things together. There are numerous problems with this. The resource intensity of solo living, when compared to other living arrangements, varies by activity or appliance type. The potential sharing of fridge-freezers, lighting, cookers and cleaning equipment entails very different patterns of interaction, with some social practices lending themselves better to company, and sharing, than others. What’s more, solos aren’t always alone and shared households don’t reliably share – our analysis of eating practices shows that 27% of the meals of respondents who lived with others are eaten with nobody else present (Yates and Warde, forthcoming). A final point here is that the distribution of activities that are conducted in and outside of the household is always changing. Private laundering at home substituted for the use of local centralised launderette facilities, and there has been decline in mass market entertainment like cinema but rises in time spent on home entertainment. Until more is known about the patterning of household economies of scale, little can yet be said about their effects.

Second, the literature on direct energy use in domestic settings shows that household size is less important than other indicators for predicting the resource intensity of consumption. Household size is only the fourth most important factor explaining energy use after housing design, income and the age of occupants (Williams 2007). Resource intensive lifestyles are principally a matter of wealth and expenditure, housing, and the stage of life of householders. The biggest drivers of unsustainable consumption on the household level are the rich, and inadequate housing – not the allocation of people in households.

Third, and with similar implications, the organisation of urban space, residential layout and architecture, and even national context play a substantial role in shaping household consumption. Research comparing across countries shows large divergences even among Western European nations – the average UK household’s ‘metabolism’ in direct and indirect energy is about a third higher than that of the Netherlands (Moll et al 2005), and comparison with the global South is much starker. Where one-person households are in densely populated, small, energy efficient flats in city centres, within easy reach of work and public transport links, solos compare better with other household types. Factors like public transport, average distances between services, workplaces and the home, and the density, quality and type of housing developments have huge implications for shaping resource consumption – as of course does the energy mix that is used to power everyday life.

Definitions of households have varied historically, with the UK census an interesting barometer of shifts (1). A fourth area of concern thus circulates around the definition and utility of categories like ‘living alone’. While it makes sense statistically to compare people living alone with, for example, nuclear families, solos have surprisingly little in common. This means that targeting of solos as a problematic category for social scientists or policy-makers would be a curious move. One-person households tend to be dramatically polarised by income in the UK and in many other countries, clustering in the lowest and highest income deciles. The energy consumption per person of solos who are well-off, and their daily consumption practices, would be expected to have more in common with residents from other wealthy households than with low income solos. In addition, those living alone aged 25-44, the fastest growing category of one-person households, are twice as likely to be men as women; whereas those aged over 60 – the biggest category – are disproportionately women (Williams 2007). One-person households are, therefore, not a coherent social group, problematizing social scientific or policy attention which focuses on the category.

Fifth, the synchronic (‘snapshot in time’) and ‘per-person’ analysis which finds such striking differences between household size disregards issues of stage of life, fertility and housing markets. Using a metric of energy and resources ‘per person’ involves comparing solos or couples with larger households that usually include dependent children, with the strange implication that it is irresponsible to live alone suggesting, by extrapolation, that having and raising children – increasing the numbers of wasteful, profligate consumers – is even more irresponsible. A longer temporal perspective of household consumption also raises a set of significant moments of consumption that are poorly captured by expenditure surveys. Moving house and the formation and dissolution of households, and the marketing, clearing, upgrading, renovating, downsizing and re-furnishing that both entail, result in highly resource-intensive consumption. Landlords, estate agents, housing associations, local government, investors and government actors with stakes in the housing market are major institutional consumers that are ignored by synchronic household comparisons. At these moments it is housing markets and housing providers that are in a sense ‘the consumer’ alongside household residents.

Relatedly, and finally, comparisons of expenditure per person or household also support perspectives on the consumption of resources that place great emphasis on consumer agency, suggesting that global poverty or environmental crisis is the result of billions of sovereign consumers’ purchasing decisions. This ‘critical consumption’ approach, or the ‘responsibilisation of consumers’ disregards those organisations and institutions involved in organising markets and those benefiting from producing high volumes of materially intensive goods and services. It also suggests, dubiously, that processes of production and consumption can sensibly be separated as social processes (see Focus, this issue).

Analysis shows that the social arrangements and organisation of households is a critical issue in understanding variation in resource use. Such variation would be opaque to research focused on improving technological efficiency of particular appliances, to approaches which concentrate on the effects of environmental attitudes and values on sustainable consumption, and to many social practice focused approaches, each of which tend to neglect the ratios of people to the goods which service them. Greater attention to matters of scale and sharing inside and outside households is needed. Yet unpacking household economies of scale should remain attentive to the consumption infrastructure above and beyond the domestic sphere, alert to the relative weight of factors such as affluence, housing type and age profile, and should analyse the resource intensity of consumption not simply through snap shots in time but through historical and longer term perspectives.


References and Further Reading
(1) In 2001 a household was defined as ‘one person living alone, or a group of people (not necessarily related) living at the same address with common housekeeping – that is, sharing a living room or sitting room or at least one meal a day’. In 2011 the stipulation on shared space was emphasised at the expense of the necessity to share meals, presumably reflecting the rise of non-familial sharing: ‘One person living alone or a group of people (not necessarily related) living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room or sitting room or dining area.’
Jamieson, L. & Simpson, R., 2013. Living Alone: Globalization, Identity and Belonging, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Moll, H.C. et al., 2005. Pursuing More Sustainable Consumption by Analyzing Household Metabolism in European Countries and Cities. Environmental Studies, 9(1), pp.259–275.
Warde, A. (2016) The Practice of Eating, Cambridge: Polity
Williams, J., 2007. Innovative solutions for averting a potential resource crisis—the case of one-person households in England and Wales. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 9(3), pp.325–354.
Yates, L., Warde, A. (forthcoming) ‘Eating Together and Eating Alone: Meal Arrangements in British Households’. British Journal of Sociology

This article adapts its title from Nico Keilman’s (2003) article in Nature: ‘Biodiversity: the Threat of Small Households’


Luke Yates is Hallsworth Research Fellow in Sociology and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. His research interests are in everyday practices, particularly eating patterns and living arrangements, and political protest and movements. He has recent articles in the British Journal of Sociology, Social Movements Studies and Appetite.