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Q&A: Dale Southerton, Sustainable Consumption Institute

How would you characterise the work of the SCI?

The SCI focuses on what can be described as fundamental social science; exploring ‘big’ theoretical ideas about what might be involved to transition an entire society in a more sustainable direction. We employ these theories to tackle the critical issues presented by the challenge of environmental sustainability – principally in terms of biodiversity, the reduction of resource-intensive patterns of daily life, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Why is it crucial that this work is being done now?

The major problem facing our society today is that our day-to-day lives are becoming increasingly resource-intensive. There are a number of explanations and popular characterisations for why that might be, including that we have come more materialistic. Other popular accounts suggest that tackling sustainability can be achieved through technological innovation – essentially our ways of life remain the same but are delivered through more resource-efficient technologies. At the SCI we try to look beyond populist accounts of consumption and think more about how our everyday lives lead us to consume in particularly resource-intensive ways; and what are the potential pathways to transition towards a society in which everyday lives demand less resource-intensive forms of consumption.

What might one of these pathways entail? How does the SCI encourage consumers to consume less?

One of the SCI’s critical contentions is that consumption is less about individual choice than conventional accounts would have us believe. Consumption is more than shopping – we consume in order to engage in many meaningful practices (such as eating together) and much of our actual consumption is habitual and routine (rather than deliberative choices). Placed in this context, it is somewhat remarkable to imagine that sustainability is going to be solved by millions of individual consumers simultaneously choosing to turn off their lights more often, turn their heating down a notch, or buy organic apples. The problem is too big, too urgent and too fundamental for us to rely on solutions in the form of individuals making different product (or consumer) choices.

For the SCI the more important question is how did we come to get locked in to certain patterns of living that are seen as normal. For example, what are the processes that have led to: normal patterns of daily life that demand a vast frozen food infrastructure; households washing their clothes more frequently; throwing away food before preparing it; or to shower daily? These resource-intensive ways of life have not always been normal and are relatively recent trends. The SCI seeks to understand why such ways of life become normal and how we can avert ‘future’ more resource-intensive ‘normals’ without defaulting to arguments that consumption is principally a matter of individuals making product or lifestyle choices.

The SCI provides research, knowledge and different ways of thinking about consumption, the innovations that underpin consumption, and the challenges posed by environmental sustainability.

Tell us about some of the SCI’s recent research.

We have a diverse research programme that hinges around four key areas of exploration: everyday practices; innovation systems; visions and politics for sustainable societies; and developing the evidence base. We also use a broad range of methodologies. All our research focuses on four substantive domains of research-intensive consumption: domestic energy-use, mobility, water, and food.

We currently have projects that explore the diffusion of energy technologies across European societies, innovation pathways for mobility systems, energy disruptions in the UK and Japan, the implications of trends in solo living for UK housing and the meaning homes, to name a few. I will give a couple of examples from our research on food (my own area of research) to give a flavor (pun intended!) of the kind of research that we do. Both of these examples draw from our development of an innovative online diary-based survey methodology (with c. 3500 respondents) to reveal habitual and routine patterns of consumption around the practice of eating. 

My first example relates to snacking. Dominant accounts of snacking suggest it is a highly individualised activity, that people ‘graze’ all day long, at random times and primarily when they are on their own. As snacking is associated with calorific foods and overconsumption, it is often suggested consumer behavior needs to change so that people choose to have three meals a day, thus reducing the need to snack. Our data, however, shows that snacking is highly order, routinised and is sociable: most snacking occurs at 11am and 3pm and over half of this snacking is done in the company of others. The problem is not one of individualised eating patterns and the proposed solutions are therefore misplaced.

My second example refers to what happens to food after people finish their meals. According to WRAP, one-third of avoidable food waste comes in the form of left-overs, but very little is known about the conditions that generate leftovers. Our data shows that people who cook from scratch and eat together waste five times as much as people who eat on their own in a restaurant. Such a finding is in stark contrast to much of the literature on sustainable food  - which encourages cooking from scratch and eating together as the best way to achieve sustainable food consumption. In both cases, the key point is simple – by examining consumption through a focus on what people do and how they do it, we are able to show that many basic assumptions about patterns of consumption are misplaced. This leads to poor and mis-placed public policy and a general lack of understanding about the processes that shape everyday patterns of consumption.

What have been some of the most significant technological innovations in sustainable consumption?

I couldn’t give you a single innovation, partly because a technological innovation rarely happens on its own. Renewable technologies are clearly important, but their significance depends on a whole range of related and corresponding social, economic, political and cultural changes. The kind of work we do at the SCI is trying to think about and explore the bigger systemic changes that need to happen in precisely these terms. This is because our view is that to tackle the challenge of sustainable consumption requires looking across systems or domains, for instance food or laundry, and think about how the social, cultural, economic and political elements of social change can be configured into pathways towards more sustainable way of life.

For example, we can talk about mobility in Manchester and what’s needed to make the city a more sustainable urban environment. At the moment there’s lots of contestation about what that would be. Some say more bikes, others say more battery-powered vehicles, and others might want to go further and impose financial penalties (eg a congestion charge). There’s a whole range of stories about what you can do to reduce the resource-intensity of travel within Manchester. The problem is that we end up with a scattergun approach: some bicycle lanes and a partial cycling infrastructure or some car parks with have three or four spaces devoted to charging electric cars.

We need to have a much more measured sense of the whole mobility system in Manchester and then develop a plan for how to align all the different elements, creating a coherent progamme. That’s obviously a really difficult thing to do; it’s a very contentious thing to do. You can’t have a Stalinist five-year plan, it has to be flexible enough to change and develop as it’s implemented (through what political scientists would describe as ‘reflexive governance’).

Of course you need knowledge and research to understand and inform on the range of options and what the best ways forward might be, and that’s where the SCI can make a major contribution. We try to bring together knowledge and research from across the world to think about how we can have a progressive transition in particular systems.