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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Is it time to take gender seriously in sustainable consumption?

SCI researcher Jo Mylan reflects on Professor Oriel Sullivan’s seminar at the SCI (6 May): ‘Domestic outsourcing and multitasking – how much do they really contribute to women’s dual burden?’

Women with greater access to economic resources are more likely to choose outsourcing (employing others to clean or care for children in the home) as a strategy to deal with their domestic workload. However, as demonstrated by Oriel Sullivan in the seminar she gave at the SCI last week, while financially better off women do less unpaid domestic labour, outsourcing does not account for the reduction.

So what’s going on here? Has innovation in domestic appliances finally delivered promises of reducing work? Does greater economic power translate into greater control over home design making homes more efficient? Or, as suggested in the seminar, does a busier life mean that we just can’t be bothered to clean behind the sofa anymore? Each of these explanations has potentially important implications for sustainable consumption.

Rising standards and expectations of what our material surroundings should deliver are often mobilised to explain the increasing resource intensity of our consumption. But if wealthy women are now eschewing these standards, or interpreting them in different ways, are we reaching a turning point? Alternatively, if furnishing our homes with the most advanced technologies, adopting modern designs such as open plan living and glamorous steamlined bathrooms, reduces the work required (rather than simply moving it around) – this has implications for energy use in the home.

Most strikingly, if its women’s income and women’s requirements for organising the home which have the greatest implications for changes in patterns of domestic work, and by implication energy use, maybe it’s time to take gender seriously in understanding sustainable consumption.