Our research areas

There has been growing interest in the role that consumption plays in sustainability. It's long been seen to be part of the problem – it is after all the exploding demand for goods and services that has driven the ever-increasing exploitation of finite resources.

In both the developed and the developing world, all the indicators point to further dramatic increase in consumption. So we need to reshape consumption dramatically if we want to achieve sustainability. The SCI addresses these challenges through a programme of social scientific research which develops a distinctive approach with the following key characteristics:

A focus on consumption. Consumers are not just purchasers of green products or the end of a production supply chain. They are enactors of ways of life, in which sustainability is usually only one consideration among many. Placing consumption in the foreground of research allows us to focus on understanding human needs, values, practices and habits so as to inform and strengthen action to achieve a transition to sustainable consumption. The analytical challenge is to understand these ongoing dynamics and find the most effective points of intervention.

Linking consumption to production. Placing consumption in the foreground must not mean neglecting questions about the production, supply and distribution of goods and services – each of which helps to shape how people go about their daily lives and are in turn shaped by consumption. The challenge is not simply to understand and seek to alter consumer behaviour, but to understand how consumers use products and services in the course of engaging in everyday practices. In particular it raises the question of how sustainable product and service innovations disrupt and are absorbed into everyday practices – and how understanding this process can in turn shape innovation.

Systems thinking. The radical and broad nature of the transformation and transitions required mean that systems innovation and disruption form one important part of our approach.  Addressing the sustainability challenge requires a focus on the relationships between everyday practices, technology, markets, industries, infrastructure, policy and regulation.

Urgency and dexterity in negotiating the speed and timescales required. We recognise both that change is needed in the short term – e.g. to give us any chance of holding to a 2 degree trajectory on climate change – and that strategic plans covering 50 years or more need to be devised and sustained to deliver rates of change several times higher than those achieved to date. 

Advancing the evidence base. There is a dearth of appropriate evidence to guide the development and deployment of policies aiming to facilitate transitions to more sustainable societies. This is challenging because sustainability outcomes are contested, ambiguous and uncertain. The SCI develops novel methodologies to generate new data and tests social scientific explanations of the key processes and mechanisms underpinning pathways to more sustainable societies. Examples of our methodological strengths are comparative analysis (across cultural contexts, countries and sectors) and the use of use of quantitative and qualitative data to explore habits, routines, and orientations towards consumption of different social groups.

     - Professor Andrew McMeekin, Research Director SCI

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Research themes

Understanding consumer choices, habits and routines and how they can become more sustainable

Accelerating sustainable innovation in products, services and systems

Exploring alternative framings of sustainable consumption and the politics underpinning them

Developing novel methodologies to advance the evidence base on sustainable consumption