Our history

Our research focus has evolved from consumer behaviour to a range of topics, from production to politics and governance to social justice.

1. Tackling climate change

We were established in 2008, with the principal aim of enhancing research and insight into one of the world’s most pressing challenges: climate change.

Despite 20 years of rhetoric regarding the urgent need to address modern consumption patterns, we were among the first major research institutes to place consumption and its unsustainability at the heart of research enquiry.

We sought to utilise the unique strengths of The University of Manchester to bring interdisciplinary insight and clarity to the topic.

2. Defining ‘sustainable consumption’

Since launching, we have made a significant contribution to the emergent field of sustainable consumption - shaping its meaning and challenging orthodox thinking.

In our early years, this included significant contribution to the development of:

  • climate policy
  • environmental economics
  • life-cycle analysis
  • psychology

3. Developing fresh sustainability approaches

However, our recent research has focused on interrogating the fundamental processes of societal change in order to identify how long-term and large-scale transitions to sustainable consumption can be achieved.

This shift responded to the need to ask new questions and challenge conventional understanding of societal organisation and change, alongside the growing realisation that increasingly environmentally-aware citizens and sustainability-motivated businesses could not, alone, overcome the threats posed by climate change.

We have played a critical role in developing fresh approaches in sustainability by gaining greater insight into how:

  • everyday practices are reproduced
  • our patterns of consumption are formed
  • systems are established, organised, innovated, disrupted and undermined

Our research contends that these processes, which shape what people do and how innovation occurs, represent the critical sites through which long-term, large-scale sustainability needs to be tackled.

4. Materialising Sustainabilities, Re-imagining Futures: a framework for SCI’s research

At the end of 2019, The Sustainable Consumption Institute launched a new research agenda for our next phase as an institute.

The theme is 'Materialising Sustainabilities, Re-imagining Futures', which captures our aim to deepen and extend our thinking about the urgent socio-technical and political challenges of our time. The way we understand these challenges, and plan our future research around responding to them, is captured in the figure below.

The SCI’s research agenda for the coming years recognises that three key global trends have become ever more evident in shaping both practices of consumption and the nature of the challenge in thinking about sustainability’s relationship to consumption.

The SCI responds to these three trends by organising its research around a framework focused on ‘re-imagining futures’ and ‘materialising sustainabilities’. If we are to work out how to live within planetary boundaries, while addressing deep inequalities, and in a context of rapid socio-technical change driven by digitalisation, then we need:

  • a heightened focus on the one hand on how we re-imagine the future, since it is increasingly clear that small, incremental changes will be inadequate to the challenges facing us;
  • more closely focused attention to how we make such radical changes material in more or less all social and economic practices.

Key trends:

  • Planetary boundaries
  • Unequal access
  • Digitalisation

Research focus:

  • Justice and equality
  • Cities and sustainability
  • Responsive research
  • Social movements and alternative economies
  • Circular economies

We can summarize how these trends, and the framework we develop, in one question that is at the heart of all our work:

Within a dynamic social context shaped by ecological crises, socio-economic inequalities and digital revolutions, how do actors (human and non-human) interact to re-imagine and materialise sustainable and just futures?