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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Waterloo Place, Oxford Road, The University of Manchester

Conferences Digest: From Athens to Oslo (via Manchester)

29 September 2017

The SCI was represented this year at conferences from Athens to Oslo, fielding delegations to the British Sociological Association (BSA), the European Sociological Association (ESA), the European Consortium for Political Research, the Royal Geographical Society, the Global Resource Forum on Sustainable Production and Consumption (GRF), and the International Sustainability Transitions (IST) conferences, as well as to a number of smaller events.

Space can’t do justice to the range of work presented, so here we present a brief digest of the big events as well as some more recent contributions. You can also find links to more detailed reports on the BSA, ESA, GRF and IST conferences .

The British Sociological Association came to Manchester this April, with presentations from eight SCI researchers. In her Presidential address, Professor Lynn Jamieson spoke directly to the SCI’s research ambit, stressing the need for sociology to delve deeper into both personal lives and non-human life, in order to better understand the challenges that environmentally unsustainable ways of life present to society. Taking research into the family domain, Tally Katz-Gerro’s presentation (with Greenspan and Handy), explored the ‘Intergenerational Transmission of Environmental Behaviours in Cross-National Comparison’ across three generations in Israel and South Korea. Helen Holmes addressed 'Ordinary Provisioning: the challenges and possibilities of everyday third sector provisioning organisations', drawing on two UK case studies, of food and clothes. Holmes argued that such everyday endeavours are positioned in an increasingly complex landscape of economic formations. Continuing the focus on the everyday, Alan Warde, Jessica Paddock and Jennifer Whillans reported on the SCI’s major ‘Eating Out’ project, which explores change and continuity 20 years on from Warde and Martens’ (2000) ground-breaking 1995 study. A major survey and follow up interviews across three UK cities explores the informalisation and normalisation of eating out, addressing debates about social distinction, cultural omnivorousness and cosmopolitanism. Jennifer and Jessica also presented on the project at the BSA Food Study Group’s ‘Food and Society’ conference at the University of Westminster, London, reflecting on the logic of revisiting 'Eating Out' with both old and new concerns—including sustainable consumption—and the prospects afforded by using food as a lens through which to explore social change. Also at the BSA, Josephine Mylan’s research followed up Eating Out survey participants in a qualitative study of people attempting to reduce their meat consumption. Reduction of meat consumption is increasingly promoted as a key aspect of sustainable diet, yet we know little about consumers’ actual motivation: ideas around nutrition and bodily vitality, concerns about the conditions of production, personal relationships and routines all play a role. Alison Browne, Zhu Di and Jo Mylan also presented their research on ‘Meat Consumption in Everyday Urban China’, drawing on qualitative and quantitative data. While overall meat consumption is increasing—China consumes around one-third the world’s meat —reducing meat consumption has entered the Chinese culinary repertoire. Finally, Frank Geels’s paper addressed a different scale, with a comparative analysis of the very different German and UK paths  to transition to low carbon electricity generation from 1990-2015.

June saw SCI engagement with two social scientific sustainability conferences, the International Sustainability Transitions (IST) conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Consumption & Production (GRF) in Brighton, UK.

This was the eighth IST conference, and Frank Geels' introduction highlighted the growth of the Sustainability Transitions Research Network from less than 400 members six years ago to nearly 1400 today, producing 200 publications in the field annually. Mike Hodson and Andy McMeekin presented the results of their investigation of leadership at the urban level, drawing on a case study of a 20-year plan for transport infrastructure and the built environment in Manchester. Cameron Roberts and Frank Geels' paper flipped the normal framing of research on policy in transitions on its head, looking at how transitions influence policymakers rather than vice-versa. Using two historical case studies on British agriculture and transport, they showed that policymakers are only likely to deliberately accelerate a transition if they are presented with appealing new technological opportunities or major problems in the incumbent system. Jo Mylan presented her work on the role of firms in leading transitions to sustainability, using a longitudinal case study of Proctor & Gamble's low-temperature laundry initiative. Frank Geels' reviewed the role of agency in three literatures underpinning the Multi-Level Perspective, a core analytical approach for the study of socio-technical transitions: the social construction of technology, evolutionary economics, and neo-institutional theory. The conference ended with the SCI’s  Research Director Andy McMeekin providing a preview of the 2018 IST conference, which will be hosted by the SCI in Manchester in June next year.

Also in Sweden in June, Joe Blakey presented doctoral research at the Nordic Geographers’ Meeting in Stockholm, asking how’ smart cities’, rather than simply de-politicising, might be used to preserve the political sphere. The presentation drew on research with the Triangulum project, where academics and industry partners have sought to demonstrate ‘smart’ solutions in the ‘innovation district’ of ‘Corridor Manchester’, where the SCI is located.

The GRF was launched at the Rio +20 conference to bring together global research on sustainable consumption and production and Sussex University hosted the GRF’ s third international conference, themed around the Circular Economy. The SCI organised a panel at the conference on ‘Boundaries and Limits of the Circular Economy’. Moderated by Dan Welch, the SCI’s Frank Boons, together with invited panellists Tim Foxon (SPRU, Sussex) and Kersty Hobson (Geography, Cardiff), critically addressed the economic, political, historical and conceptual aspects of the concept, provoking a lively debate amongst the large audience. SCI researchers also contributed with presentations. SCI Doctoral researcher Harald Wieser contributed to a paper entitled "Circular Economy is the Solution, but what is the Problem?" drawing on his research on the mobile phone industry to highlight the various ways the Circular Economy frame is mobilised in practice. Wouter Spekkink introduced an analytical framework that can be used to study how grassroots sustainability initiatives contribute to the translation of unsustainable practices into sustainable ones, drawing on research into the Repair Cafés movement. Dan Welch contributed to a session organised by the Horizon 2020 ENERGISE project, discussing links between the project's ambition to move beyond existing sustainable consumption research by developing an innovative theoretical framework addressing cultural aspects of energy consumption with his own recent work.

August saw SCI delegates at both the conferences of the Royal Geographical Society/ Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG) in Cardiff and of the European Sociology Association (ESA) in Athens. Alison Browne teamed up with doctoral researcher Harriet Larrington-Spencer and Geography Department colleague Saskia Petrova to convene and chair three conference sessions on “The Politics of the Everyday in Urban Transformations in China”. In the second of these, focusing on “Energy, Water and Food” Harriet presented a paper drawing on her five months  living and studying in Beijing, reflecting upon intimate practices that consume water and energy to question Western projections of ‘Otherness’ onto China.  In the third session—Making Urban China—Alison chaired a discussion addressing cross cutting themes of the presentations in all three sessions.

Five SCI researchers presented at the European Sociological Association conference in Athens at the end of August. Tally Katz-Garo showcased her work on intergeneration transmission of environmental behaviours, Jo Mylan presented her work on consumers reducing their meant consumption and Dan Welch made a theoretical contribution to the role of emotion in consumption and consumer culture. Luke Yates discussed how social movements shape, and are shaped by, competing visions of the future. Doctoral researcher Ulrike Ehgartner presented an analysis of grocery trade media articles to show how framings of ‘the sustainable consumer’ in the discourse around sustainable food have changed over time, from retailers’ preoccupation with educating consumers about sustainability, to their current concerns with balancing consumers’ demands for sustainability with price and quality.

Most recently, this September, Sherilyn MacGregor was Chair of the Environmental Politics and Policy stream at the European Consortium for Political Research conference in Oslo, where she chaired a panel 'Engendering Climate Change Politics/Policy: European Feminist Perspectives' in which SCI doctoral researcher Joanna Wilson presented a paper based on her research on the gendered discourses shaping UK climate change policy. The session brought together academics from around Europe, as well as a few from North America and Africa, to discuss strategies for filling the significant gender gap in the literature on climate change politics in the affluent global north.

These snapshots of work presented to international audiences this year give a flavour of the range of SCI research—addressing issues from everyday consumption, to infrastructure and innovation, to social theory and politics.  

Reporting by Dan Welch, Jessica Paddock, Cameron Roberts and Wouter Spekkink

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