Consumption work and the circular economy

This project explores the novel forms of consumption work demanded by models and practices of circular economy.

Current models of the circular economy fall short in their understanding of consumption and lack of attention paid to the domestic sphere (Mylan, Holmes and Paddock 2016).

Circular economy business models often assume more demanding forms of consumption work than in the current, linear economy of 'make, use, dispose'.

A fertile entry point to this gap is Wheeler and Glucksmann’s (2015) concept of ‘consumption work’ - the distinctive form of labour ‘necessary for the purchase, use, re-use, and disposal of consumption goods and services’ (ibid, p. 37).

A scoping project, funded by the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI), has laid the groundwork for innovative, agenda-setting research in this area, and the development of a research proposal to fully explore the circular economy through the lens of consumption work.

The project builds on the confluence of the research agendas of SCI researchers Dan Welch, Helen Holmes and former SCI PhD student Harald Weiser and the ongoing work of the SCI’s Circular Economy working group.

Following two development workshops, the project has now moved to the stage of developing a proposal to the Economic and Social Research Council for a major research project, in collaboration with Kersty Hobson (Human Geography, Cardiff University) and Katy Wheeler (Sociology, Essex University).

Consumption work must be understood in terms of wider socio-economic processes of production, distribution, exchange and consumption, which circular economy models seek to reconfigure. The consumption work perspective focuses on the various boundaries or continua in such socio-economic configurations:

  • the shift of work to and from consumers across these boundaries;
  • how to work at other stages of the economic process configures consumption work;
  • interactions between consumers and other workers across modes and phases of work, such as between the unpaid work of households in domestic recycling and wage labour in the waste management schemes that process that material (Wheeler and Glucksmann 2015).

Our starting point is that circular economy visions and the success of circular economy business models strongly depend on reconfigurations of consumption work (e.g. in the common invocation of ‘collaborative consumption’), and thus on consumption norms.

Consumption norms and consumption work have a complex relationship that deserves exploration.

Furthermore, much of this consumption work will occur in the domestic sphere with strong implications for the gendered division of labour.

Consumption work usefully opens up issues around how contemporary reconfigurations of the division of labour are related to broad, socially significant trends such as automation and digitisation.

Much innovation around digitisation and automation in the home and consumption beyond the home is premised around ‘convenience’ (such as ‘smart speakers’, Amazon Dash or Amazon Go), and shifts the boundary of consumption work upstream towards providers in contrast to the more exacting forms of consumption central to circular economy. What then is the significance of this tension for circular economy?

Consumption work serves as an analytical bridge between the study of work and consumption.

Consumption work has become spatially extended beyond the home, particularly through ICT.

One angle we would like to explore is how domestic consumption work infiltrates the workplace (and the gendering of such activity), or consumption work for the domestic sphere undertaken in the workplace, such as online grocery shopping or phoning utility-company call centres. Are there resonances here with the shifting boundary of consumption work assumed by the circular economy?


  • Scoping study and literature review.
  • Two development workshops were held: firstly at the Sustainable Consumption Institute (Feb 2019), with the project team and other SCI researchers as well as Kersty Hobson and Katy Wheeler; and secondly at the University of Essex (Welch, Hobson and Wheeler, Sept 2019).
  • A funding proposal to the ESRC is currently under development by Kersty Hobson, Helen Holmes, Dan Welch and Katy Wheeler.


  • Hobson, K., Holmes, H., Welch, D., Wheeler, K. and Wieser, H. (forthcoming) “Consumption Work in the Circular Economy: a research agenda” Journal of Cleaner Production
  • Welch, D., Hobson, K., Holmes, H., Wheeler, K. and Wieser, H. (2020) “Consumption Work in the Circular Economy: a research agenda” Presented at the Fourth International Conference of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI), online)
  • Welch, D., Hobson, K., Holmes, H., Wheeler, K. and Wieser, H. (2019) “Consumption Work in the Circular Economy: A Research Agenda” Discover Society, Issue 75
  • Wieser, H. (2019) Literature Review: Consumption Work in the Circular and Sharing Economy