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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Consumption work and the circular economy

This project will explore forms of consumption work that are actually occurring around Circular Economy

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

Circular Economy (CE) business models

The European Commission has recently reframed its commitments to sustainable consumption and production largely in terms of “the Circular Economy” (EC 2015). Circular Economy (CE) business models often assume more demanding forms of consumption work than in the current, linear economy of “make, use, dispose”.  This scoping project, funded by the SCI, will lay the groundwork for innovative, agenda setting research in this area, and the development of a research proposal to fully explore CE through the lens of consumption work. It builds on the confluence of the research agendas of Dan Welch, Helen Holmes  and Harald Weiser and the ongoing work of the SCI’s Circular Economy working group.

Consumption work must be understood in terms of wider socio-economic processes of production, distribution, exchange and consumption, which CE 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 work at other stages of the economic process configures consumption work; and 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 CE visions and the success of CE 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 clearly have a complex relation 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 relate 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 CE. What then is the significance of this tension for CE? 

Consumption work serves as an analytical bridge between the study of work and of consumption. Consumption work has become spatially extended beyond the home, particularly through ICT. One angle we would like to explore is the 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 CE? 

Project Activities

The scoping study will explore:

  • What forms of consumption work are actually occurring around CE? Existing examples include re-use, component return-and-exchange schemes and product modularity. What can we learn from existing examples?
  • What is assumed or proposed by CE business models and visions around consumption work?  What is the significance of this for the ambitions of CE models and visions?
  • The research will also develop a novel typology of consumption work that would extend the concept, and explore the significance of those types for CE.

A three-strand approach will be used to gather information from as wide a range of sources as possible, followed by a workshop with invited experts:

  • Desk-based research on existing products/innovations available to consumers that depend on re-use, recycling, repair, exchange and collaboration.
  • Review of academic literature
  • Review of relevant databases and reports
  • A workshop bringing together SCI researchers with invited experts to discuss findings of the scoping study and potential collaboration on a research proposal.

Research team

Helen Holmes, Dan Welch and Harald Wieser