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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Household sustainability and social inequalities: An appraisal of themes, methods, debates, and future directions

A one-day workshop organised by Tally Katz-Gerro, Sherilyn MacGregor and Catherine Walker from the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester on Thursday, 17 May 2018.

The long-term sustainability of current human-led consumption levels is socially, economically and environmentally untenable. There is growing income and household consumption disparity, with higher income groups accounting for a vastly greater share of global resource use, the consequences of which are borne disproportionately by the poor at different spatial scales - from Global North/South to cities and neighbourhoods within these regions. This presents a pressing ethical imperative to make consumption more socially and environmentally sustainable. Yet amidst overarching disparities, households are often constrained in advancing sustainable consumption by social, economic, institutional and cultural factors. In researching, governing and conceptualising more sustainable consumption, therefore, it is important that research and policy communities be sensitive to the needs and constraints of various social groups. This one-day inter-disciplinary workshop was designed to progress thinking through reflections and debate on how research on household sustainability can be made more sensitive to social inequalities.

Sherilyn MacGregor leads discussion while writing on a flip chart
Sherilyn MacGregor leads discussion on the areas of commonality, questions and debates raised by the commentaries.

The workshop brought together invited speakers from eight different UK universities, along with SCI staff members. In total, the workshop was attended by 22 people representing disciplinary perspectives from sociology, environmental politics, human geography, engineering and sustainability studies. In advance of the workshop, the eight invited speakers were invited to respond to a series of questions on the theoretical, methodological and political possibilities for more socially-sensitive household sustainability research. The commentaries written by the speakers in responding to the questions were circulated around all workshop attendees, with a further invitation to reflect on the questions and commentaries, in advance of the day.

As a dynamic way of introducing participants' work to one another, the workshop began with the eight invited speakers taking it in turns to introduce one another’s commentary, with each speaker having been assigned another commentary to introduce. These reflective introductions led to a further layer of dialogic exchange as the authors of the commentaries responded, and later all present had the opportunity to reflect upon the areas of commonality, questions and debates raised by the commentaries as a collective whole. A key theme arising from the commentaries were the challenges of using research to advance environmental and social sustainability as an integrated agenda, particularly when, as one workshop participant commented, "... it is very hard to agree on what is socially sustainable".

Workshop participants sat around a table
Workshop participants mid-discussion.

Participants continued to discuss a series of questions about how patterns of social inequality (gender, race/ethnicity, age, income and ability) shape and/or constrain the performance of sustainability practices in households/families through three further discussions. Whilst there was considerable overlap, these discussions centred in turn on the theoretical, methodological and policy possibilities for future research to advance an integrated social and environmental justice agenda. Amidst lively debates, participants discussed the enduring relevance of established theoretical resources (such as intersectionality, feminist theory, theories of personal communities and networks and life course theory) in combination with methodological and conceptual innovations (such as new materialisms, multi-modal interviewing and temporal justice) to tackle intersecting forms of social, spatial and environmental injustices. Scholarship activism, ethical imperatives driving research in this area, and the possibilities for involving participants in research design and dissemination were also amongst the topics discussed by participants when considering how research can have impact in the worlds of policy and politics. 

All present were keen to continue these highly-engaged discussions and suggested various ideas for how we might do this, including:

  • the establishment of a research network on household sustainability and social inequalities, with the aim to identify and apply for funding on under-researched areas;
  • organising conference panels to present existing research on household sustainability and social inequalities;
  • producing an edited collection or special issue of a journal to present existing research on household sustainability and social inequalities;
  • exploring possibilities for secondary analysis of data on household sustainability to consider how social inequalities shape and/or constrain the performance of practices in ways considered to be sustainable; and
  • continuing and drawing others into debates on social media (join in on twitter, using the hashtag #whosesustainability).

The workshop was fully funded by the Sustainable Consumption Institute and was an outcome of discussions that have taken place at the SCI’s Gender and Sustainability Research Group. The event will also inform the exploratory SCI-funded project that Tally Katz-Gerro, Sherilyn MacGregor and Catherine Walker are undertaking from June 2018. This exploratory project will consider the cultural politics of household sustainability through mixed-methods research with Black and Minority Ethnic residents of two Manchester City wards. Tally, Sherilyn and Catherine are also writing a larger research bid to undertake externally-funded research in this area.  

Invited speakers at the workshop were: Rebecca Collins (University of Chester), Lynn Jamieson (University of Edinburgh), Lydia Martens (University of Keele), Lucie Middlemiss (University of Leeds), Rebecca Sandover (University of Exeter), Fiona Shirani (University of Cardiff), Ian Williams (University of Southampton) and Jennifer Whillans (SCI, University of Manchester). 

Other attendees were: Ali Browne (SCI),  Ulrike Ehgartner (SCI),  Emma Head (University of Keele), Steffen Hirth (SCI), Helen Holmes (SCI), Ema Johnson (SCI), Harrie Larrington-Spencer (SCI), Jessica Paddock (University of Bristol), Alan Warde (SCI), Dan Welch (SCI), Harald Wieser (SCI) and Luke Yates (SCI).