WASS Reserach Theme: Responsible Production and Consumption

Whereas increasing production, lowering food and commodity prices, and maximizing profits have been central in post-World War II agro-industrial systems, during the last two decades this has started to change considerably.

Current production-consumption systems have to meet a range of new demands and expectations regarding issues, covered under the concept of ‘responsibility’, such as ecological sustainability and resource efficiency, nature and landscape conservation, food safety and food quality, health and wellbeing, biosecurity and animal welfare, ‘decent’ and ethical labour, and social justice.

These demands are voiced in the national context but are also increasingly articulated globally, for instance with regard to fair trade, child labour, investments in the arms and ammunition industry, and sustainable tourism. There is also a growing concern about the so-called ‘conflict-goods’ that sustain violent conflicts or support war-lords. Hence, they are and have to be governed nationally, as well as globally, through public and private arrangements, including global campaigns, bans and protest movements, where necessary.

WASS aims to address the challenges of rendering production and consumption processes, chains and networks more responsible at various levels of scale, which allows us to understand responsibility at the level of individual behaviour as well as part of  social processes of change. In addition, WASS research combines various disciplinary approaches when focusing on research questions as the following.

What are developments and definitions in responsible production and consumption?

Responsible production and consumption is far from a fixed category and its definition varies and changes according to time and place. Research aims to unravel how these concepts are defined and by whom, which concerns are included and which are excluded, and how definitions differ according to time and place. What social processes, interests, and stakes are involved in the articulation, institutionalization and operationalization of responsible production and consumption, and who has the power to successfully participate in relevant processes of negotiation? Here indicators, standards, labelling and certification systems are studied, as well as the social processes and institutional set-ups that develop and implement them. How can supply networks become closed in terms of energy use and waste recycling? How are trade-offs between conflicting demands in responsible production and consumption dealt with, such as those between production efficiency and product quality, between fuelling war or fostering peace, between animal welfare and environmental pollution, and between reduction of labour costs and costs of transportation? Research looks into the contestedness of definitions as well as their materialisation in the technology of innovative operating systems and interrelationships. It aims at understanding the ‘resilience’ of new productive and consumptive systems, approaching it not only from an ecological but also economic, socio-cultural and ethical perspective. How do they affect the relationships among consumers and producers and the power of consumer and producer groups? Who can afford to shop responsibly and what is the relevance of gender and class? And are smallholders able to meet these demands or does the drive for more responsibility negatively affect their position? Or, to put it in more general terms: research aims to unravel who stands to gain and who loses with responsible production and consumption, at various levels of scale - locally, regionally and globally.

Which social, economic and psychological dynamics drive and impede the furthering of responsible production and consumption?

Research looks into the drivers of production, marketing and consumption of responsible products such as fair trade product, approaching it at various levels of analysis. Studies may look into the changing behaviour of consumer and their increasing interest in responsible behaviour as individuals as well as social group and collective. How can the demand for responsible products among citizens be explained, and how is this reflected in actual buying behaviour when people enact their consumer identity? What structural differences exist in this regard between different categories of consumers, segmented for instance according to age, social class or gender? Are factors that support consumption of healthy products different from those supporting sustainable products, animal-friendly products or fair trade products, and how does this relate to wider processes of change? How do attitudes, values and lifestyles of different social groups relate to (different aspects of) responsible consumption and production practices? Similar questions may be posed when it comes to the changing behaviour and position of producers. What drives investment in responsible production and what is the role of public debates and ‘naming and shaming’? What is the role of entrepreneurship in this context? How do attitudes, values and lifestyles of different social groups relate to (different aspects of) responsible consumption and production practices?

Other studies focus on the construction and organisation of responsibility at the level of the product and the production chain. They look into the relevance of costs structures, organizational models of economic networks, and the internalization of external costs, and want to understand how business models that anchor responsibility into the core of a company can be developed. How to manage conflicts of interest between stakeholders in optimising chain performance (as part of chain risk management)? What is the role of business to business relations in developing responsible production and marketing chains? What is the role of entrepreneurship in this context? What is the role of business to business relations in developing responsible production and marketing chains? In which markets do responsible production and products reach high profits? How are consumer demand and preferences structured? And in which contexts, for which products and regarding which dimensions of responsible production does consumer demand drive or impede transitions?

How frame, organise, govern and regulate responsible production and consumption at various levels?

This involves research into the implementation of more responsible ways of production in firms, supply chains and networks, at national but increasingly also transnational and global levels, and the (re)organisation and optimisation of production economics and management. In addition, the turn towards more responsible forms of production and consumption is accompanied by the development of new governance instruments. Which public, private and public-private instruments and arrangements have successfully furthered responsible production, and at which governance levels? Where and to what extent are self-regulation, credit schemes, partnerships, covenants, labelling and certification scheme effective and to what degree are they circumvented? What is the role of protest, boycotts and adverse publicity? What do new arrangements mean in terms of legitimacy, accountability, equity, effectiveness and efficiency?