What are structural conditions for and against sustainable ways of consuming?

Published on
March 27, 2017

Recently, the Routledge Handbook on Consumption was published. The book gathers experts from around the world to provide a nuanced overview of the latest scholarship in this expanding field. Bas van Vliet and Gert Spaargaren contributed with a chapter in which they investigate the dynamic relations between environmentally relevant systems of provision and practices of household consumption. 

In their chapter “Structural conditions for and against sustainable ways of consuming” Bas and Gert take stock of social scientific research on consumption that involves the utilization of what they call infrastructures of consumption.These include the networks providing the universal and environmentally relevant services of water supply, electricity, heat and gas, as well as those collecting, transporting and treating our waste water.

Rather than focusing on individual attitudes, behaviors and choices as the main attributes of domestic consumption, or on infrastructures facilitating certain behavior, they direct attention to the shared, routinized and intensely embedded nature of everyday consumption practices.Those practices relate to and combine services of multiple systems of provision. Doing so, they show what a practice perspective can offer in understanding relations and dynamics in consumption of infrastructure services.

They present wide-ranging empirical studies on water, toilet and energy practices that reflect the dynamics that can be studied in the interrelations between consumption and provisioning systems. For instance, their case study of drinking water practices and innovation in the water supply sector highlights how distinctive material elements of drinking water, use water and luxury water and their devices matter in the meaning and appreciation of changes in the system of provision. Rather than being “conditioned” by larger water systems, domestic practices serve and are being served by water systems of provision. Their case study of changing toilet practices by means of road bags in a hospital setting shows how a robust toilet practice is yet malleable when it is relocated in and combined with practices of medicine use and medical check-up. Changes in toilet practices and medicine use were established by a new connection between the systems of provision for water and health care. Furthermore, a range of new energy practices are discussed in the realm of smart and cooperative energy systems’ development. This case also reveals that energy practices, rather than being “conditioned” by energy infrastructures, become constitutive to newly emerging systems of provision: shared, flexible and decentralized systems of energy supply and demand.

The analyses show that “environmentally sound consumption” as a concept does not suffice to understand the complicated social and technical relations with the systems of provision that deliver the natural resources of water or energy. Nor does it take into account the particular handling of human waste in tune with the systems of wastewater collection and treatment. Employing a social practice perspective means to reframe what is usually referred to as “structural conditions” for sustainable consumption: namely the institutions and infrastructures encompassing the systems of provision. Structural conditions for sustainable consumption patterns should be conceived as inherent elements of the performance of domestic practices, and they encompass not only material infrastructures and appliances, but also robust cultural norms around domestic everyday life and considerations of privacy and autonomy.

Finally, Bas and Gert argue that environmentally informed agendas to save or generate renewable water and energy resources should therefore not be addressed solely to consumers but to the socio-technical complex of actors, institutions and infrastructures in which consumption practices co-evolve with other bundles of practices performed in systems of water and energy services.