Sustainable Lifestyles

Sustainable Lifestyles

Sustainable Lifestyles K Gram-Hanssen, Danish Research Institute, Hørsholm, Denmark ª 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. Glossary Brundtland rep...

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Sustainable Lifestyles K Gram-Hanssen, Danish Research Institute, Hørsholm, Denmark ª 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Glossary Brundtland report The UN report (Our Common Future) is often called the Brundtland report named after the chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, of the World Commission on Environment and Development. The report defines sustainable development and deals with the change of politics needed for achieving sustainable development. Eco-labels Information on products helping consumers to buy more environmentally friendly. Different organisations issue different labels intended to inform consumers whether the product lives up to specified environmental standards.

Lifestyle and Sustainability: Concepts, Actors, and Approaches The concept of sustainability means that something is maintained and can keep going for a period of time. Since the publication of the UN Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future in 1987, the concept of sustainability has become associated with the integration of economic, social, and environmental devel­ opment to ‘‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’’ (as formulated in the report). By intro­ ducing the word ‘sustainable’, the discussion on environmental development got a social and economic dimension, especially by the inclusion of the North– South dialogue and discussions of the rights of future generations. The concept of lifestyle comes from social science and refers to a bundle of practices or ways of behaving that are meaningful for the individual as well as for others. Lifestyle includes different ways of socialis­ ing with others and different types of consumption of everything, from houses to clothes, food, and leisuretime activities. A lifestyle reflects an individual’s attitudes and values and at the same time signals these to others through visible, or conspicuous, consumption. Sustainable lifestyles can thus be defined as bundles of practices that are tied together by attitudes related to sustainable devel­ opment, or as ways of living that in practice lead to sustainable development. In 1992 at the UN Conference in Rio de Janeiro, there was an international agreement on promoting


Eco-villages Smaller settlements of people who have decided to live and build in a more sustainable way. Often the village is self-sustained with renewable energy and ecological waste treatment. Local Agenda 21 (LA21) A programme decided at UN Conference in 1992 on how to reach sustainable development in the twenty-first century, by encouraging cooperation between citizens, NGOs (nongovernmental organisations), and local authorities. STS approach STS (science and technology studies) is an approach within the social sciences focusing on how technological innovation coevolves with social, political, and cultural structures.

sustainable development and thus also promoting sustainable lifestyles. Following the line of the Brundtland report, the conference reached consensus on the so-called Agenda 21 programme, which contains detailed guidelines and objectives, in a nonlegally bind­ ing language, and advice on how NGOs, citizens, and other actors can be involved in the process. The slogan was ‘act local–think global’, and during the 1990s Local Agenda 21 (LA21) activities were initiated in many countries by both authorities and NGOs. In Western countries, initiatives often focused on how to promote sustainable lifestyles. Campaigns and other initiatives disseminated information and initiated activities on how to live a less resource-consuming life and promoted positive attitudes to sustainable development. In many respects, the LA21 work followed initiatives launched by the environmental movements in the 1970s and 1980s, just adding the word ‘sustainability’. In other respects, new elements emerged that broadened the initiatives to engage more citizens or included the global dimension. In 2007–08 such initiatives received renewed interest, with global climate being high on the political agenda. LA21 was no longer a catchword, though the concept of sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles was then used together with climate discussions. The processes of LA21 build on the idea that changes must come from below, from changes in the everyday life of ordinary consumers. In the social sciences, it is generally discussed to what extent structures or actors are more relevant in the analysis of societal change and stability – and this discussion is also found in social



Sustainable Lifestyles

science approaches to sustainable development. Actororiented approaches focus on how individual lifestyle choices can initiate changes, whereas structure-oriented approaches focus on how various societal structures, including economic, social, and cultural ones, support sustainable or unsustainable lifestyles. On the basis of Giddens’ ideas of how to overcome the structure–actor dualism, these two approaches can meet. Social systems are sets of social practices that compel actors to draw on and act within existing structures and at the same time confirm and reinforce these structures through their activities. The consumption conjunction can be seen as a relevant place for the understanding of sustainable lifestyles, as this is where the structures of the system of provision meet the lifestyle choices of the actors. Sustainable lifestyles depend on available green products and sustainable infrastructures, although these can exist only if there are green consumers who ask for them and use them. Irrespective of whether structures or actors are in focus, there is a common recognition that environment and sustainable development extensively include the practices of individuals’ everyday life. The time has long passed when it was thought that environment should primarily be regulated within industries and production. Since the 1990s most agree that in promoting sustainabil­ ity, consumption is as important as production for several reasons: The consumer phase includes the purchase of products, their use, and their disposal. And all three phases are highly relevant from a sustainable lifestyle point of view because the continuously growing number of items consumed is a great challenge for sustainable development, because the use of products such as cars and computers have a greater impact on the environment than does the production of these items, and finally because disposal, including the still shorter lifetime, of the items is of great relevance. Consequently, sustainable consumption is fundamental for sustainable lifestyles; however, the question of what products are more sustain­ able, or less so, is often highly complicated and technical. Consumers have to rely on expert systems in their daily consumer choices, and here they can be guided by differ­ ent types of eco-labels, green guides, and other types of information. These information sources may be consid­ ered part of the structures supporting sustainable lifestyles.

Different Lifestyles and Their Sustainability In the study of sustainable lifestyles, the focus can be on differences between lifestyle groups in society or on gen­ eral societal developments involving changes in lifestyles over time. The analysis of lifestyles may focus on

practices, on measurable resource consumption resulting from the practices, on the attitudes relating to the life­ styles, or on a combination of the three, and investigate what relations exist between practices, resource con­ sumption, and attitudes. Both quantitative and qualitative methods can be, and have been, used in analysing sustainable lifestyles, and the analysis has focused on various phases and aspects of consumption, including buying eco-labelled products, energy and water con­ sumption in homes, transport behaviour, and behaviour related to waste disposal. The ideas of sustainable lifestyle suggest the existence of a link between actors’ attitudes and their practices. However, this is an open question, and detailed studies show that the picture is more complex and that other explanations may be included. The exam­ ple in the box focuses on energy consumption in homes, though many of the insights from this aspect of sustain­ able lifestyles may be transferred to other aspects of the same.

A study from Denmark demonstrates the important relationship between socioeconomic status and household consumer prac­ tices related to energy consumption. A database of 50 000 Danish households’ electricity consumption, combined with information on the households’ socioeconomic status and building information on their homes, reveals some aspects of differences in lifestyles as regards sustainability. Figure 1 shows how electricity consumption in detached houses grows as incomes rise. It also shows that among households with the same income, the households with the lowest levels of electri­ city consumption (the dark green line) use less than one-third of what those with the highest levels of electricity (the dark red line) use. Table 1 gives a more exact and whole picture of how electricity use varies with the households’ socioeconomic sta­ tus; households living in apartments are used here as an example. We see that the best explanation of household elec­ tricity consumption is the number of persons living in a household, which explains 22% of the variation, whereas income and floor area explain 1 and 7% of the variation, respec­ tively. There is a statistically significant correlation between these factors and household electricity consumption, though we can also see that taken together this type of data can only explain about one-third of the variation in household electricity consumption. Another Danish study of 500 households living in terraced houses quite similar to one another focused on why similar families living in similar houses have electricity consumptions that may vary considerably. It would be obvious to expect that part of the explanation is that some families have more efficient technologies than others. This was, however, found unsubstan­ tiated. The analysis showed that there is no correlation between energy consumption and having energy-efficient appliances. What seems to explain variations in electricity consumption between similar households is the possession and use of appli­ ances. A family’s having many appliances and using them a lot is more decisive for electricity consumption than is the efficiency of these appliances.

Sustainable Lifestyles


Electricity consumption (kWh)

12 000 10 000 8000 6000 4000 2000 0 50.000





Household income (DKK) The 5% lowest consumption Median The 95% lowest consumption

The 25% lowest consumption The 75% lowest consumption

Figure 1 Households in detached houses. Electricity consumption compared to income, showing the 5, 25, 50 (median), 75, and the 95 percentile of the households corresponding to the households with the lowest, the medium, and the highest levels of electricity consumption.

Table 1 Apartments: background variables effect on electricity use. Based on analysis of the Aarhus database, n ¼ 40 281

Background variable Per person in the household Per 100 000 DKK in gross income Per 10 sqm floor area Per age square of oldest person Per 0–6 years old children Per 13–19 years old children Long education compared with only primary school

Effect on electricity use (kWh/year)

Explanatory power (Change in R2 (%))





119 �0.1

7.2 1.3

�76 117 �63

0.3 0.1

Studies of household energy consumption demon­ strate that in explaining differences in levels of consumption, and differences in households’ measurable sustainability, the question of a family’s socioeconomic status is important. Furthermore, how many appliances a family has and how often they are used is more relevant than how energy efficient their technologies are. Studies also show that economy is part of the explanation, as electricity consumption rises with growing income; how­ ever, this explains only a minor aspect of the variation. More insight into households’ lifestyles is needed to con­ clude why some households have more technologies and

use these technologies more than other. Qualitative stu­ dies show that families with the highest levels of consumption were characterised by a hedonist and joyful approach to consumption, whereas families with the low­ est levels of consumption expressed more pleasure in saving and living a modest life. In relation to the question of whether sustainable lifestyles are necessarily related to positive attitudes to sustainable development, the analysis of interviews conducted with the families suggests a no. For some of the families, a modest lifestyle was related partly to environmental arguments, though for others it was related to a habitus learnt during childhood which emphasised economic savings. On the other hand, some of those with hedonistic attitudes and with higher levels of consumption spoke in favour of the environment and sustainable development and expressed a slight feeling of guilt, whereas others did not correlate their own prac­ tices of electricity consumption with sustainable development. These studies show that for some families a more sustainable lifestyle is related to conscious deci­ sions about reducing their level of consumption, whereas for others it is just a consequence of living a modest life which follows from other attitudes. The previous paragraph dealt with differences within types of households. Another approach to the study of sustainable lifestyles investigates societal changes over time. We saw that household electricity consumption grows with the number of persons living in a family. Figure 2 shows that electricity consumption per person falls with the number of inhabitants. In comparing this with the knowledge that an ever-growing share of inha­ bitants in Western societies lives in one-person


Sustainable Lifestyles

9000 Electricity consumption (KWH)

8000 7000 6000 5000 4000 3000 2000 1000 0 1

2 3 4 5 6 Number of persons in the household

Electricity consumption per person


Electricity consumption per household

Figure 2 Electricity consumption per person and per household compared with the number of inhabitants living in the household.

Table 2 Percentage of one-person households in selected European countries in 1970, 1980, and 1990 Country




Austria Denmark France Great Britain Greece Hungary Sweden

26 21 20 18 11 17 25

28 29 25 22 15 20 33

30 35 27 27 17 24 40

Based on figures from Hall R, Ogden PE, and Hill C (1997) The pattern and structure of one-person households in England and Wales and France. International Journal of Population Geography 3: 161–181.

households, it becomes obvious that we face a societal development that points in an unsustainable direction, because it is inefficient to live alone. Table 2 shows that in several European countries in 1990, more than onethird of the households consisted of only one person, and furthermore that this share is quickly rising. Although the reasons for this development have nothing to do with environment or sustainability, there are other societal trends, such as individualisation and economic indepen­ dency of young, female, and older citizens, that allow them to live alone. Other changes in society also work against sustainable lifestyles. Within STS (science and technology studies) approaches in the social sciences, it has been shown how the norms of comfort, cleanliness, and convenience have developed over the last couple of decades together with everyday life technologies, with growing energy con­ sumption as a consequence. The scientific approach to comfort, in the sense of indoor climate, has developed together with technologies, such as air conditioners, and

the social status associated with owning these technolo­ gies has contributed to their spread. In countries where people used to deal with the hot summer climate by living in heat-resistant houses, by wearing light clothing, and by taking siestas, the use of air conditioning is now widespread. What is socially accepted as regards these aspects has changed, and so has architecture, so that not having air conditioning is gradually being considered unacceptable. Something similar can be seen regarding the question of cleanliness and washing clothes. Social norms about what is clean and what is dirty have changed with the intro­ duction of new technologies such as fully automatic washing machines, new types of fabrics, and new types of detergents, and today clothes are washed much more frequently than previously. Convenience technologies include all things that are used to squeeze more activities into the busy everyday life by doing several things at a time or by being independent of time schedules. The freezer makes it possible to do a big shopping and to shop less frequently, the mobile phone makes it possible to communicate on the move, and many other technolo­ gies in our daily life have contributed in different ways to achieve what is considered more convenient. And all these changes in what is normal to have and to do have gradually changed towards less sustainable lifestyles with­ out anyone debating it from an environmental perspective. This approach of looking at lifestyle changes is an example of how to make a structure-oriented approach to (un)sustainable lifestyles. It focuses on the codevelopment of technological, cultural, and economic structures which forms the lifestyles rather than the indi­ viduals having or choosing different lifestyles. In line with this approach, but focusing more directly on the struc­ tures supporting consumption, the question has been

Sustainable Lifestyles

raised about why increases in production are primarily transformed into a growing material consumption rather than into more leisure time or more cultural or serviceoriented consumption. The answer seems to be that the dynamics of people’s willingness to consume are to be found in economic, sociopsychological, and historic sociotechnical explanations.

Changing Lifestyles Towards Sustainability From a policy perspective, it is relevant to discuss how to promote more sustainable lifestyles. Changes can be initiated from the bottom-up, where people experiment with changing lifestyles, or from the top-down, where authorities make initiatives to promote changing life­ styles. Authorities can promote changes by political initiatives such as economic incentives or green taxes and through information and labelling of green products and campaigns focusing on changing attitudes. Furthermore, authorities can focus on establishing the physical infrastructure which supports sustainable life­ styles: public transportation, renewable energy production, recycling waste system, and so on. What follows describes, first, the people who have made radical changes to their lifestyles and, second, evaluations on initiatives to get ‘ordinary’ people to change their lifestyle in a more sustainable direction. In the last couple of decades, some citizens have cho­ sen more radical lifestyle changes and have joined socalled eco-villages. Some of the catchwords of this approach are closed cycles and self-sufficiency: water and waste should be recycled, energy locally produced from renewable resources, and the technologies organised


in neighbourhoods to strengthen and revitalise local social life. The ecological vision is followed by the social vision of a holistic everyday life – a life that is not split between work, family, and home. In this sense, the eco-villages follow in the footsteps of the collectivist movement of the 1960s and 1970s and are a reaction against the lifestyle in detached suburban houses. Furthermore, in some of the eco-villages there is a spiritual relation with nature and an ethical concern for future generations. The people decid­ ing to build and live in these eco-villages thus establish other physical, social, and cultural structures around their everyday life as part of living a sustainable lifestyle. In the environmental debate, it has been questioned to what extent this type of experiment is part of a broader solution to sustainable development or whether these structures are only isolated pockets. Some of the alternative techno­ logical solutions, such as solar heating or wind power, had their hesitant first beginnings in these alternative envir­ onments. However, some of the eco-villages and other grassroots experiments had such alternative visual expressions that might have frightened the not-so-dedi­ cated others from choosing sustainable lifestyles. This raises the question of whether sustainable lifestyles are only for those who want to live an alternative life or whether they should be mainstreamed and made available for a broader audience. In the twenty-first century, how­ ever, this debate might seem less topical, as grassroots approaches and more mainstream approaches to sustain­ able lifestyles appear to converge (Figure 3). Many public initiatives have tried to persuade citizens to live a more sustainable life, and there are also examples of studies following the extent to which these types of efforts have an effect. In general, social science approaches dealing with these issues can be divided into psychological and sociological approaches. As an example

Figure 3 Eco-villages often have alternative visual expressions. Here self-made domes from Dyssekilde in Denmark. Photograph: Claus Bech-Danielsen.


Sustainable Lifestyles

of the psychological approach, a study performed by Abrahamse and others in the Netherlands followed the effects of an Internet-based tool that used a combination of tailored information, goal setting, and feedback on households’ direct and indirect energy consumption. An evaluation after 5 months showed that households gained a significant direct energy saving of 5%, whereas there was no measurable effect on indirect energy consumption. It is thus possible to document a small but significant relation between knowledge and action. From a sociological approach, the UK campaign ‘Action at home’, which is part of the Global Action Plan that originally developed in the United States during the late 1980s, has been evaluated by Hobson, and this evaluation questions the simple relation between knowl­ edge and change of behaviour. The ‘Action at home’ campaign was a 6-month voluntary programme where households were provided with information, support, and feedback in a local setting enabling local support and networking between participants. An evaluation based on qualitative interviews suggests rethinking the ideas on information, barriers, and behavioural change. Information should be seen as a much more constructivist approach, where people use and develop arguments through conversations with others, rather than by receiv­ ing objective knowledge. The focus should be on the whole array of social structures sustaining specific beha­ viours, rather than on only barriers to action, and finally the understanding of behavioural change should rather focus on how debate can bring unnoticed routines that are never consciously thought of. Though there are disagreements in the understanding of behaviour and the role of information between the social and the psychological approach, it is possible to

draw some general recommendations on how to best persuade people to change to a more sustainable lifestyle: Communication should be as specific and personalised as possible, and information should be as adjusted to the lifestyle of the citizens as possible, thereby making the advice meaningful and useful for the citizens’ attitudes and practices.

The Importance of Housing and Urban Structures for Sustainable Lifestyles The physical structures of our society, including infra­ structures and buildings, are of major importance for sustainable lifestyles. Sustainable buildings and infra­ structures are contested concepts, and the following will give some examples of this. Sustainable buildings show considerable diversity in their type and reflect different views on nature. Some concepts build on scientific approaches to measurable resource consumptions, espe­ cially reduction of energy consumption but also the exclusion of harmful materials, and the visual expression of this type of buildings may be high postmodern sky­ scrapers in steel and glass. Other buildings reflect alternative approaches to nature both in choice of materi­ als and in their visual expression, such as self-made buildings by grassroots (Figure 4). From an urban planning perspective, there is the dis­ cussion about whether high-density cities or the green countryside with detached houses is more sustainable. High-density cities can be an answer to energy reductions resulting from reduced transportation and increased use of public transport, and from apartments being more energy efficient than detached houses. On the other hand, the

Figure 4 Left is Architect Werner Sobek’s glass house, R128, in Stuttgart. The house provides its own energy and can thus provide

shelter for a sustainable lifestyle. The house at the right is from near Hannover, and the vision of sustainability here relates to the use of

natural building materials.

Photograph: Claus Bech-Danielsen.

Sustainable Lifestyles

space in the countryside makes it possible to grow vege­ tables, compost waste, and use local alternative energy. Rather than discussing what is more sustainable, it is worth noting that there are different potentials for sustain­ able lifestyles in different types of settlements. Also, in high-density cities it is possible to include green elements, for example on roofs and facades, which can be positive for both microclimate and biodiversity in the cities. And in the countryside it is highly relevant to plan for less transporta­ tion and the use of more public transport, at the same time as it is relevant actually to use the space in the countryside for locally sustainable solutions. The infrastructure of electricity, gas, district heating, water, sewage, and telecommunication is the most invisi­ ble, but may also be the most important structure of sustainable lifestyles. Often the consumers are ‘captive’ and have no choice other than using the available infra­ structure. However, development within sustainable infrastructure shows signs of changing relations between producers and consumers. Here the consumers are not just passive recipients of delivered energy or water, but become active co-producers, either by delivering surplus energy from local production or by regulating their consumption to accommodate peak and off-peak periods on the grid, by sorting waste and using recycled products, and so forth. Maybe especially in relation to the urban infrastructures, it becomes visible how closely the co-development of sociotechnical innovations is coupled with sustainable lifestyles.

Conclusion With climate change high on the political agenda, espe­ cially before the climate summit conference in Copenhagen in 2009, sustainable lifestyles have gained renewed interest among the public, politicians, and aca­ demics. Will this interest be a short bobble followed by resignation? Will it be the start of mainstreaming sustain­ able lifestyles so they spread and become the norm? Or, will there continue to be a development fuelled by the tension between initiatives by different actors? Sustainability is a contested concept, and developments in the structures and practices of everyday life continue to change and thus provide new challenges for what a sustainable lifestyle is or should be. In the future, there


is also a need to continue experimenting, debating, and developing new approaches to sustainable lifestyles. See also: Building Regulations for Energy Conservation; Community Energy Systems; Eco-Communities; Ecological Footprint; Eco-Renovation; Energy Saving; Environmental Consciousness; Household Waste Recycling; Housing and Sustainable Transport; Housing Developers and Sustainability; Sustainable Urban Development.

Further Reading Abrahamse W, Steg L, Vlek C, and Rothengatter T (2007) The effect of tailored information, goal setting, and tailored feedback on household energy use, energy-related behaviours, and behavioural antecedents. Journal of Environmental Psychology 27: 265–276. doi:10.1016/j.envp.2007.08.002. Brundtland Commission Report (1987) Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Gram-Hanssen K (2004) Domestic electricity consumption – Consumers and appliances. In: L Reisch and I Røpke (eds.) The Ecological Economics of Consumption, pp. 132–150. Camberley: Edward Elgar publishing. Gram-Hanssen K, Kofod C, and Nærvig Petersen K (2004) Different everyday lives – different patterns of electricity use. Proceedings of the 2004 American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy Summer Study in Buildings. Washington, DC: ACEEE. Hall R, Ogden PE, and Hill C (1997) The pattern and structure of oneperson households in England and Wales and France. International Journal of Population Geography 3: 161–181. Hobson K (2001) Sustainable lifestyles: Rethinking barriers and behaviour change. In: Cohen MJ and Murphy J (eds.) Exploring Sustainable Consumption. Environmental Policy and the Social Sciences, pp. 191–209. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Jensen JO and Gram-Hanssen K (2008) Ecological modernization of sustainable buildings: A Danish perspective. Building Research and Information 36(2): 146–158. Lafferty W (ed.) (1999) Implementing LA21 in Europe. New Initiatives for Sustainable Communities. Oslo: Prosus. Lutzenhiser L (1993) Social and behavioral aspects of energy use. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 18: 247–289. Røpke I (1999) The dynamics of willingness to consume. Ecological Economics 28: 399–420. Shove E (2003) Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience. The Social Organization of Normality. Oxford; New York: Berg. Spaargaren G and Van Vliet B (2000) Lifestyles, consumption and the environment: The ecological modernization of domestic consumption. Environmental Politics 9(1): 50–77. Van Vliet B, Chappells H, and Shove E (2005) Infrastructures of Consumption: Environmental Innovations in the Utility Industries. London: Earthscan. Wilhite H, Nagakami H, Masuda T, Yamaga Y, and Haneda H (1996) A cross-cultural analysis of household energy use behaviour in Japan and Norway. Energy Policy 24(9): 795–803.