The social shaping of household consumption

The social shaping of household consumption

Ecological Economics 28 (1999) 455 – 466 ANALYSIS The social shaping of household consumption Susse Georg * Department of Organisation and Industria...

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Ecological Economics 28 (1999) 455 – 466


The social shaping of household consumption Susse Georg * Department of Organisation and Industrial Sociology, Center for En6ironmental Management and Organisational Studies, Copenhagen Business School, Blaagaardsgade 23 B, 1st floor, Copenhagen, Denmark Received 25 September 1997; received in revised form 14 July 1998; accepted 8 September 1998

Abstract This paper deals with a recurrent theme in the sustainability debate: the necessity of changing Western consumption patterns and ‘lifestyles’. Unlike most accounts, in which the principle mechanisms for ensuring this are ‘top-down’ approaches of government policies, this paper focuses on the ‘bottom-up’ approaches of citizens seeking to develop less environmentally damaging technologies and ways of living. The paper examines three Scandinavian examples to illustrate how citizens are voluntarily seeking to internalise some of the externalities of everyday life and provide the collective good of improved environmental quality. The paper discusses the importance of social relations in the shaping of people’s preferences for environmental goods. The paper draws out what lessons can be learned from these initiatives and focuses on three factors affecting the future growth and proliferation of citizen-led initiatives: upscaling, the transferability of social experiments and the pervasive societal commitments to unsustainable behaviour. © 1999 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved. Keywords: Sustainability; Citizen action; Participation; Environmental technology; Environmental policy

1. Introduction The environmental debate is replete with references to how important it is to change contemporary Western production and consumption patterns. The former has received much more * Tel.: +45-3815-2893; [email protected]


+ 45-3815-2865;


attention politically than the latter. Many countries have—in line with the Brundtland Report’s recommendation of ‘producing more with less’ (WCED, 1987)—implemented policies which seek to prevent pollution at the source and to improve the ‘eco-efficiency’ of industry, the transport sector etc. The issue of changing consumption patterns is, however, usually neglected. The extent to which this issue is addressed is limited to the

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top-down approach of informing and educating citizens about the necessity of making these changes. Not much attention is devoted to how to make these changes. This paper explores how citizens are attempting to develop technologies and create social structures that can minimise the environmental degradation associated with the Western way of life. These citizen initiatives offer ‘bottom up’ solutions to some of these issues, as opposed to the ‘top down’ approach of government policy. In economic terms, they are voluntarily seeking to internalise externalities associated with their everyday lives and contribute to the provision of the collective good—improved environmental quality. Voluntary initiatives such as these are, however, associated with the problem of ‘free-riders’—people who can/will enjoy the benefits of the environmental improvements, but who do so for ‘free’, without contributing to these improvements. This makes these initiatives quite vulnerable and subject to failure, as some citizens will only agree to change their everyday behaviour if others do so as well. Free rider problems can be overcome, if new norms of behaviour are established (Elster, 1985). This paper focuses on the possible institutionalisation of new, less environmentally damaging modes of behaviour. The underlying analytical approach is that of ‘new institutionalism’, which seeks to build a bridge between two models of social behaviour, rational actor models and institutionalism (Tolbert and Zucker, 1995). This positions new institutional theory between the under-socialised accounts that depict social behaviour as a matter of utility-maximisation and the over-socialised accounts which assume that individuals unquestioningly accept the existing social norms and behave accordingly. New institutional theory does more than just recognise that the behaviour of individuals is shaped by the social contexts in which they are engaged (Powell and DiMaggio, 1991). It also seeks to describe the processes by which certain practices become institutions. This approach offers insights into how belief systems and shifts in (public) perceptions influence and shape behaviour, including the way in which people respond to environmental issues.

The aim of the paper is, therefore, to explore some of the features and the diversity of citizenled initiatives seeking specifically to change household consumption patterns, and to discuss what implications this can have for environmental policy. The paper draws on a series of case studies1 conducted in the mid-1990s. The paper is organised as follows. The next section gives an overview of the cases studied and discusses how these cases relate to the issue of sustainable household consumption. The third section describes three of the cases in more detail. This section highlights how citizens—albeit in very different settings in Scandinavia—are changing household consumption of resources. The fourth section focuses on the issue of the social shaping of household consumption, by elaborating on the normative and cognitive mechanisms at work in situations like these. The fifth section addresses the question of whether these and similar initiatives can be institutionalised at a larger scale. The conclusions are presented in Section 6, which also raises some key issues regarding the sustainability debate.

2. Citizen initiatives for ‘social management of environmental change’ Environmentalism is certainly nothing new. Environmental groups or organisations have, in most industrialised countries, been actively engaged in ‘saving the planet’ in a multitude of ways for several decades. A salient feature of many of these initiatives is a critique of the current course of development, as is notably the case with many consumer boycotts and ‘not in my back yard’ or ‘not in anybody’s back yard’ protests. The citizens’ stance is, however, typically a reactive and/ or obstructive one. It is a position that many are moved into taking because they are unable to 1 The empirical data upon which this paper draws is a study, ‘The Social Management of Environmental Change’, funded by The European Commission. This study includes 21 case studies from nine European countries: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

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influence the decision-making processes. Regulatory procedures between government and industry as well as within industry itself for ‘managing’ the environment leave little room for engaging the public. The initiatives dealt with in this paper differ from the above in the way the citizens have responded to their environmental concerns. The citizens have taken a more constructive approach by seeking to develop technological and social solutions to the environmental problems that concern them. These practical endeavours to manage environmental change include such diverse activities as science shops, research centres specialising in such things as developing alternative energy and environmentally sound construction techniques, co-operatives which produce food in less environmentally damaging ways, ‘eco-entrepreneurs’ seeking to develop greener products such as fridges, toilets, sewage systems and detergents, and citizen groups seeking to establish entire ecological villages. The citizens engaged in these endeavours are quite heterogeneous, crossing all political, gender, class, and age lines. Some are what might conventionally be termed environmentalists in the sense that they are members of an environmental group or organisation. However, many are citizens concerned about making the world a better place to live without having any affiliation with environmental organisations. Different as these initiatives may sound, they are similar on a number of accounts: First, they resemble one another with respect to the site of political operation, i.e. in civil society as opposed to within the realm of the state or that of conventional politics. Indeed, some of these initiatives have evolved in spite of government policies. Initiated by citizens rather than emanating from government, they are inherently decentralised and local. Second, the solutions that the citizens have developed are ‘low tech’ rather than technologically advanced. In some instances ‘old’ technologies have been re-discovered and introduced in contexts quite different from when they originally were introduced, thus rendering them ‘new’. Third, regardless of whether these initiatives involve developing alternatives to the existing ways of producing energy, treating wastes, producing


products or running a household, the development processes often challenge existing infrastructure and current practices. Fourth, the organisational structure of many of these initiatives is also the same. They are generally open, fluid and participatory, but small in scale because of the relatively few people involved. Another common feature is that these initiatives address the broad issue of consumerism. The ‘eco-entrepreneurs’ and food co-operatives are bringing new, greener products to the market, which makes it possible for (other) citizens to exercise their consumer power for the sake of the environment. Consumerism is not just about buying commodities. Individuals and/or households also consume vast quantities of environmental goods and services in connection with maintaining their everyday lives, e.g. as measured in the amount of land used for the built environment (including housing) and the amount of resources it takes to run the household. Household consumption is, indeed, associated with an enormous through-put of materials and energy (see Biesiot and Noorman’s article in this journal). Many of the activities in the science shops, research centres and ecological villages are seeking to develop methods and technologies to minimise this through-put. Much of the debate on sustainable consumption has focused on the greenness of the commodities, the choice and power of the consumer and on what can (or cannot) be achieved through market forces (Cairncross, 1991; Durning, 1992). This paper, however, takes a slightly different tack, and focuses on changing the routines of everyday life, i.e. on the initiatives to minimise the through-put of materials and energy linked to the patterns of running a household. In doing so the paper focuses on three Scandinavian cases: the workings of the international grassroots organisation Global Action Plan (GAP) in Norway, and the development of ecological villages in Hjortshoj, Denmark and in Baalarna, Sweden. The cases are based on extensive interviews with the citizens involved in the development processes and with people, whom these citizens, academics and environmental NGOs in the respective countries considered to have been important for the development processes.


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In essence, these three cases deal with the same issue, i.e. how to improve household resource management. However, as the cases show, there are marked differences with respect to how this affects everyday life, particularly whether changes in everyday behaviour can be made within the confines of the individual household or whether they require the co-operative efforts of several households.

3. Breathing life into the idea of sustainable consumption: three case studies The ideas of cyclicity and regeneration, found in descriptions of the ‘workings’ of ecological systems, are used as guiding principles for the citizens’ initiatives. Also, these cases openly address the inter-connectedness of natural and social processes. This shifts focus away from environmental degradation and resource-efficiency in a narrow sense and fixates it on the links between the environment and community. Sustainability is, in this context, about more than improving environmental quality, it is also about community development, and closely linked to the notions of proximity and self-sufficiency. In this broader context, the ecological village cases can be seen as attempts of creating ‘islands of sustainability’ (Wallner and Narodoslawsky, 1993).

3.1. Case study 1: Eco-teams The international grassroots organisation Global Action Plan (GAP), started in 1990 in the USA and the Netherlands, has cropped up in a number of European countries, including Norway. The overall aim of GAP-international is to empower ‘individuals to take practical environmental action in their home, workplace and community’ and to help ‘individuals live sustainable lifestyles’ (McLaren, 1994, personal communication). To accomplish this, GAP helps set up local, community or neighbourhood based ‘eco-teams’. In Norway, the GAP organisation started its first eco-team project in 1994. This team consists of seven households— neighbours at different ‘stages’ in life, including single, married, with and

without children. These households meet on a regular basis to discuss the prescriptions made in GAP-international’s ‘Household Eco-Team workbook’ regarding such things as waste minimisation and fuel conservation. According to one team-member ‘ … Generally this is about rearranging the habits of everyday life. It is also about the social elements. The important thing is that more people are trying to do the same thing. We meet and get inspiration from each other’ (Irwin et al., 1995). Thus, being a team allows for some synergy. Their interaction and discussions have, as another team-member notes ‘helped them think differently, so that they—in the long run—may become more environmentally critical consumers’ (Irwin et al., 1995). Viewed from this perspective, eco-teams can do more than minimise household metabolism. The participatory and engaging nature of these activities, based on an exchange of information and experience, allows for reflexivity or a critical review and adjustment of the participants’ preferences.

3.2. Case study 2: an ecological 6illage in Denmark Hjortshoj is a Danish ‘eco-village’. It is just one of several ecological villages cropping up across Europe—in France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. The idea to try to establish an eco-village was originally launched at a public seminar in 1986. The overall aim of this experiment was to improve the quality of life through local community and environmental development. It took, however, almost 8 years before the first inhabitants could move into the village, but by the following year the village had some 200 inhabitants. Their plan is to expand until as many as 500 people. Hjortshoj consists of private as well as public housing so as to encourage the development of an economically heterogeneous community, and the villagers are committed to a democratic and community-based decision making process. Moreover, the villagers are also committed to making the village environmentally ‘self-contained’ by relying as much as possible on local resources and by letting environmental considerations guide as

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many of the village activities as possible. The houses are, for instance, built with bricks of unburned clay, insulated with recycled materials and painted with non-toxic paints. Heating relies as much as possible on the use of solar energy, and the villagers plan to establish their own waste treatment system, based on root-zone technology. This is less energy intensive than the municipal treatment system. Moreover, the villagers would also like to become self-sufficient with respect to various forms of agricultural produce. Living in Hjortshoj has entailed making several changes in the daily workings of the individual households. Tasks like gardening, farming, separating and treating wastes, economising with energy resources and recycling are carried out collectively in small groups rather than by the individual household. Participation in these activities is voluntary, but based on a principle of rotation. Many of the tasks are also more encompassing than if they were left to the individual household. Recycling is, for instance, not limited to sorting the conventional waste fractions (paper, glass and batteries) but also involves the repair and redistribution of such things as clothing, toys and furniture. As a result, many of the villagers are involved in a multitude of projects ranging from small repair jobs, to ‘do-it-your-self’ construction and maintenance activities. Several are employed by the main firm in the village, ‘Ecotech’, which operates as a green construction company and consultancy on green building design. This makes Hjortshoj an ecological workplace, even though the majority of citizens, active in the labour market, work outside the village. The distinction between the formal and informal economy is, however, quite fluid in Hjortshoj, and some of the villagers would like to introduce a local exchange trading system, LETS.2 In this respect, Hjortshoj involves interests and activities 2 This is a trading system which allows members of a LETS-group to obtain goods and services in exchange for other services; without the use of money. The system is based on a list of the skills, services and goods each member of the LETS group is capable of delivering, and a list of each person’s requests. Once these lists are matched, the exchange of goods and services is simply recorded as debits and credits to the ‘account’ of each member in a LETS-bank. This ‘bank


that extend beyond that of simply reducing household and village consumption of environmental resources. Making environmental improvements is linked to the broader issues and carried by ideals such as living and working in the same community and developing more participatory modes for decision-making within the community (Remtoft, 1995). There are a number of reasons that it took a long time to establish Hjortshoj. First, the citizens had to adjust their plans with the municipal landuse planning. This involved several rounds of negotiations between the municipal authorities and representatives for the citizen group. As a loosely-knit group, many of the citizens, originally involved in the project, left in the course of these negotiations. Second, once the citizens received the official ‘go-ahead’, the project suffered from lack of sufficient legitimacy. Not only did the proposed project challenge the specialised and sector approach of local government, it also ran counter to conventional wisdom with respect to construction techniques, sewage treatment and energy supply. The citizens had to build a pilothouse and have it tested by an independent engineering company in order to convince the local authorities of their project’s viability. Third, finding the necessary investment capital proved also to be exceedingly difficult because the citizens were organised as a co-op, which the banks refused to support. Eco-Tech was established to circumvent this obstacle. Getting a housing association to provide the public ecological housing proved also to be a very time consuming process. Finally, the organisational structure of the group itself posed some problems as well. The flux of people in and out of the project made it difficult to maintain sufficient continuity and expertise.

3.3. Case study 3: a Swedish ecological 6illage Baalarna is a very small ecological village, with only 20 inhabitants, located in mid-Sweden. Baalarna differs from Hjortshoj on a number of accounts. The initiative to build this village did not come solely from the inhabitants, but came primarily from the local Municipal Housing Society. Originally, the inhabitants’ prime goal was to


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live in pleasant surroundings and in what they considered to be ‘healthy houses’, i.e. ones that can ‘breathe’ and are not built with ‘unhealthy materials’. Environmental issues were not the citizens’ main concern. The Housing Society, however, took their ideas a step further and decided in 1990 to build an ecological village. This decision was hinged on a decision made by the National Organisation of Municipal Housing Societies to promote the ‘greening of housing’ and, at the local level, the director’s personal interest in environmental issues. Baalarna was established in little over a year, built by the largest construction company in Sweden. This was, however, not an easy task. None of the involved parties had much prior knowledge about building ecologically. However, by actively engaging with the ‘users’ and the director of the local housing society the construction company was able to tap into a large network of people engaged in promoting ecological villages and technologies, and in this fashion get access to a broad base of experience. As a representative for the construction company commented: ‘We’re the ones learning’. This collaboration and re-working of the user-producer relations (Lundvall, 1988) allowed the construction company to draw on the citizens’ local and contextual knowledge and translate these insights into modified and/or new construction techniques, which they could use to their advantage in other settings. Even though Baalarna resembles almost any other small Swedish village, there are some marked differences with respect to construction, heating, and sewage system. The sewage system is based on the use of separation toilets which do, exactly what the name indicates — separate the urine from the faeces. This technology has several environmental advantages (Irwin et al., 1995.) As in the case of Hjortshoj, the ecological model is carried into the structures, such as the houses themselves and the lay-out of the village, and into the routines of everyday life. The decentralised and less automated technologies introduced in these villages not only increase each individual’s engagement with the natural environment, they change the temporal structure of the household — certain aspects of everyday life have become more

time consuming. In some respects, there appears to be a trade-off between (household) use of natural resources and time (Adam, 1994). It takes time to develop and uphold less environmentally damaging ways of living. Moreover, maintaining these villages requires the co-ordinated efforts of the inhabitants, in part, because of the labour-intensity of the tasks involved and, in part, due to the technologies. Some are sensitive to changes in behaviour and will not function properly—from an environmental perspective—if the behavioural patterns vary too much. The three case studies also highlight the importance of context. Citizen action is, to varying degrees, motivated by environmental concerns, albeit relating to different aspects of the environment. The citizens are embedded in quite different socio-political, economic and cultural contexts, and this influences what they consider to be important environmental problems. These include: “ minimising resource use and waste in the way houses are built and households are run (all cases); “ building healthy houses without the use of toxic paints and materials (Baalarna); “ establishing, maintaining and protecting the natural surroundings (Baalarna, Hjortshoj); “ limiting the environmental damages associated with modern agriculture (Hjortshoj). Although these problems are inherently local, this does not mean that these activities are irrelevant in relation to the global environmental issues. In some instances, they are addressing global problems such as reducing the use of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions. The global problems or perspectives are, however, ‘translated’ and fitted into the local, specific circumstances of the individuals. Through a multitude of feedback processes among the citizens and between the citizens and other actors, these ‘global problems’ set a ‘new’ agenda for the routines of everyday life and add new meanings to the daily tasks. The environment acts as a vehicle for other concerns as well, i.e. meeting local needs, creating jobs and maintaining the communities’ livelihood. Thus, the environmental arguments carry arguments for changing existing political and economic structures and for improving the quality of life.

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4. The social shaping of household consumption From an economic perspective, the citizens are voluntarily internalising some of the negative externalities associated with household consumption patterns. Conventional economic models of social behaviour would view this as a result of the instrumental rationality of the people involved, and explain it in terms of utility or expected utility maximisation (Olson, 1965; Becker, 1977). There are, however, three problems associated with the instrumentalist accounts of human action which render them inadequate for explaining this kind of social behaviour: First, the methodological underpinnings of these accounts in which preferences are considered given; second, the implicit assumption that the means/ends and costs/benefits are clearly discernible and calculable; and third, that utility maximisation is the main driving force. Conventional neo-classical economics represent, what Granovetter (1985) has termed, an ‘undersocialised view of social action’ in the sense that it ignores the importance of the social structure for the shaping of preferences, choices and actions. Instead, behaviour is explained in terms of each individuals’ self-interested evaluation of the utility/expected utility of participating, with their preferences—including their preferences for environmental goods— being treated as given. Each individual exists in a social vacuum, only linked to others for instrumental reasons. However, as the stories of GAP, Hjortshoj and Baalarna show, the citizens’ interaction and engagement with one another leads to reflexivity on not only an individual but also a collective basis: For instance, being part of an eco-team leads to self-reflection on the part of the members as to their preferences for consumer goods. The continuous interaction associated with running the ecological villages not only helps villagers refine and improve their management practices and household technologies, but also helps them reinforce or strengthen their belief that they indeed are doing the ‘right thing’. It is their recurrent interaction that helps shape their mutual expectations of how to behave, which again serves to (re-) affirm the picture they have of themselves as behaving in an environmentally correct/appropriate manner.


The fact that the environment is a vehicle for other concerns as well highlights the problem of exactly discerning what are the participants’ means and the ends. Making environmental improvements is certainly one goal for the villagers of Hjortshoj and Baalarna, but this also acts as a means for another end, i.e. community development and improving the quality of life. For some citizens, just being part of an ecological village is considered personally fulfilling (Irwin et al., 1995), rendering it difficult to distinguish the means from the end. It is, therefore, difficult for the individual households to compare the costs and the benefits of taking action and/or the effects of doing so. There are some instances where measuring the costs and benefits is relatively straightforward, such as in calculating the building costs for an ecological house or the economic benefits of a lower utility bill. In most instances, the costs and, particularly, the benefits are much more difficult to measure. Assessing the costs and benefits associated with the time spent running an ecological village exemplifies this. On the one hand, the time spent tending the compost, the heating and waste treatment systems could be considered a cost because of the lost opportunities to do other things. In light of the often cited metaphor ‘time is money’, then one could calculate the cost as lost wages in the formal economy. (For citizens not engaged in the formal economy, their costs will presumably be smaller.) On the other hand, the personal, social, and environmental benefits of spending time together to tend the compost etc. are even more difficult, if not impossible, to meaningfully quantify and measure. The difficulties associated with such an exercise defy the assumption that people take action based on an instrumental comparison of the costs and benefits. They are driven by a combination of ideals and interests in living a less environmentally damaging life. A more socially embedded—or new institutionalist—line of argument (Powell and DiMaggio, 1991; Scott, 1995) offers a different view of why some practices are institutionalised. The basic tenet of this broad and diffuse theoretical approach is that institutions provide meaning and stability to social behaviour by enabling as well as


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constraining behaviour (Giddens, 1984). According to Scott (1995, pp. 33 – 45) institutions consist of three elements-regulative, normative and cognitive —each of which represent different mechanisms for shaping behaviour: Rules and regulation can stipulate/force repetition of certain practices. Similar patterns of behaviour can, however, also be supported by social norms and values. The third mechanism has to do with the individuals’ subjective interpretation of the objective conditions of everyday life, or one’s worldview. This is something which is ‘socially constructed’ (negotiated) by the individuals within a specific cultural context, and gives meaning to each individual’s actions. Behaviour is, in this instance, guided by common conceptions/expectations of how to act. Particularly the normative and cognitive elements seem to have much to offer in analysing the voluntary behaviour of the citizens involved in the described cases. The citizens are motivated by their concern for the environment and development in general, but this cannot meaningfully be reduced to something which serves their individual interests. Their choice to participate is structured by socially mediated values about the importance of protecting the environment, solving unemployment problems, ensuring community development, etc. Moreover, once the citizens become involved in the initiative, environmentally informed behaviour is also expected of them. It is the norm within the group; a norm which begins as a loosely defined common interest in minimising household wastes and resource use, but evolves as the citizens meet, exchange information and opinions, and debate which line of action to take. This allows for a gradual adjustment of differences in opinion, and gives way to new everyday practices. It is a learning process which is carried by the consciousness-raising effect of experimentation and the development of their own knowledge networks. These actions help shape the citizens’ sense of duty or ‘logic of appropriateness’ (March and Olson, 1989), or, as in these cases ‘ecological appropriateness’. Developing this logic entails two things. First, it reflects a vision, provides a sense of direction and gives some indication of how things should/should not be done. Second, it

moulds individual action by conferring certain responsibilities and tasks on the citizens involved. This means that the instrumental behaviour of the individual citizens is constrained by their relations and obligations to others. The social shaping of household consumption of environmental resources is carried by the reciprocity of the people involved. Each individual is influenced by what they think is expected of them and by their expectations that others will behave in a similar fashion as themselves. There are also cognitive mechanisms at work as well. Through their actions the citizens develop shared definitions of what is environmentally sound behaviour, shared meanings of what is the ‘right’ thing to do, and shared conceptions of their critics. Hjortshoj provides the clearest example of this. Some of the obstacles, which the citizens encountered in the years it took to establish the village, can be attributed to a clash of worldviews because the villagers’ ideas challenged the ‘taken for grantedness’ of what the municipal authorities considered to be the (environmentally) acceptable way of building communities. The citizens had the burden of proof, but were adamant in their belief as to how environmentally sound houses should be constructed. Their ideas could, however, only gain sufficient legitimacy by involving a third party (the engineering company). The citizens and the authorities’ arguments were informed and constrained by the ways in which they, respectively, had established and/or ‘constructed’ their knowledge base as to the environmental advantages/disadvantages of the various technologies. However, both the citizens and the authorities’ ‘institutionalised way of looking at the world’ (Jordan and O’Riordan, 1995, pp. 20) were subject to modification in the course of their interaction, thus, allowing for new understandings to emerge. Initiatives like GAP, Baalarna and Hjortshoj have neither great legitimacy, nor do they involve a great number of people. While the former is a disadvantage, the latter is an advantage in some respects and a disadvantage in others. Being a small group allows the citizens to negotiate and adjust their mutual expectations more easily than in a larger group. The participants are more likely

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to have the necessary insights to socially ‘control’ the co-operative efforts, and see to it that things are done according to the negotiated and agreed plan of action. However, as the number of involved citizens grows, maintaining this ‘social’ and moral control becomes correspondingly difficult, unless measures (such as organising people in groups) are taken to ensure the necessary participatory and consensus-making procedures. If this does not happen, then it becomes increasingly difficult to elaborate and reinforce shared meanings of what is the best way of doing things, and each individual is not assured of the reciprocity of others. In effect, as the group grows in size, this increases the probability that people’s expectation will diverge, that they will behave according to different norms, and that more will choose to ‘free ride’. This is a paradoxical situation. Voluntary measures like the initiatives described above may be quite effective for working towards sustainable development at the local level, because the voluntary nature of these initiatives render other regulatory structures unnecessary. If a prerequisite for their success is a limited number of participants, then they appear to be very limited in scope and of marginal importance for promoting structural changes in current household consumption patterns. What are the prospects of increasing the scope or significance of these and similar citizen initiatives?

5. Citizen initiatives and the institutionalisation of environmentally sound behaviour Increasing the scope of these initiatives could be achieved by either upscaling or transferring the technologies in use. Upscaling involves extending these ‘new’ household technologies and practices beyond the existing technological and/or social limits of small groups or communities. Informative campaigns like that of GAP can easily be expanded so as to reach much larger audiences. Indeed, numerous initiatives of this type, based on materials similar to the Eco-team workbook, are being introduced by governments and citizens alike (e.g. in Local Agenda 21 initiatives.) How-


ever, when it comes to upscaling the ‘new’ household technologies and/or the organisational structures of ecological villages, the picture is not quite so clear. Some of the technologies can easily be introduced on a larger scale, e.g. separation toilets can easily be mass-produced and made available to a larger public, and the less energy-intensive waste treatment methods (root zone technology) can be used to treat larger quantities of wastes than that coming from relatively small ecological villages. As the companies producing the various technologies for ecological housing gain more experience, this will allow for some economies of scale which will lead to lower costs and help to increase the diffusion of these technologies. However, many of the existing household technologies are not only cheaper, they are also easier to use because they do not entail any substantial change of behaviour. Thus, the price structure and existing household routines are likely to limit peoples interest in changing status quo. Moreover, the fact that many of the ecological technologies have to be ‘finely tuned’ and will not function properly, if the everyday maintenance routines vary too much, constitutes a social as well as a technical limit to upscaling. Upscaling could be achieved through (local) government planning, e.g. urban ecology projects. There is a danger that the initiative will be taken over by local government, rendering the citizens with very little influence and drawing the life blood out of the initiative. The social and moral incentive for participating is in this case not something which evolves from the citizens’ spontaneous interaction, but by (government) design. This is not to say that all local government initiatives are doomed to failure, but it does highlight the paradoxical nature of policy, i.e. how best to plan the spontaneous so as to tap into the ingenuity of the citizens. Unless measures are taken to ensure participation, co-operation and collaboration, then government initiatives will also be susceptible to free-riding. Many of the technologies and approaches to solving environmental problems are and will be transferred to other settings through the knowledge networks which the citizens have been ‘forced’ to establish in their quest for alternatives


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to the existing household technologies. These networks help facilitate the transfer of ideas, experience and information, and are essential to the learning processes associated with developing alternatives. In this sense, they represent important innovative milieus or ‘seed beds’ for new ecological ideas and technologies in which these can grow. The importance of social context brought out by the cases point, however, to some of the problems in simply transferring the technologies from one context to another. For instance, the relatively widespread use of separating toilets in Sweden appears to be an extension of a long standing tradition of using dry closets. Also it appears that many Swedish municipalities — or at least those municipalities located on top of solid bed-rock and in relatively sparsely populated areas — have a strong economic interest in developing creative waste management techniques. Although socially quite accepted in Sweden, the ‘intimacy’ of separating toilets may likely provoke some social resistance in other areas/nations because this ecologically sound technology may be considered ‘dirty’, unhygienic and perhaps even primitive. The separating toilet can easily — taken out of context—give associations to ‘going back to the old days’ without running water, etc. and thus likely to be met with much opposition. As is the case with technology in general, the introduction of new environmental technology entails making organisational and social changes. Whether this indeed will be a ‘success’ depends on the context —on the history, the socio-economic structures and existing norms in each particular setting. The stories about the development of ecological villages bring out two other issues regarding transferability: They offer inspiration as to how to establish an ecological way of living, particularly in rural areas. ‘Solutions’ of this kind require space which can be difficult to find in more urban settings. Moreover, establishing new everyday routines requires time; time to deal with new activities not already part of the workings of the individual household, and time to allow for environmental solutions to evolve from the households’ collective efforts. Not all citizens have the

time or are willing to take the time to reorganise the routines of everyday life and to negotiate making environmental improvements collectively. The questions of upscaling and transferability are hinged on the problem that initiatives like these appear to run counter to the institutionalised and established patterns of behaviour. Within each of three case studies, there is some indication of the habitualisation of environmental activities—they have become part of the basic routines of everyday life. Protecting the environment has become a matter of habit for those engaged in these initiatives, and not something that is fundamentally questioned. Within these contexts, environmental activities have become a form of institutionalised behaviour. However, these environmentally informed modes of behaviour have not gained sufficient legitimacy so as to receive more widespread acceptance, as evidenced by the difficulties in persuading other citizens, financial institutions and government authorities of the merits of ‘living ecologically’. Norms for environmentally sound behaviour appear to be at a stage of pre-institutionalisation. Whether these will be institutionalised as a norm depends on whether a broader consensus about the importance of these behavioural patterns is built. The processes by which environmental concerns acquire social acceptability will depend on changes at all levels of society because of a multitude of institutions at work (Scott, 1995). Many institutions have ‘locked’ people into patterns of daily activity which are known to be environmentally unsound (Benton and Redclift, 1994). There are, however, substantial political and social pressures which may contribute to the ‘de-institutionalisation’ (Oliver, 1992) of some of these institutions. As the German sociologist Ulrich Beck points out in his account of the Risk Society (Beck, 1992, pp. 228): ‘from the outset, technoeconomic innovations as a motor for permanent social change have been excluded from the possibility of democratic consultation, monitoring and resistance. Therefore a number of contradictions are built into the design of the innovation processes, and these are opening up today’. These contradictions manifest themselves as ecological,

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social and political risks which elude control (Beck, 1996, pp. 27). This has contributed to the transformation of politics, conventionally depicted as a struggle between parties, to something much more multifaceted with many different realms of ‘sub-politics’ (Beck, 1997). Within each realm, the existing schemes for doing things are being contested, with new areas of conflict and new coalitions emerging. The citizen initiatives, presented in this paper, are taken as examples of the sub-politics of everyday life. It is not at all clear whether these developments will, in the long run, render current unsustainable and institutionalised modes of behaviour as illegitimate. However, citizen initiatives like the ones described above, offer ‘living proof’ of the possibilities for establishing other patterns of behaviour, and undercut the more deterministic accounts of the pervasiveness and stability of the existing institutions (Benton and Redclift, 1994). These experiments allow for a positive expression of needs and concerns and for the development of innovative responses to these concerns. From a policy perspective, there seems to be two main options for capturing the innovative potential of such experiments— to develop policies that encourage participation so as to allow value articulation, formation and re-formation and to allow for experimentation (Irwin et al., 1994; Kemp et al., 1997).

6. Conclusions The broad debate about sustainability is essentially de-contextualised, with the goals and aims expressed in vague and general terms. In the cases described in this paper, citizens are addressing the issue of sustainability from very specific and localised perspectives. However, their environmental concerns are in many instances inseparable from broader issues such as improving the quality of life and re-gaining some control over local development. The environment has not only spurred citizens into action, it has also been the ‘vent’ through which other concerns could be expressed. This represents a much broader interpretation of sustainable development than the one


found in much of the environmental policy literature. It highlights the value issues and social dimensions of sustainability rather than focusing narrowly on the ecological-technological dimensions. In moving towards sustainability these citizens are engaged in establishing new knowledge based on an appropriation, re-interpretation and further development of existing expertise; an expertise that is not necessarily limited to the realm of science, but often found in the world of the ‘lay’ citizen. These activities are challenging the ‘logic’ of conventional, institutionalised forms of technological innovation and environmental policy. Their significance extends beyond their local contexts as they can provide glimpses of possible futures and act as ‘vehicles for their realisation’ (Giddens, 1990). The citizens described in these cases have been inspired by social and democratic ideals as well as their interests in finding less environmentally damaging ways of living. Their decision to engage in these activities is based on their own normative rationales, modified by the web of social relations within which the individuals are embedded. Conventional economic analysis would picture their reasons for doing so as pursuing self-interest, but as McMahon (1997, pp. 171) argues ‘economic man has trouble with relationships’. Such accounts do not do justice to the shared normative frameworks that evolve and monitor behaviour as people co-operate. Accordingly, analysis of this kind offers little insight into the possibilities of developing more sustainable consumption patterns. Moreover, it appears also to have little to offer in accounting for the barriers likely to be encountered in the process of promoting sustainable development.

Acknowledgements This research has been conducted in collaboration with Dr. Alan Irwin (Brunel University, UK), Professor Philip Vergragt (Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands) and three research assistants: Janet Rachel (UK), Hugo Verheul (NL) and Maj Munch Andersen (DK). The


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research has been funded by the Commission of the European Communities through a research grant within the programme: Research on Social and Economic Aspects of the Environment, 1993 –1995. I would like to thank Inge Røpke, Michael Jacobs and the journal’s reviewers for their helpful suggestions and comments on earlier drafts.

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