Sociology of consumption

Sustainability and social justice (session 2 of 3)

June 29, 2021 15:00
June 29, 2021 16:30

Katia Vladimirova, Institute of Sociological Research, UNIGE; Johanna Huber, Institute of Citizenship, UNIGE; Marlyne Sahakian, Institute of Sociological Research, UNIGE


Patricia Homs¹⁻², Adrià Martín Mayor² and Gemma Flores-Pons²

¹Reciprocity Studies Group, Social Anthropology Department, University of Barcelona; ²L’Aresta. Agroecological Cooperative

Johanna Huber, Institute of Citizenship, University of Geneva

Orlane Moynat, Institute of Sociological Research, University of Geneva

The normative notion of ‘sustainability’ has social justice implications at its core. Environmental sustainability is often treated as a distributional issue, regarding how to better allocate the access to natural resources and how to assign responsibility for environmental impacts, and touches upon questions of procedural justice. Such perspectives shed light on who is involved in decisions regarding sustainability practices, processes and policies as well as who is excluded or included, and in what way. The questions of ‘by whom’ and ‘for whom’ sustainability applies also relate to how ‘sustainability’ is often considered to be an anthropogenic topic; more attention is needed on how humans and nonhumans are equally important actors in socio-ecological systems. Further, some of the solutions proposed for ‘sustainable’ change tend to involve the white upper-middle-class, and may lead to forms of elite environmentalism that render invisible or less significant the lower impact lifestyles of the world’s under-priviledged groups. Furthermore, movements proposing sustainable solutions may be blind to racial and economic barriers faced by certain groups to participate in these solutions (Alkon and Agyeman 2011). Thus, sustainability as a concept must also extend beyond its environmental dimension, to recognize the ways in which societal contexts support the reproduction of societal-and-nature relations. This relates to the normative goal of sustainable wellbeing (Gough 2017), or how sustainability must include a consideration for theories of human wellbeing, and the wellbeing of nonhumans. This paper session welcomes contributions on how sustainability relates to social justice, across systems of provision, and in relation to labor issues, moral markets, and consumption practices. More specifically, we are interested in debates around questions of inequalities and social justice, in relation to sustainability, but also examples of what (collective) sustainability initiatives are emerging, their transformative possibilities, and the role of critical theories in uncovering further opportunities for socially just and environmentally sustainable change.

(Un)sustainabilities in agroecological cooperativism in Catalonia

Patricia Homs⁽¹⁾⁽²⁾, Adrià Martín Mayor⁽²⁾  and Gemma Flores-Pons⁽²⁾
⁽¹⁾Reciprocity Studies Group, Social Anthropology Department, University of Barcelona;  ⁽²⁾L’Aresta. Agroecological Cooperative

In the 2010s the agroecological movement expanded in Catalonia, Spain, leading to an increase in the number of food cooperatives in the region. Food cooperatives include several collectives that self-manage food provisioning through cooperative practices such as consumption groups (grupos de consumo), consumer cooperatives (cooperativas de consumo) and different types of consumer associations. Despite their potential (Espelt 2018), this paper explores the unsustainabilities of proximity-based food provisioning networks that are composed of consumers’ food cooperatives and small organic food producers through an ethnographic case in Catalonia conducted by the authors. The ethnographic case includes long-term fieldwork (2008-2020) and more than sixty interviews to farmers, distributors, consumers and other experts.

The notion of sustainability includes a triple dimension that covers social, environmental and economic sustainability and implies «social justice» at its core. Indeed, alternative food networks aim to achieve food sovereignty and food justice as well as economic viability and environmental justice. Nevertheless, this research describes multiple situations where food cooperatives experience difficulties in expanding to wider society for instance by including socioeconomic diversity among consumers. Moreover, while both producer and consumer’ projects aim to place people’s lives at the centre of their practices and value reproductive tasks such as care with their concept of sustainability, projects’ productive priorities are often positioned above other needs — showing difficulties in establishing practices beyond the market economy. Hence, the reproductive sphere remains subordinate to the productive one dominated by the market economy. This reality clashes with the main principles of feminist economies (Mansilla and Ezquerra 2018) and agroecological principles. Regarding farmers, they claim that their projects are not economically viable and that are sustained thanks to self-exploitation. Self-exploitation is sometimes disguised as a passion for farming and acts as a lever that increases the resilience of projects during periods of crisis. Nevertheless, this resilience can be understood as a transference of the socioeconomic context to producers that adapt their organization and salaries to the crisis context. Indeed, the effects of the socioeconomic crisis are embodied in farmers’ livelihoods.

Faced with these unsustainabilities, some food provisioning networks attempt to deal with these issues, such as hiring workers to manage the daily tasks of the food-coop in spite of the importance of the self-management imaginary that implies that work must be done by voluntary members. Another strategy is to employ intermediaries in these provisioning systems, thus loosening the direct relationship between producers and consumers. Yet another is to increase flexible workloads by changing the scale of the projects; for instance, through the creation of cooperative supermarkets. However, developments and results of this changeable situation need continued examination as new threats and limits appear in the currently violent capitalist market economy. Indeed, alternative food networks are not beyond the market but immersed in an agro-industrial context that imposes market values along every socioeconomic exchange.

Keywords: sustainability, agroecology, food cooperatives, care, food justice  

Sustainable food production – really? How Swiss farmer organizations navigate the challenging

Johanna Huber, Institute of Citizenship, University of Geneva

The lacking sustainability of some forms of food consumption and production is a hot topic in the media, politics (i.e. popular initiatives) as well as in scientific contributions. The complexity and multidimensionality of the problem – involving ecological, health and social justice considerations – make it challenging to find effective ways to mitigate the negative externalities of the mainstream food system. While citizens’ initiatives are spreading, such as urban gardening, dumpster diving or participatory supermarkets, a traditional and ancient profession has a direct impact on how food is produced in Switzerland on a larger scale: farming. 

Since the 1990s, Swiss agriculture has been transformed fundamentally, going from a system of stable prices for farm products, to a system of direct payments for ecological services and an increased market orientation. The result is a complex system of state subsidies in the context of increased liberalization. Farmers lament a partial replacement of farmers’ identity as food producers to ‘gardeners of the country’. They are being paid by the state for their ecological services and at the same time, they are not able to live from their food production due to dropping prices. Farmers work on average significantly more hours per week than comparable professions, and earn a below average income; each day, about three Swiss farms disappear from the production landscape, further emphasizing the precarity of the profession. At the same time, ecological requirements for farming are increasing (Droz and Forney 2002). In the summer of 2021, Swiss citizens will vote on two popular initiatives regarding the regulation of pesticides in agriculture. While Swiss farmers, represented by their unions, agree with the necessity to make farming ecological and less dependent on pesticides, some feel that their realities are not being understood by the urban population. 

The case of farmers shows the complex nature of the issue of food. On the one hand, consumers demand more ecological and affordable food. On the other hand, many farmers have a hard time making ends meet – making their lifestyles un-sustainable. In this article, I wish to understand what strategies various Swiss agricultural interest groups deploy to navigate these tensions between ecological and social justice issues. To do so, I conduct semi-structured interviews with agricultural interest groups throughout Switzerland and use a grounded-theory inspired approach to analyze the data. Gaining a better understanding of these tensions is crucial if we want to scale up transformation in food production. While alternative initiatives can show the way by experimenting with new ways of producing food, real change can only come about if a dialogue can be established between alternative farmers and more traditional farmers, as well as between the urban and rural population. 

Keywords: agriculture, Switzerland, ecology, social justice 

Understanding the sufficiency and wellbeing nexus through a study of degrowth practices in Western Switzerland. 

Orlane Moynat, Institute of Sociological Research, University of Geneva 

Consumption is a crucial issue in relation to environmental sustainability, particularly addressed through studies on the impact of consumption patterns on the environment. Consumption patterns have also been considered in relation to another dimension of sustainability that involves people’s quality of life and notions of social justice. In that respect, there has been a growing interest in the links between consumption, environmental sustainability and wellbeing (Guillen-Royo & Wilhite, 2015; Brand-Correa & Steinberger, 2017; Gough, 2017 among others). One hopeful hypothesis suggests that reduced consumption levels and associated negative impacts might actually lead to higher wellbeing – what Tim Jackson has termed the double dividend (2005). Yet, more empirical evidence is needed to better understand this double dividend. This paper draws on a research project that aimed at understanding the nexus between everyday consumption patterns and wellbeing, in relation to sufficiency – or absolute reductions in consumption. Building on Max Neef’s theories of fundamental human needs (1991) and a social practice theory approach to consumption (Shove, 2003 among others), this article proposes a distinctive conceptual framework that supports the theoretical and empirical compatibility of social practice theory, consumption reduction, and a needs-based considerations of wellbeing. Drawing on individual interviews with people close to the Geneva degrowth movement network, the paper presents two ideal types of degrowth practitioners - revolutionary and reformist - and the positive impact their practices can have on the satisfaction of fundamental human needs. Building on these findings, the paper exposes how, by bringing up a clear distinction between desires, needs and satisfiers, an emphasis can be placed on sustainable practices representing synergic satisfiers. Moreover, it shows how this concept of synergic satisfiers can be used to understand how forms of collective action can lead to individual practices. Eventually, the aim is to illustrate why the understanding of the nexus between sufficiency and wellbeing through everyday practices can be considered as a window of opportunity towards forms of change that would take into account environmental and social dimensions of sustainability, as equally crucial and interrelated aspects of (sustainable) wellbeing.  

Keywords: sufficiency, degrowth, wellbeing, everyday practices, Switzerland