Sociology of consumption

Sustainable consumption and social justice

June 28, 2021 13:15
June 28, 2021 14:45

Philip Balsiger, Université de Neuchâtel

Léna Pellandini-Simanyi, Università della Svizzera italiana

Marlyne Sahakian, University of Geneva


Dr. Manisha Anantharaman, Associate Professor, Saint Mary’s College of California

Seema Arora-Jonsson, Professor, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

Viviana Asara, Institute for Multi-Level Governance and Development, Vienna University of Economics and Business

Sustainable consumption is a growing field of research and action, focused on the role of everyday people – as consumers and citizens – in sustainability transitions. While the environmental impacts of consumption patterns are often given much attention, social justice dimensions of ‘sustainable consumption’ merit further scrutiny. Sustainable consumption relates to social justice issues in several ways. When it comes to final consumption, sustainable products and services are often a ‘choice’ for an elite few, who can afford to buycott their way towards environmentally-sound lifestyles. Moving further up the supply chain, production processes often render invisible the labour and sanitary conditions of workers producing these ‘sustainable’ consumer goods, with environmental impacts also shaded from view. Shifting our gaze to post-consumer waste, the green consumption of Northern countries can also result in the exporting of un-sustainable products or non-recyclable waste to other countries, which must bear the environmental and social burden of these ‘lesser’ products. Thus, sustainable consumption is inseparable from questions of global distributional justice, in terms of who can access environmental resources and who bears the brunt of negative environmental externalities. Lastly and crucially, sustainable consumption is also an issue of procedural justice, placing attention on what voices are included or excluded in processes that aim to promote more sustainable consumption. This semi-plenary on sustainable consumption and social justice thus moves beyond the relatively simplified moral question of what might be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ consumption choices, to consider the competing ethical principles on which sustainable consumption might need to rely, including environmental priorities, but also social priorities, such as reducing poverty and inequalities.

Keywords: sustainable consumption, social justice, environmental impacts

The potential and pitfalls of communitarian sustainability

Dr. Manisha Anantharaman, Associate Professor, Saint Mary’s College of California

Academics, policy-makers and activists have placed much hope in the power of community to democratize and radicalize sustainability, but is this hope well founded? In this talk, drawing on a long-term study of Bengaluru, India’s zero waste communities, I argue that while community-based sustainability projects can democratize the governance of urban environments, empower women to influence public policy and resist the corporatization of infrastructure, they simultaneously reinforce caste, class and gendered oppression. Bengaluru’s zero waste transition emerged out of the work of women, whose household and neighborhood-level activism was instrumental in the spread of zero waste practices across the city. The work of these women demonstrates how community-based sustainability, a form of care-work convened through affective relationships, can be a potent force propelling behavioral and even policy changes through relational activism. However, when sustainability becomes women’s work, it can disproportionately responsibilize them. 

Community-based sustainability initiatives can also oppress and silence the working poor. Elite and middle class voices dominate the zero waste movement, even though the working poor carry out the actual work of zero waste within and beyond the home. When the poor are included, it is only as executors and workers, not as designers or leaders. Managers and citizen-volunteers constantly scrutinize and supervise workers, disciplining their bodies. This mode of engaging “poor-others,” I argue, emerges directly from dominant sustainability discourses that lionize citizen-consumers and technical expertise, while sidestepping the knowledge of workers and the informal sector, and the political challenges they offer. The citizen-valorizing aspects of global sustainability hybridize with indigenous caste-structured “cultures of servitude,” rendering communitarian sustainability hierarchical and exploitative.

Keywords: Community, care, gender, class, caste, waste   

Manisha Anantharaman is an Associate Professor of Justice, Community and Leadership at Saint Mary’s College of California, USA. Her research and teaching interests connect sustainability and social justice, applying participatory and ethnographic methodologies to examine how economic and political ideologies, social identities, and power relations affect how sustainability is conceptualized and enacted at multiple scales. Her publications include an edited book on “The Circular Economy and the Global South” (Routledge, UK). In 2019, she was the Alba Viotto Invited Professor in Sociology at the Institute for Sociological Research, University of Geneva. She serves on the Executive Board of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI), an international knowledge network of over 1200 researchers and practitioners committed to building a flourishing and ecologically-sound society by changing the way we consume. She received her PhD from the Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management at the University of California Berkeley (2015).

The material basis of sustainable consumption: Social justice and relations to land 

Seema Arora-Jonsson, Professor, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

In this talk, I reflect upon how sustainable consumption is inextricable from the restructuring (or reterritorializing) of land and how this oft ignored connection between the two,  is central to concerns about social justice. I take two examples from my research – the first on climate programs, the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) that span the global North and South. In REDD+ rural communities in Africa are paid for refraining from logging their forests and in this way accruing carbon credits in the long term plan that consumers, especially in the global North, would buy those credits. This is seen as a win-win for all, carbon is sequestered, consumers in the North can assuage their conscience about parts of their lifestyles by buying credits and communities in Africa are paid cash for not logging their forests. 

The second example concerns the shift to sustainable technologies and is from the global North. The need for a transfer to what are seen as green technologies (such as electric cars) has engendered a scramble for resources, especially for minerals and metals needed in the manufacture or maintenance of these new technologies. Sweden has promoted itself as country with good governance and as the best place to mine minerals as compared to countries in Africa, regarded as clearly failing in assuring justice for their citizens in mining areas. Yet, as the immense resistance from indigenous Sami groups in Sweden as well as some local inhabitants shows, this is clearly not justice for them. The appropriation of land for mining entails encroaching on territory and the destruction of landscapes where people live and depend on for their livelihoods. In particular, it means shifting the use of land from the Sami reindeer herding groups, who have had customary rights to the land, to the state and companies for mining. 

These are two examples of the differentiated impacts of ‘sustainable’ consumption in different parts of the world. Sustainable consumption clearly has a geographic and an ambiguous social justice dimension. The question is sustainable for whom and where? On the one hand, exploitation of natural resources promises development and welfare to areas often considered remote or backward and promises sustainable consumption globally. On the other, it threatens to dispossess rural people of land they believe is theirs or as in the case of the climate programs in Africa, it shifts decision-making over the land to consumers, often in the global North, far from the people who live on the land. 

The promotion of sustainable consumption has deep seated implications for (other) people’s relations to land and questions of social justice- in their responsibilities as environmental citizens and for their rights to land. When studying questions of consumption and production in one frame, it is clear that the promotion of ‘sustainability’ calls for a new paradigm to think about people’s rights and responsibilities as citizens, in fact for a new framework for democratic citizenship across the North and South as well as within countries.

Keywords: land, consumption, reterritorialization, citizenship, North/South, indigeneity  

Seema Arora-Jonsson is Professor of Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. She works with questions of sustainability and justice in relation to environmental governance, climate politics and rural development. Her work is shaped by the need to examine development and environmental management in its particular situation, but in the context of wider transnational currents and relations. Questions of gender, race, ethnicity, class and geography are central to her analyses.  Issues of research approach a) the doing of the research - participatory research and ethics and b) analyzing environmental questions in a North-South perspective in the globalizing context of environmental governance are central in her work.  

The eco-politics of new urban environmental activism:  the radical imaginaries of the post-square Indignados movement

Viviana Asara, Institute for Multi-Level Governance and Development, Vienna University of Economics and Business

In recent years there has been a blossoming of studies focusing on a seemingly increasing trend of a (new) type of urban environmental activism foregrounding the role of prefigurative practices and the creation of interstitial alternatives. Several authors forged a panoply of different terms to grapple with this phenomenon: sustainable community movement (organisations) (Forno & Graziano, 2014), (environmental) alternative action organizations (Giugni & Grasso, 2018; De Moor et al, 2019), alternative forms of resilience (D’Alisa et al., 2015; Kousis, 2017), new environmentalism of everyday life (Schlosberg and Coles, 2015; Schlosberg, 2019), interstitial environmental activism (MacGregor, 2019) and collective alternative everyday practices (Deflorian, 2020) are a few of them. While their units of analysis are various (i.e. practices, organisations, or movements), what these concepts have in common is that rather than focusing on state-addressing or contentious repertoires of action, they are centred on the collective organisation and enactment of actions alternative to, and aimed at, transforming dominant socioeconomic and cultural practices and structures through their prefiguration and institutionalisation of different modes of being and relating to human and non-human world. Some have seen in these actions a new form of collectivist, rather than an individualistic and private (MacGregor, 2019), political consumerism combining the satisfaction of basic needs with a critique of consumerism, corporate markets and global patterns of unsustainability and exploitation, rather than the expression of postmaterialistic values (Lekakis & Forno, 2019; Schlosberg, 2019; Asara, 2016).  A debate has sparkled on whether these interstitial forms of environmental activism hold political and transformative potential, looking for example at their motivations, their agonism or at their repertoires of actions (Bluhdorn and Deflorian, 2021;Varvarousis et al 2020;De Moor et al, 2019; Kenis, 2019).  

Here I will look at these initiatives by shedding light on their ontological politics dimension, delving more particularly on the development of alternative radical imaginaries.  I will focus on some of the place-based projects that have arisen in the aftermath of the Indignados movement in Barcelona, following and connected to the movement’s decentralisation to the neighbourhoods: from solidarity-economy initiatives, community supported agriculture and cooperatives, to community gardens, social centres and other self-organized spaces, these post-square alternative projects spatialized the movement’s radical imaginaries in urban environments, extending and deepening concerns of broad political change over everyday life. By analysing these projects’ alternative radical imaginaries and the way these are embodied into their everyday social practices, I will argue that their ecologism is deeply intertwined with other two radical imaginaries, commons and autonomy, through a politics of intersectionality linking social reproduction with ecological interconnectedness and struggles against dispossessions and social injustice. The post-Indignados projects constitute community structures re-embedding (re)production, jointly covering and generating needs differently, in response to the global capitalist forces that are threatening their social reproduction. 

The Indignados movement is an example of “socio-environmental movements” whose expression of ecological concerns goes hand in hand with broader socio-political claims that are perceived as intimately connected to the ecological issues. This intertwinement is at the core of its transformative potential.  

Keywords: prefiguration, radical imaginaries, social reproduction, environmental activism 

Viviana Asara is Assistant Professor at the Institute for Multi-Level Governance and Development, WU Vienna University of Economics. Her research focuses on environmental politics and sociology, social movements and movement-parties, degrowth, political ecology, and democracy. In July 2015 she obtained her PhD summa cum laude in Environmental Science from the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, with a thesis entitled “Democracy without growth: The political ecology of the Indignados movement”. She has a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Cambridge and a master’s degree (summa cum laude) in Political Science from the University of Bologna (“Laurea Specialistica”).