The infrastructures of provision approach

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The discussion above has focused on motivations for behaviour in individuals, both as cognitive information-processing, and within wider social and cultural contexts. In each case the emphasis is largely on conscious and conspicuous consumption decision-making. A further body of work on consumption behaviour moves outward from the individual to examine collective decision-making and the creation and maintenance of contextual societal institutions, norms and infrastructure which constrains decision-making. In these cases, it is the routine, the habitual and the inconspicuous consumption which is studied. This is referred to here as an 'infrastructures of provision' school of thought on consumption, after Southerton et al. (2004) and Van Vliet et al. (2005), who examined the case of energy and water utilities. They note that 'institutions and infrastructures actively contemporary patterns of demand' (van Vliet et al., 2005: 6) by entering the home and creating co-dependent relationships between supplier and consumer. The approach can also be applied to other systems of provision (for example food supply chains). Systems of provision are vertical commodity chains (comprising production, marketing, distribution, retail and consumption in social and cultural context) which mediate between and link 'a particular pattern of production with a particular pattern of consumption' (Fine and Leopold, 1993: 4), and this perspective highlights the meso-level infrastructure and institutions which individuals both create and are constrained by, as a form of societal 'structuration' (Giddens, 1984; R0pke, 1999; Sanne, 2002). These systems 'lock-in' individuals to particular patterns of consumption, thereby reducing the choices available to them, and at the same time severely limiting the scope of influence of their purchasing decisions, ensuring the reproduction of the infrastructure. For example houses connected to mains water systems are forced to use pure drinking water to flush toilets, and do not have the capacity to capture and recycle their own rainwater, so ensuring continued dependence on mains water provision. Spaargaren (2003) terms this a 'social practices' approach to sustainable consumption because it examines not simply attitudes or actions or structures, but rather bundles of lifestyle practices in different arenas, such as food, clothing, housing, and so on, which exist in between individuals and societal systems of provision. For example, choices about travel are made not merely on an individual basis, but in relation to wider societal decisions (about investment in infrastructure and so on) which determine the systems of provision and available choices. The resultant practices represent an interface between actor and structure.

Echoing this perspective, Sanne (2002) argues that rather than creatively expressing their identity, consumers are locked in to current socio-technical regimes (often determined by business interests), limiting the available choices they may make, and that they are not necessarily willing consumers at all. Similarly, Shove (2003) examines quotidian household practices such as bathing, and reveals how ever-increasing standards of cleanliness in society counteract moves towards greater efficiency in resource use through norms indicating more frequent washing practices. Consumers are effectively trapped within particular consumption patterns and lifestyle practices by the overarching social structures of market, business, working patterns, urban planning and development (Sanne, 2002; R0pke, 1999). This has implications for locating agency and allocating responsibility: 'in the social practices approach, the responsibility of the individual towards environmental change is analysed in direct relation with social structure' (Spaargaren, 2003: 690). For instance, Levett et al. (2003) argue that while the market defines an ever-expanding range of goods and services to choose from, it cannot, by definition, offer choices external to itself. A person might choose one brand of washing-machine over another because of its greater energy-efficiency, but what they cannot easily choose is to purchase collectively and share common laundry facilities among a local group of residents, or to redefine social conventions to reduce the socially-acceptable frequency of clothes-washing. Within the growing body of literature on societal transitions to sustainability, this level of infrastructure is described as the 'socio-technical regime': namely that set of institutions, technologies and structures which set the rules and parameters within which individual actors may exhibit self-determination (Van Vliet et al., 2005).

Given that current systems of provision prevent significant changes in consumption patterns, what can be done to overcome this limitation? Alternative systems of provision, with associated social and economic institutions and infrastructure, require a foundation in alternative values, development goals, motivations and definitions of wealth (Leyshon et al., 2003). Advocates draw out the political economy of, and richer sociological meanings attached to consumption and point to collective institutions as the source of potential change (Maniates, 2002; Fine and Leopold, 1993), but the shift to new systems of provision is neither easy nor straightforward, given that it involves first contradicting and then challenging existing social institutions and socio-technological regimes. For example, efforts to change infrastructures of provision in the utility industries might suggest a shift to microgeneration and domestic energy-production for greater self-reliance. Southerton et al. (2004) investigate initiatives such as these and draw some initial conclusions that indicate a range of unanticipated and at times counter-intuitive consequences, for sustainable consumption (see also van Vliet et al., 2005).

Hence in seeking to make the necessary changes to their consumption patterns, ecologically-motivated citizens 'see that their individual consumption choices are environmentally important, but that their control over those choices is constrained, shaped and framed by institutions and political forces that can be remade only through collective citizen action, as opposed to consumer behaviour' (Maniates,

2002: 65-66). By focusing on socio-technical regimes rather than individual decision-making, one can see that 'in consciously exercising our individual, incremental choices, we have sleepwalked into some larger choices and foreclosed others without even realising it. The market can be an "invisible elbow" shoving us into an unwanted corner, rather than Adam Smith's benign "invisible hand"' (Levett et al., 2003: 47).

Perhaps the most fundamental system of provision which sustainable consumption addresses is that of continued economic growth and the capitalist logic of expansion. Efforts to counteract this continued economic expansion and instigate an economy of 'sufficiency' are, by definition, in opposition to the wider socio-technological regime of society. The transition to a reduced-consumption society 'cuts against patterns of thought and expectation that have been cultivated for generations' (Daly and Cobb, 1990: 373). Ropke (1999) identifies a range of economic factors at play at the macro level. These include the inherent pressures of capitalistic competition and commerce which relies on product innovation and diversification, advertising and want-stimulation, and which have expanded the commercial realm into previously private, domestic areas of life. In practice these trends are revealed as an increasing pace of life and product change, inbuilt obsolescence, deregulated credit and financial services to support growing consumption, and labour market institutions which propagate a 'work and spend' culture (translating productivity gains into higher incomes rather than reduced working time). Schor (1998) focuses on this particular aspect of modern society and concludes that a culture of insatiable desire drives the continual pressure to upgrade, improve, replace and recreate the material conditions of our lives, as witnessed through the modern fashion for personal and property 'makeover' shows, and the commercialisation of the domestic sphere. Similarly, Sanne (2002) finds that modern labour institutions are implicated in the reproduction of this 'work and spend' culture, and that individuals find it difficult to step off the treadmill as many societal institutions are geared to support - and reproduce - it, such as the convention of full-time 40-hour working weeks. Sanne concludes that 'Limited advances can be made by changing consumer habits but further progress demands that the political system overcomes the dogma of economic growth or redefines it in terms of individual welfare of a less materialdominated kind' (Sanne, 2002: 286).

Clearly, these manifold factors operate in concert, reinforcing each other and squeezing out alternative opportunities, in a cycle of continuous consumption which exists as a bedrock of modern economies and societies. Indeed, it is this recently adopted culture of consumerism which is the primary obstacle to sustainability, as social, economic and cultural factors contrive to embed materialistic values and a continual desire to consume more to achieve recognition, fulfilment, and worth. R0pke states 'The account of the driving forces behind the willingness to consume tends to be quite overwhelming: growth in consumption seems to be a very well-founded and understandable trend. Consumption makes sense to people, it concerns very important aspects of life' (R0pke, 1999: 416). Therefore efforts to address consumption issues and promote more sustainable behaviour must be equally multi-faceted in their approach, taking an holistic and pluralistic approach which recognises the deeply-rooted social and psychological motivations to consume, as well as the technical and economic drivers.

Nevertheless, alternative systems of provision and social institutions which reject the mainstream imperative for economic growth do exist. Local food initiatives aim to establish new food distribution systems bypassing supermarket supply chains; community currencies aim to value and reward the unpaid work in society, incent-ivising mutual aid rather than competition; low-impact builders seek sustainable models of development which prioritises self-reliance and reduced consumption. They are all seen by their proponents as embodiments of different sets of values, offering a more sustainable infrastructure within which to conduct lives of sufficiency rather than continual expansion of consumption. How these 'seeds of change' emerge and function in opposition to their wider contexts, and how they might grow to spread their influence into the mainstream, is the core focus of this book.

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