Stimulating sustainable consumption



Scotland has adopted a new approach to behavioural change that encourages more sustainable patterns of consumption.

A landmark research report for the Scottish Government presented practical guidance and an evidence-based framework for considering behaviour change in light of academic perspectives on ‘social practices’.

This framework was developed by the Scottish Government into the ‘Individual, Social, Material’ (ISM) approach, which provides an applied toolkit that helps policy makers and other practitioners who wish to influence behaviours and drive social change.


Conventional approaches to behavioural change for sustainable consumption are typically focused on consumer choice. Researchers at The University of Manchester have developed a ‘social practices’ approach that foregrounds the shaping of behaviour and consumption via the material and social ordering of everyday life.

In their 'International Review of Behaviour Change Initiatives' (commissioned and published by the Scottish Government in 2011), Prof Southerton, Prof McMeekin and Dr Evans developed a conceptual framework that allows for careful thinking about the social context in which behaviours arise.

Although the social practices perspective on consumption and human behaviour appears within UK Government reports from 2008, the 2011 report to the Scottish Government fully establishes the credentials of this alternative approach to behavioural change.

The report established a framework that the Scottish Government has since developed to create an applied toolkit (co-written by Dr Evans), which provides concrete guidance to policy makers and stakeholders on how to rethink their policy initiatives, and convert ideas into real-world actions.

References to the report

The Scottish Government report has since been cited, referenced and used as written evidence in several key documents, policy consultations and presentations. These include reports on both energy efficiency in the housing sector and mechanisms for Scotland to meet its carbon emissions reduction targets.

The framework and toolkit, developed following the publication of the Scottish Government report, have been discussed, cited or utilised by a number of national and international government departments. These include:

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC);

- The UK Department for Health (DoH);
- The European Commission;
- The World Economic Forum (WEF);
- Queensland Department of Transport.

In addition to their work with the Scottish Government, Prof Southerton, Dr Evans and Prof Warde have engaged with a range of stakeholders in order to consider the application of research findings and the ‘social practices’ approach in general. These include:

- The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)
- The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP)
- The Institut National de la Researche Agronomique (INRA)

Key findings

This research is part of the ‘practice turn’ in social theory and has significantly influenced the sociological study of consumption. It has shifted the attention of consumption scholarship towards a focus on how the use of goods and services is embedded within, and shapes, the changing dynamics of daily life. The research has revealed that:

- Habits and routines undermine the extent to which consumers have free choice;

- Researchers should look beyond ‘conspicuous’ forms of consumption, consider instead the more ordinary and mundane forms that lock people into environmentally problematic activities;

- The manner by which different social groups consume – and what they consume is closely connected to the schedules of everyday life;

- A focus on ‘practices’ presents a more progressive approach to tackling the problems of increasing consumption.

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Sustainable Consumption Institute