Opinion

Sustainable materialism in practice? Notes from a workshop

Elizabeth Bomberg reflects on the ‘Sustainable Materialism Workshop’, which examined emerging social movements in sustainability and the shifting nature of environmental practices and advocacy.

Thanks to a collaboration fund between the Universities of Sydney and Edinburgh, sponsored by the Partnership Collaboration Awards Programme, our two associated institutes (Sydney Environment Institute and Edinburgh’s Global Environment and Society Academy) were able to host an excellent workshop this summer on ‘Sustainable Materialism.’ Our focus was on flows of materials (including food, energy, clothing), through our everyday lives and if/how these flows and practices represent a new type of environmentalism.  The delegates gathered at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) in Edinburgh were amazingly diverse, representing disciplines of politics, environmental science, ecology, law, arts, architecture, literature, music, economics, sociology and more.  Eleven papers analysed the people and groups engaged in environmental practices – food movements, community energy, sustainable crafting and fashion – and explored their motivations, forms, diversity and impact on social change.

After co-organiser David Schlosberg introduced the main theme of sustainable materialism, Gordon Walker examined social practice theory, suggesting how a focus on practice as a unit of analysis (cycling, gardening, etc.)  provides a nice antidote to the more traditional individualist, behavioural framings of action. His paper successfully applied the approach to understanding the shared commitment to sustainable practices, and he made a very good case for its use. However, the ensuing discussion probed the role of agency, motivations and identity, all of which remain somewhat ambiguous in social practice applications.

Next up was a  series of super case studies: Sherilyn MacGregor on ‘urban commoning’ in Moss Side, Manchester, and Lisa Heinz on sustainable fashion.  The main discussion questions here concerned neoliberalism: what shapes ‘sustainable’ fashion choices; do they really challenge consumerism?  Similarly, to what extent do local initiatives simply compel overburdened communities to take on work that the state used to provide (clearing up alleys)?  Do such practices represent a ‘slippery slope’ towards the commodification of sustainable activities? MacGregor recognised the danger, but her robust response also outlined the empowering character of the alley greening as a counter to paternal council approach to behaviour change.

Arunima Malik, David Schlosberg (left), Sherilyn MacGregor, Lee Stickells, Lisa Heinze (centre), Elizabeth Bomberg, Joost De Moor, and Laura Berry (right) at the ‘Sustainable Materialism Workshop’.

An architectural dimension featured next with Lee Stickells on green buildings in the 1970s counterculture in Australia, and Tahl Kaminer on collective ownership of Israeli kibbutzim.  Amazing visuals in both cases.  These presentations promoted fascinating discussion about: land ownership (relevant also to the Scottish case) how to define ‘the collective’ as well as tricky questions of coloniser and colonised land and how/whether we could think of these examples in a decolonised perspective.  Another foundational question (did design affect collective practice or vice versa?) prompted broader discussions of the relationship between space and time, and structure and agency.

Session 4 explored micro-practices. These included community sustainability projects and the economic localisation of product and consumption they bring (presented by Wouter Spekkink);  an in-depth study of radically de-centralised, small-scale egg initiatives (Arunima Malik) and a study of community energy and its putative links to energy justice by Annalisa Savaresi.  The discussion included eggcellent questions and egg puns galore (Walker was the main culprit) but also a serious discussion of the key role of intermediators (in local markets and energy especially) and a critique of the ‘romantisation of the local’ (that is, the tendency to conflate ‘local’ with ‘sustainable’).

The last session stepped back again and allowed us to compare practice-based environmentalism with a more traditional type of environmental action (Joost de Moor). That in turn led us to explore the challenges for social movement scholars and how they might better understand relations between everyday life and social change (Luke Yates).  A rich discussion followed, including fundamental questions such as what is ‘political’ (both ‘troublemaking’ and ‘service provision’?), the processes of disengagement from national (or global) to the local, and a tendency to view ‘political’ narrowly. David labelled the latter as pure hogwash (delicately put), bemoaning the perception that ‘if you’re not protesting you’re not doing politics’. In short, media and researchers’ focus on ‘protest events’ and social movement organisations misses huge swathe of political activity, yet that neglect may in part be down to participants themselves:  people’s own political activity is invisible to them.

It was amazing how much was packed into one day. Moving forward, the group would like to synthesise the cases and findings discussed then take these further, exploring in more depth what are the implications for taking the material as a starting point of social change. An edited volume of papers is planned, along with a follow-up roundtable at an upcoming conference.

If you are interested in the papers from the ‘Sustainable Materialism Workshop’, please contact the authors of the specific papers.

Elizabeth Bomberg gives special thanks to MS student and workshop participant Laura Berry for her workshop notes.


Elizabeth Bomberg is Professor of Environmental Politics at the University of Edinburgh, Deputy Director of the Global Environment & Society Academy, and Co-Director of the MSc programme in Global Environment.  Her primary teaching and research activity falls into the broad area of comparative environmental politics, with particular substantive emphasis on climate change, faith-based activism, shale politics and community energy.  Elizabeth’s recent publications have appeared in Environmental PoliticsJournal of Environmental Policy and Planning, Local Environment and Science of the Total Environment.