Rethinking material cultures of sustainability: Commodity consumption, cultural biographies, and following the thing

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Abstract

his paper advances geographical perspectives on household sustainability by extending the range of insights from consumption scholarship that are brought to bear on the issue. Research that links consumption to the dynamics of variously sustainable practices currently dominate, resulting in a particular and partial reading of material culture. I suggest that geographical approaches to the social life of things may yield new insights into materiality and household sustainability. Specifically, I argue that “following the thing” – which is typically focused on commodity chains – could usefully be extended into people's homes. This is not introduced as a way to acknowledge the connections between points in a network, rather, it is positioned as a set of theoretical and methodological resources that can be utilised to explore the movement and placing of things as they move through a critical juncture – in this case the household. To illustrate, I present material drawn from two empirical studies of households in the UK. The first is an ethnographically‐informed study of how food becomes waste; the second is a quantitative survey of laundry habits. Attention is paid to the ways in which the ongoing categorisation and valuation of things shape their trajectories and move them in directions that give rise to (adverse) environmental impacts. To conclude I sketch out an agenda for future studies, consider how a focus on households can yield more comprehensive biographies of things, and address the implications of this analysis both for consumption scholarship and for engagement with sustainability research and policy beyond human geography.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)110-121
Number of pages12
JournalTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Volume43
Issue number1
Early online date22 Feb 2018
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018

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