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Why is household decision making important to understand ethical consumerism?

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Alison Dean and Danielle Tucker, 2nd October 2020

Our research places household decision making at the forefront of understanding ethical consumerism. In this article we talk about the concept of a household and what this means for our research.

What is a household?

Ethical consumerism has traditionally been tackled from a market-based approach based in economics. This approach talks about ‘the consumer’ and how this agent is impacted by actions taken by retailers and government. The agent that they’re looking at is the consumer. There’s recognition that there are different kinds of consumers. But nevertheless, the household is not a single individual.

The UK Office of National Statistics defines a household as:

“one person living alone, or a group of people (not necessarily related) living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room, sitting room or dining area. A household can consist of a single family, more than one family or no families in the case of a group of unrelated people”

(ONS, 2011)

The above definition focuses on a household living circumstances, however, the OECD elaborates more on the relationships and behaviours which may exist between household members, for example the sharing of resources (income, food):

“The concept of household is based on the arrangements made by persons, individually or in groups, for providing themselves with food or other essentials for living.

A household may be either (a) a one-person household, that is to say, a person who makes provision for his or her own food or other essentials for living without combining with any other person to form part of a multi-person household or (b) a multi-person household, that is to say, a group of two or more persons living together who make common provision for food or other essentials for living.

The persons in the group may pool their incomes and may, to a greater or lesser extent, have a common budget; they may be related or unrelated persons or constitute a combination of persons both related and unrelated”

(OECD Glossary of Statistical terms)

This illustrates the heterogeneity and complexity of households. Not all households are the same. In their Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses, the UN provide examples of how the physical containment of a household is not the sole defining factor:

“A household may be located in a housing unit or in a set of collective living quarters such as a boarding house, a hotel or a camp, or may comprise the administrative personnel in an institution. The household may also be homeless”

(UN, 1998)

The decisions that are going on within the household, are very often not market based. Instead, they’re based on relationships. They’re based on cooperative activity rather than competition. Understanding how decisions are made within the context of household relationships is likely to be different to if we view them as purely economic actors.

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The concept of what constitutes a household has evolved. It used to be that the household was defined as people who came together in a house to sit down and have meals together. But in today’s reality, that doesn’t happen as much in households anymore. In some cultures, and in the UK until not too long ago, the householder was always assumed to be represented by the eldest male within the household. However, when looking at the collective decision making about lifestyle and use of resources in the home we know that decision making likely does not always reside with that one individual.

Therefore, in studying household decision making behaviour we ask:

  • Who is making these decisions?
  • Are they co operative?
  • Are decisions split between household members or led by one individual? And if so how is that split?
  • What influences this dynamic (e.g. gender roles, status, access)?
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Decisions about the ethical consumption within the household may be guided by overarching lifestyle choices, however, in practice, ethical consumerism is made up of multiple micro decisions made by all members of the household (the decision about whether to put an item in the recycling bag or the waste bin; a decision to purchase a product in the supermarket). These decisions are influenced by other players outside the household.

The role of households in ethical consumerism

As part of our research we set out to look at different interventions that policymakers or organisations are designing to reduce the amount of single use plastics used by the population. In designing those interventions, these institutions are making assumptions about what the household looks like and how it operates (including who makes decisions, when and how). The success of those interventions will be dependent on whether those assumptions are true. Is there a gap between the way that interventions are trying to achieve change and what households are like in reality?

We found that, there’s confusion amongst households on the meaning of the term single use plastic and what reducing this really means. We also found that a plethora of interventions did not have consensus around a common definition of the terminology. This lack of clarity makes it difficult for interventions and government policy to make an impact on household decision making. On asking householders if their behaviour was influenced by any campaigns or policies of organisations, this was limited to small local group initiatives and a majority of householders confessed to ‘doing their own thing’. In general, householders were not aware of wider debates about the reduction of single use plastic.

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