How do households make decisions about ethical consumerism

Aleksandra Besevic, 13th February 2021

Relationships in the household are important as they can shape values which influence behaviour on a day to day basis. Decision making in a household is a highly differentiated and complex system. In each household there are both micro-moments and interactions with others that affect wider decision making dynamics. Navigating both fixed and shifting behaviours can be challenging in a household with more than one occupant. It is important to consider that patterns of purchasing items for the home will interact with factors such as employment and disposal income and can change over time. The amount of control the household member has over spending can also impact the authority they have to take other decisions.

Joint and divided decision making

In our diary study, the most popular description of household decision making was ‘joint decisions’ where two or more adults within the household made decisions together. There was variation in how decisions were made, for example some couples created systems where they could add requests to a list:

The household decisions are made jointly. E.g. we have a food shopping list where we both add items, and then the online shopping is done jointly

Participant 4

Other participants divided responsibility depending on the types of purchases. The most popular division of decision making related to shopping and cooking responsibilities:

Photo by Katerina Holmes on

There are two people in my household (my partner and I), and we make decisions jointly. However, I do most of the good shopping and cooking, and therefore most of the decision making in these areas is on me

Participant 19

Households implied that they treated decisions differently depending on the long term and impact of those decisions. For example, that easy and quick decisions did not need more than one individual to be involved in the decision making. Whereas larger decisions which would be likely to have long-term consequences required joint process. In other cases, power was attributed to the primary income earner on making decisions

Decisions on spending are kind of shared. But, my husband has last say, and I check with him on occasions (normally when I already think it’s a bit expensive, but hope he may say it is fine) as he is the earner at the moment

Participant 17

Shopping decisions can be important in terms of single use plastic which can accumulate in the household. It is reported that women take control of shopping for the family. However, it is important to consider that while individuals may report they have this control over certain decisions others in the house may have differing perspectives on how household decisions are taken. Depending on how decisions are made, and by whom, can impact ethically conscious behaviour. The management of household decision making can be time consuming and require a level of planning to ensure finances are stable.

Decision making between unrelated housemates

One of the aims of our study was to understand a variety of household situations. As we might expect, household decision making was more complicated between individuals who were not related – for example, young professionals living together. Often decision making was not equal. With households who live in a flat share there is both an element of individual and joint decision making. Some households might decide to go food shopping together while others might live their lives quite separately.

Photo by fauxels on

I live in a household of 3 adults. General household items are split between all 3 of us. The actual decision on what we buy for the household is split mainly between myself and one other house mate. I would say these decisions are generally made together. The other house mate contributes but doesn’t tend to make decisions on what household items we buy.

Participant 2

Decision making matters

In relation to single use plastic, decision making matters. Many participants reflected that if there was a change in circumstances it could impact the types of products entering the household.

If my husband did the shopping/made the decisions like this, we would probably have much more snack packaging – his usual inclination is to spend as little time in the shop as possible. I expect we’d all be shocked still if we saw all our waste in a heap though!

Participant 11

I think it might be slightly different if my 15year old daughter was a part of decision making. She is so on tune with the environment and tries to make better choices with packaging, including using paper or reusable straws which I do not like very much

Participant 13

From these accounts it is evident that often there is a household ‘champion’ who ensures the household recycle or are environmentally aware. Understanding who makes decisions in households is therefore important to understanding the role of the household in ethical consumerism.

For more findings from our research project, check out our Re-thinking Ethical Consumerism: Report two: Householder Perspectives from Photo Elicitation and Diary Study

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