SCORAI Europe: notes from Lausanne

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The inter-disciplinary workshop on sustainability held in Lausanne at the beginning of this week has marked the end of my very intense period of academic travel in 2014. The two-day event was organised by SCORAI Europe, an organisation that promotes and supports research and action in the area of sustainable consumption. Participants from different countries and disciplines came together to combine intellectual efforts in order to deepen understanding of the challenges on the way towards sustainability as well as propose and discuss potential solutions. The interdisciplinary nature of the workshop was meant to reflect the diversity and complexity of sustainability issues, which cannot be addressed without input from different fields. So, during two days we were encouraged to exchange knowledge, develop new ideas and come up with innovative approaches to preserving ecological balance while simultaneously ensuring economic and social well-being. To this end,  four separate working groups were formed in order to address four different areas: food, energy, economy, and social well-being. While the role of food and energy consumption in achieving sustainability is quite self-evident, the other two areas offered some new knowledge and insights. Specifically, I got familiar with the idea of solidaristic economy – an alternative economy model that is centred around social solidarity and justice and has its vision focused on people rather than profit. Within this model, the pursuit of wealth and materialistic prosperity is replaced by social solidarity as the overarching goal that should guide our economic development.  The challenge of incorporating environment and ecology into this fair economy model and extending solidarity beyond people to include nature and animals was at the core of the discussion on solidaristic economy. The good life team entered a more philosophical domain and was trying to unravel the concept of well-being and different definitions and understandings thereof. It was emphasized that the notion of good life concerns not the quality of life or standards of living – rather, participants were encouraged to reflect on what it means to live a fulfilled human life. The need to redefine our current idea of what constitutes a good life, which is too often measured by levels of income and ability to spend (and consume) more, was the most important conclusion drawn by the group.

The food group, of which I was a part, also came up with some very interesting ideas. Specifically, the so-called onion model emerged at the start and remained the key referring point throughout the discussion. Onion layers was a helpful metaphor to refer to multiple levels at which food choices cease to be a matter of individual decision and start to be shaped by various social, cultural, and structural factors. These different levels could include household and family, communities and networks, public organisations and private settings, as well as broader notions of class and social milieu, although the latter was a matter of some debate within the group due to the difficulty of defining what exactly social class is and how it manifests itself in different countries and cultures. Further, we set ourselves a task to identify issues that are especially relevant to the food area as well as those that cut across all the four workshop themes. Among different commentaries one specific point was unilaterally agreed upon, i.e. a very distinctive emotional aspect of food consumption and the diverse symbolic meanings that people attach to their food choices and practices. Because of their embeddedness in culture, traditions, customs, and history dietary patterns might prove particularly difficult to change, and this needs to be acknowledged and addressed both by researchers and policy-makers.

 Although discussions in each of the four thematic areas could be taking different directions, all groups had a specific task in front of them – to identify issues that need to be addressed in future research on sustainable consumption. Interestingly, participants across all groups shared one important conclusion which concerned the levels of analysis. The general feeling was that research on sustainability has been focusing predominantly on the micro and macro levels while not paying sufficient attention to the meso-level. Thus, a large number of studies have been done on individual consumers and their attitudes and responses to environmentally sustainable products and practices. Equally, the need to examine large-scale systemic and structural factors influencing consumption has been widely acknowledged within the academic community. Yet, meso-level actors, organisations, and networks that play a crucial role in defining consumption patterns and trends in public settings and private spaces, such as hospitals, canteens, workplaces and so on, have remained strikingly under-researched, probably due to the difficulty of developing appropriate methodological approaches and tools. In the food group, suggestions regarding methodological implications of adopting a meso-level approach to sustainable consumption research included the need to develop culturally sensitive strategies, deploy comparative case studies as well as historical methods to identify the best ways to bring about the necessary changes in the way our society produces and consumes food.
The workshop in Lausanne is one of the many steps that SCORAI aims to take in order to foster inter-disciplinary dialogue and research on sustainable consumption. To me, the event has once again stressed the complexity of sustainability issue and the enormous challenge of achieving a delicate balance between healthy environment, social justice, and economic growth as key components of sustainable development. Apart from that, I got to learn about several fascinating practice-oriented projects intended to promote and facilitate the adoption of sustainable consumption practices by different groups and communities. I will be covering some of the most inspiring projects in my next posts!
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