Väitös: Living standards and changing expectations – Investigating domestic necessity and environmental sustainability in an affluent society

Riikka Aro

Living standards and changing expectations – Investigating domestic necessity and environmental sustainability in an affluent society

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We are living interesting times!

We are wealthier than ever, well-educated and free to pursue our lives as we wish. On the other hand we are witnessing an era named as ‘Anthropocene’, an era in which human impact on the natural environment is viewed as both crucial and devastating. At the same time, it has been shown that our ways of life and consumption are far from being environmentally sustainable. For me, living in Finland, in an affluent society, being globally among the most affluent people, and further, representing the well-to-do fraction of a well-to-do nation has raised difficult questions regarding the design of our economy, politics and communities, and concerning the future of our ways of life and the role and significance of environmental civilization in those.

We hear about natural disasters occurring around the globe, know about climate change, maybe about the connections between carbon-based economy and environmental degradation, and the extinction of species among other things. Although constantly reported in the media, the warnings of global food crisis and water scarcity, rising sea levels and followed potential rise of violence seem to be news among any other news, with no significant consequences to our daily lives.

In Finland, as in many other affluent countries, pro-environmental attitudes are strong, people are worried about the state of the environment, and in previous studies people have also stated willingness to act in favour of environmental protection. However, what our daily discussions commonly and understandably deal with and daily goings-on are concerned with, are for instance the adequacy or lack of time and money, the comings and goings of ourselves and our loved ones, planning meals and holidays. There does not seem to be a strong connection between the environmental crisis and our daily lives.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In my thesis I have investigated the environmentally problematic and constantly evolving standard of living. Standard of living was considered to be constituted by material possessions and as “a conventional set of expectations” (Dwyer, 2009: 338), that is, what is appropriate for people in a certain society and in a certain socio-economic group, to have and how to normally live their lives. I have looked at what people perceive as necessary in their daily lives, how those necessities as something that people consider that they cannot manage without are done and negotiated – and if and how environmental considerations have bearing in those.

The very beginning of my research is in the fundamental idea of, ‘the half provocateur, and half sociologist’ Charles Wright Mills according to whom the objective of research (and of sociologists) should be to advocate social change through, or by means of our accumulated and applied knowledge. Mills prompted his readers to follow his lead in acting [quote] “as if their biographies would be effective forces in history” [end of quote] (Summers, 2008: 8). As with Mills (concerning power relations), the problematic of knowing how to actually solve the matters at hand, is relevant – as well as intimidating. According to Wright Mills, the task of research is to connect ‘private troubles’ (both yours and mine) with ‘public issues’, to look at the troubles of our daily lives in their societal and historical contexts, and do so in a critical manner.


How and why should people’s (OUR) daily lives be placed under a critical eye? And where should the focus of this critique be pointed at?

In discussing consumer society and research, Juliet Schor (et al., 2010) an American consumption scholar, has argued for a moral stance – a critical evaluation of current state of affairs including dominant ideologies and ways of life with respect to environmental issues. It is important to note that the objective of research is not to moralize or to criticize individuals or households, but as I have done in my thesis, to investigate and bring to the discussion some relevant features of the dynamics of consumption and daily life with respect to environmental concerns. Important for my chosen approach to these matters is that consumption and daily practices “have histories, both at the societal and individual levels”. What is also important is that our repeated lived experience creates certain kinds of orientations for our future action, that is, tendencies to think and act in a certain way, expectations and aspirations.

Mahatma Gandhi has famously stated that the planet Earth is only able to provide for human need, not for human greed. From the perspective of my study, the problematic rather lies in the ordinariness and normality of our unsustainable lives. The domestic spheres of life that contribute the most to the heavy environmental burden are mobility, housing, and food. These recognized unsustainabilities are sensitive subjects to address (for instance) in policy as, for one, what we consume and how we live is mostly constituted by mundane and ordinary practices, such as taking care of our family in various ways by buying food, cooking and eating, doing housework, moving about, and so on.

It is claimed by previous studies that economic and societal imperatives and ideologies, conditions and systems are in many ways mirrored at household and individual levels and in how we lead our lives. Our lives are then in many ways restricted, conditioned and governed. The very essence of my thesis lies in the idea that daily living does not occur in a vacuum, but it is crucial to recognize its embeddedness in socio-cultural and material surroundings and conditions of different scales. The key theoretical approach I have utilized in my thesis is drawn from theories of practice and it is founded on this very idea.


My thesis consists of three articles and a compilation part. The three sub-studies although having different perspectives, come together in that they all take a view at domestic necessity. In the first article, an extensive approach was taken to investigate and discuss the development and construction of decent living standards necessity perceptions and ownership levels in Finland. Necessity perceptions were also looked at by socio-economic and demographic variables. It was shown that life phase (age and household type) was the most significant factor in explaining people’s necessity perceptions followed by the so called socio-economic configuration (consisting of income, education and place of residence). The relevance of the shown rise in the material living standard and its relation to environmental sustainability was considered both in the overall level having cumulative effects and in the items adding to the energy and materials consumption.

Second and third articles, in turn, are based on in-depth interviews among well-to-do Finns. With this research material I focused on doing and negotiating of necessity in people’s daily lives, in household practices and in mobility practices respectively, taking a rather more intensive, detailed perspective on the lived and experienced life.

The findings show the importance of routines and habits in constructing domestic necessity. The findings suggest that rather than deliberative competitive consumption, or status displays, household consumption follows the subtle processes of implicit comparative and habitual behaviour. For one, this has to do with collective dynamics: pressure and influences by peers and reference groups that in various ways and at different levels work in transforming collective conventions. An example is stated by an informant:

If all [my] friends were on green energy, thus a pressure group, so maybe it could have an effect, but […] I don’t really have friends of that kind […]. [It is the] combined effect of whom one interacts with. (Matti)

We also easily go on living the way we are used to, and what is normal works as a powerful tool for sticking with the familiar. We ‘faithfully perform’ our daily practices. In looking at how necessity is done in daily life, also the material world as used appliances and things along with the micro-infrastructure of households, and living space, along with larger infrastructures as material surroundings come with their inscribed dispositions. It may be said that in the normality and propriety of certain kinds of consumption, ways of desiring and using things and living our lives, there is an inscribed capacity to influence our daily goings-on and future expectations.


Concerning both household and mobility practices, easiness and convenience were show to be the key characteristics. The results show that daily musts commonly override considerations of sustainability in organizing of daily life. “There are so many other things to think about. […] [O]ne’s head is filled with practical matters – things that you just have to prioritize” (Antti), as an informant stated. In what are commonly experienced as hectic lives both professionally and personally, the studied householders appreciated freedom of others and of external timetables. Sustainability efforts were perceived as requiring time and money, and thus viewed as hindrances among the well-to-do. While people are of the opinion that ‘everyone knows’ as well as think of themselves as being aware of environmental issues, familiarizing with how to consume more sustainably and to live a more sustainable life was perceived as an inconvenience and often impossible in ‘not having time to think’, ‘time being limited’, but also perceiving that the efforts are out of their hands being, for instance, concerns of ‘others’ or the authorities, but also – of the abstract ‘everyone’.

It has been deemed in previous studies (Sahakian & Wilhite, 2014) and supported by my findings, that making judgements on day-to-day realities does not occur based on a “full understanding”. Further, any amount of information does not suffice on its own. It is evident that the organising and the doing of daily life is a constitution of what is easy and straightforward, what knowledge one has, as well as what engagements or motivations are associated with that knowledge.

Further, in accordance to what Lewis Akenji (2014) has suggested I propose that the “right attitude” may be enough for a handful of people to go the extra mile, make the effort in pursuing sustainability. People have a handful in managing their daily lives scheduled by multiple intersecting practices, from parenting and socialising to working and running errands with often conflicting demands. Here, we come to the crucial question of co-evolution of practices. The practices that surround our “key daily practices” are interconnected with various surrounding practices of service providers, authorities, policy makers, developers, employers etc. that play an important role in either strengthening or weakening any of our daily practices. For a significant change to materialize, what is needed is positive changes in various elements and actors. To be realized into action the attitude demands facilitating, real possibilities and connecting to people’s daily realities. The repertoire could and should be wide ranging from addressing the potentially easy and straightforward default choices to policy-makers and legislators taking responsibility for effective incentives and measures.


One of my informants says:

This current way of life […], there is going to be a stop to this. There are all these greenhouse phenomena and all, but it just has not yet got a footing […] in most people’s consumption, although everybody sees it as important, of course, and people are also concerned. But for it to affect one’s choices, it takes a longer time and it also requires […] money, and time to dig in. And in one’s own everyday life neither is available. […]. […] I’m just one person in this and it somehow would require everyone to…together, so that one would know that we would all do this. […]. It grows out of selfish reasons, not because the environment is suffering […]. I think that it will never work if it would have to begin from individual people.” (Marianne)

Daily proceedings are filled with possible paths concerning whether time, money, or effort is required to be put into something. In daily life and in politics, the negative effects of consumption may be seen as unfortunate, unavoidable and distant externalities and more or less acceptable as that. In the case of my study, and supported by several previous studies as well, there is a strong accordance to that environmental issues are important and even to the pressing need for action – ‘doing something’. Importantly then, both at societal level, with respect to policy making and decisions, and at household level, in our daily lives, the question of choosing one path and sacrificing the other is always present: some decisions are taken as investments worth making, while others remain, or have become seen as non-negotiable, maybe as repressing freedom (of choice) or requiring unwanted financial investments. It is clear that the systemic embeddedness of our lives constrains and constructs ways of doing and thinking, but also that our daily demands and ‘musts’ are important and real. Importantly, by way of this understanding and recognition, agency should be seized and responsibility taken. In pursuing sustainability, this cannot only entail the agency of consumers, but also political leadership towards wider systemic change. Operating of multiple interveners or facilitators may have positive cumulative feedback effects for instance where sustainable practices need enforcement and negative cumulative effects where unsustainabilities are to be dismantled.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is common to summarize what has been done in a thesis, but also what was not done. In this thesis, I do not claim to present an all-encompassing statement of what necessity in consumption and daily life is and how these in an affluent society are done sustainably or unsustainably. What I do claim is that by approaching the problematic of necessity and sustainability from the chosen perspectives, I have been able to propose new and potentially fruitful insights into understanding the obstacles and possibilities for sustainable consumption and ways of life.

This study suggests that in order to create a space for sustainability in daily life, three kinds of leeway must meet. Social sediments created by the historical and collective developments provide key leeway for sustainability, in facilitating, providing real possibilities. Organisation of daily life is also built on personal histories and lived and experienced life creating predispositions that orient our use of resources and engagement in practices. To be sustainable, all this has to be realized within the environmental space set by natural limits.