Sustainable Consumption, Gender & Justice: A Conversation with Lucie Middlemiss
Updated: Jan 14
Author’s note: The interview has been condensed to fit
In July, I came across an article in The Guardian about the eco-gender gap, which essentially speaks to the ways that saving the world, at least on an environmental level, is deemed to be a women’s job. Perhaps no one explicitly offered this said job to women, but in the way environmental-friendly efforts are marketed, distributed and consumed, it disproportionately is geared towards women. I wanted to hear more about sustainable consumption and its relation to gender, and I sat down with Professor ,Lucie Middlemiss, an Associate Professor at University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and co-Director of the ,Sustainability Research Institute. We spoke about her work, sustainable consumption and women’s role in all this.
Hasheemah Afaneh: Tell us about who you are and what you do.
Lucie Middlemiss: I am Lucie Middlemiss, an Associate Professor at University of Leeds, and I am also co-Director of the Sustainability Research Institute. We’re about forty to fifty academics, and lots of researchers and PhD students working on sustainability issues. My particular position within that [is] I am a sociologist working on environmental issues. In Environmental Studies, we’re always envisioning this different kind of future, a more greener future, effectively, and I’m interested in how that might come about from a very social point of view – from the point of view of the various forms of social relations in society, including gender relations.
HA: You led into my next question, which is if someone were to ask you about what your research is about, how would you describe it in a sentence or two?
LM: I’m interested in the different ways in which people’s relationships with each other shape how they live their lives. Those relationships could be on a number of different levels. It could be family and friends relationships, which is what immediately comes to mind but also like [the] workplace, your kids’ school, or market relationships [like] the company you pay your electricity bills to…then also the bigger relationships, like gender, ethnicity, or other forms of identity. I think all those things have a bearing on how we live our lives. I am particularly interested in how they have a bearing on how we live our lives in an environmentally impactful (or less) way, so this intersection between social relationships and environments.
HA: What are the top two or three areas that are the big focus at the Sustainability Research Institute?
LM: There’s a large group of people who work in developing countries, particularly sub saharan Africa. There’s a group of people who work on business and its role in sustainability. There’s a group of ecological economists who are very much interested in alternative economic models. We’ve got some energy researchers, food researchers, and also people who work on climate change. There’s a very big range [of focuses] and it’s quite difficult to characterize quickly. We have people from all the social science disciplines plus people who overlap between natural science and social science. [For example], we’ve had people do soil science mixed in with participatory research. We have a mixed bag of disciplinary influences.
That’s what happens when you’re a social scientist in an Environment Department – you immediately see the justice implications of change and that becomes a really important objective study.
HA: That sounds like there’s a lot of people and a lot of minds.
LM: One thing that’s kind of interesting is that we do tend to have conversations, where we’re coming from completely different directions, perhaps [even] different study areas, as in location, and different topic areas, and then, we end up having conversations about similar things. I think what brings people together is justice and injustice and how that affects people across lots of different places. A colleague just wrote a paper about justice and food production in Africa, and I work on justice and energy consumption in England, [but] a lot of the questions end up being similar, or the sort of concepts used end up being quite similar across this big range of situations. Justice being a particular interest, I would say, [is] because that’s what happens when you’re a social scientist in an Environment Department – you immediately see the justice implications of change and that becomes a really important objective study. There’s a lot of people interested in how we do justice of all forms: procedural justice, distributional justice, historical justice, so all aspects of inequalities that result from the way the world is organized now. [It] is also a key concern, I think, as well, of what needs to happen in the future because we can’t just do green futures. We have to do fair, green futures in order to make them appealing, if nothing else, and to try and rectify some of the injustices that exist currently in society as well.
HA: When has this idea of placing a lens on justice in the field of sustainability come about?
LM: It’s always been there, and it’s always been one of the less dominant discourses around sustainability. The more dominant one would be about eco-efficiency or trying to do technological fixes, or economic fixes. We still have some interest in those things in the department, but many of us have kind of looked at that and thought well, that’s not enough to be solving these kinds of problems. I will say there’s also a massive -in the environmental movement – a massive emphasis on justice often led by really great young Black American female thinkers talking about intersectional environmentalism, and that, I think, sort of agenda is also very strong in the research world with thinking about injustices of all sorts. Intersectionality has been quite an important framing.
HA: Can you tell us what sustainable consumption is?
LM: I suppose the first thing that it is is kind of a policy agenda. Over time there’s been a shift of talking about environmental solutions from the producer perspective towards talking about environmental solutions from the consumer perspective. Obviously, you need both. You can’t do one without the other, or you cannot create real change without both, but at the same time, the term sustainable consumption came about in the policy discourse. It was in the global policy discourse – so UN, EU discourse, those kinds of big multinational governance bodies – came up with this term. As academics, we’ve kind of taken it on in the sense [that] we also use that terminology, but I would say we probably use it in a number of different ways. The policy perspective on it is probably about people and the way that they do stuff, and how that might need to change in order to meet environmental goals, and that’s kind of the broad definition. Then, you get the narrow definitions, which is kind of like selling stuff to people that are green. Consumption as a sociological concept tends to be a lot bigger as well. It’s about culture and everyday life, how people use stuff in everyday life, and how they use products and things they own to express themselves. That broader perspective then invites you to think more broadly about solutions as well as thinking about selling less stuff or reducing the amount of materials, which is a really big part of sustainable consumption. You also start to think about well what people are consuming for and what it is that we can and how it is that we can change this bearing that in mind because people aren’t just consuming for need or neither for want. It’s somewhere between the two, and sometimes it’s difficult to get to the bottom of that. Having a deeper understanding of the way people consume and what they consume for is quite important in order to ultimately to change consumption. We can see it happening in some parts of the world, like reducing travel by fossil fuel means, but we also need to think why are people on those planes and cars in the first place, and sometimes, there’s some really obvious reasons why.
HA: I’m curious to see what you’ve been seeing in your research regarding the disproportionate burden, specifically around your work on the social dimensions of environmental problems.
LM: My insights are a lot from reading other people’s work as much as they are about my own. I think there’s some important elements in that. One would be that we don’t have gender equality in society, and so, when you start from an unequal society, you have to bear in mind what those inequalities are to start with. The key things I would say are distribution of household labor, so how much of the household labor men and women do. Statistically, women do a lot more of that in all countries. [The other would be] inequality in pay. Taking more of the burden at home, and then also getting paid less have quite big impacts. Because getting paid less means your options are lower. You just don’t have as many resources to put towards anything that might cost more. Many environmental activities actually don’t cost more; they quite often cost less, but at the same time, some things are expensive. In terms of the unique burden of household labor, often environmental activities require more effort. Think about sourcing food that isn’t heavily packaged, or ethical in one way or the other, [which] technically takes research. You might have to go on a special trip to a store, so it takes lots of effort. Another example is cleaning with vinegar or non-environmentally damageable products – requires more research and effort to clean. Given that women do more of the cleaning, the shopping, and the food preparation, then it does mean that any shift in behavior is going to put the burden on average on women. I think it’s an important consideration, certainly something I’ve lived through myself. There’s a tension between care work and green work, and of course, we can see green work as care work - care for the planet is care for the people – but at the same time that’s an additional burden because women also often do the care work because it’s part of the house work they do. The roles that we have – the socially constructed ones- my role as a mother or daughter or sister- there are expectations of behaviors, which can be in tension with environmental ambitions.
HA: We all operate in social networks, and they have a role in sustainable development and consumption, but if you were to explain to a person who is just coming into this, what happens when the burden is placed on women and other minorities. What are we risking there?
LM: That’s a good question. One of the obvious things that we’re risking is burn out. Middle class communities are more likely to be thinking and talking about these things, and middle class communities are also more likely to be consuming more and traveling more and tend to have more financial resources. While at the same time, people who have less resources might not be thinking of these things but might very well be living relatively green lives in comparison. The connection between consumption and the environment is a linear correlation between how wealthy you are and how much you earn and how much damage you create. The richer you are the more environmental damage you create. It’s a really simple relationship. We see it all over the world in different countries. What that means, I suppose, is that in many ways the middle class thinking about these things should be thinking about these things, but at the same time, it needs to be not just the women but a general thing. You just mentioned other minorities, and it’s really important to point out that if we think about it globally, it puts everything into a really different perspective. One of my colleagues in America, Manisha Anantharaman, talks about the servants in the Global South that are enabling all forms of consumption including sustainable consumption, and she’s right. We consume stuff made where workers rights aren’t enforced as strongly as in the UK, where people might have to leave family behind, so kids aren’t growing up with [their] parents. In a way, all forms of consumption create these kinds of inequalities. If we start thinking about it in a more global sense, we also want to rectify some of those, which becomes really challenging actually. How do we start challenging these systems [like colonialism]? It’s a scary thing to do. I think it means loss on our side as opposed to Global South – gain from the Global South perspective. Because women are paid less throughout the world, because women have more caring and household work throughout the world, women in the Global South will be facing larger challenges, I would say, than women in the Global North. I do think it is important to know that women’s workload in the Global North is higher in a greener future most likely, but we also need to see it in a bigger picture, which is what about women in the Global South – how are they affected? Women in the Global South are in some of the most environmentally dangerous jobs.