SCI workshop with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by Dan Welch, 18 January 2016

The SCI’s Dr. Alison Browne, Prof. Alan Warde and myself travelled to Beijing in September for a workshop, organised by Dr. Zhu Di of the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and Alison Browne. The workshop saw the signing of a memorandum of understanding between CASS and the SCI to explore possibilities for collaboration between the institutes. The workshop was part of a research project lead by Alan Warde, funded by the British Academy and CASS, comparing Chinese and UK policies for sustainable consumption, which will see Dr. Zhu Di visiting the SCI for three months in 2016, and a further workshop in Manchester. The two day workshop (Sept. 9-10) consisted of a day of presentations from the SCI delegation, and sociologists at CASS, as well as colleagues from Guangdong and Hong Kong, followed by a day of roundtable discussions on possibilities for research collaboration.

Since China introduced widespread economic reforms in 1978 there have been vast socio-economic changes that have driven massive urbanisation, and since the 1990s a consumer revolution. Levels of rural-urban migration unprecedented anywhere in history have seen well over half the Chinese population now living in cities, and per capita CO2 emissions approaching the average level of E.U. countries. Total CO2 emissions in China already equal the combined emissions of the E.U. and the U.S. and the annual growth rate of emissions make China the major driver of global CO2 emissions. The explosive growth in consumer society standards of living means that sustainability issues in China are now fundamentally linked to global sustainability crises, including, beyond fossil fuels, issues of deforestation and global food security. For China itself, urban air pollution, soil degradation, water scarcity and pollution and food security present fundamental problems to continued growth, while urbanisation and the consumer revolution pose critical issues of inequality, especially in the rural-urban divide, macro-economic imbalances, housing, mobility and social cohesion. The rise of Chinese consumer society and the challenges it poses for sustainable consumption are discussed in an article by Dr. Alison Browne, Dr. Zhu Di and colleagues available in the current issue of online magazine Discover Society.

Alan Warde opened the workshop, presenting on behalf of SCI Director Dale Southerton, on the challenge posed by consumption to climate change and the SCI’s core research themes. CASS Institute of Sociology Director Prof. Chen Guangjin welcomed the goal of flexible and open collaboration between CASS and the SCI, and reflected on the Chinese context, in which the State aims to rebalance the economy towards domestic consumption. Alan went on to give the keynote address, reflecting on the development of the study of consumption in sociology and the analytical achievements it has afforded the study of sustainable consumption. Alan suggested that the key challenges of the research agenda for the sociology of sustainable consumption concerned: the theoretical relationship between consumption and production; a sociological account of collective action; issues of public, corporate and collective consumption; and developing a mode of critique adequate to the challenges of sustainable consumption.

Alison Browne discussed issues around conventions and practices of domestic water use, and the practice theoretical approach to water consumption that she has pioneered in recent years. With water scarcity and pollution a major issue for China, the importance of changing the trajectory of development from the profligate domestic consumption of water that has become the norm in advanced industrial societies is critical. My own contributions were, firstly, on behalf of Dr. David Evans, work developed from the ‘Households, Retailers and Food Waste Reduction’ project considering ‘the consumer’ as a powerful and pervasive rhetorical and conceptual category, and suggesting a critical approach to the responsibilities commonly accorded the consumer in discussions of sustainable consumption. Secondly, I discussed sociological approaches to brands and branding and the reflected on their relation to sustainable consumption. Brands may have an important role to play in the development of sustainable consumption in China, especially in the context of the very different historical development and political context of civil society, which has been central to the emergence of issues of sustainable consumption in the West.

CASS Institute of Sociology Director Prof. Chen Guangjin presented on consumption patterns and trends in urban and rural China. Social stratification and inequality are central issues for Chinese sociology. Although rural incomes have increased substantially, rural-urban income inequalities have also increased, as Dr. Tian Feng demonstrated from analysis of social survey data. Rural incomes still only support basic expenditure – and enhancing consumption for the poorest groups is an important policy issue, requiring reform of the market, as well as welfare provision.

Dr. Ho Wing Chung from City University of Hong Kong provided a perspective on consumption and mobility amongst young Western migrants in Hong Kong, drawing on a research collaboration with Goldsmiths in the UK. Prof. Wang Jing (CASS) discussed the housing market in urban China. 87% of urban housing is privately owned (far higher than the UK) – and there is much concern over the speculative nature of the market, with vacancy rates running at 22% (compared to 9% in the EU). Prof. Shi Changhui reported on CASS-Norwegian collaboration addressing conceptual frameworks for measuring sustainable development.

Prof. Wang Ning, of Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangdong, widely acknowledged as the leading sociologist of consumption in China, discussed the problem of the common paradigm of consumers sending market signals regarding environmental and economic value in the Chinese context. For the majority of Chinese consumers, suggested Prof. Wang, ‘more is better’.

Lastly, our host Dr. Zhu Di presented on the evolving policy mechanisms addressing sustainable consumption in China. The global sustainability impacts of the Chinese consumer revolution are vast, and the potential for sustainable consumption policy to mitigate these impacts is therefore of huge global significance.

Contact regarding SCI-CASS collaboration: Dr. Alison Browne  -