New report: Energy use, flexibility and domestic food practices: implications for policy and intervention.

pdf-iconEnergy and kitchen practices report

DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.16398.46405

This report introduces a new approach to understanding the role of everyday household practices in domestic resource consumption and addressing the policy challenges this presents. To demonstrate this ‘change points’ approach we focus on one such topic: tackling energy use in the provision of food at home. Providing food in the home uses large quantities of energy, with 30-40% of the evening peak in electricity demand in the UK accounted for by food practices. In light of societal concerns over energy, reducing total energy use in domestic food provisioning, or shifting that energy use away from peak electricity demand, are worthwhile objectives.

Existing key approaches  to tackling energy use in home food provisioning have focused on the appliances involved. Regulation, certification and technological development mean contemporary appliances have grown substantially more efficient over recent decades, reducing total energy demand for provision of a given level of service. More recently, smart technologies have had increasing prominence, including refrigeration and dishwashing appliances, as means to shift energy demand from the peak. In addition to appliances, information campaigns and price incentives have been used as more direct means of reshaping what people do and when, to affect energy use in the kitchen as elsewhere.

Here we present a new approach, tracing numerous ‘change points’ that occur in the process of carrying out routine household tasks (e.g. cooking, cleaning, laundry): moments in which energy and other resources end up being used, and waste is produced. In seeking to understand what influences these change points, and hence what successful intervention might entail, we draw on insights from social practice theory. This shifts attention from individual attitudes and behaviours to a systematic consideration of the multiple social, cultural and material factors that shape what people routinely do.

Our aim is to better mobilise this established body of academic work for practical use. In particular, we bring together evidence from what we term the ‘home practices’ literature: recent empirical research applying social practice theory, and related social science approaches, to the study of household sustainability issues. This provides a distinctive but complementary addition to existing responses to domestic energy use, emphasising connections between everyday sequences of activity and wider cultural, political, technological and infrastructural factors.

Crucially, energy use does not just happen because of decisions at the fridge door or in front of the cooker. Rather, actions throughout the stages of food provisioning – including shopping, storage, food preparation, cooking, dealing with leftovers, and clearing up – are implicated in generating demand for energy. Insights into what shapes what people do at these change points lead to a range of implications and recommendations for policies and intervention.

Key implications of the report are that policies for intervention should seek to:

  1. Understand household routines and rhythms of everyday life, ensuring interventions and innovations fit into those rhythms or look to take advantage of moments of change
  2. Think about kitchen design and the use of domestic technologies, especially how these can complement and help bring about changes in routine practices
  3. Appreciate diversity within and between households, learning from existing household responses while anticipating any limits to transferability of successful initiatives
  4. Work with shared social norms as well as individual knowledge and attitudes
  5. Recognise that kitchen practices are shaped by wider systems – particularly systems of food provisioning (supply chains, retailers, etc.)

Published by Matt Watson

A Human Geographer at the University of Sheffield, interested in how everyday human action and social orders make each other, with implications for sustainability and wellbeing.