On the Margins of Consumerism


Some people seem to practice sustainably for reasons other than environmentalism and maybe regarded as ‘accidental environmentalists’. These people are practicing sustainably because ‘structures’ in society impact on how they practice.  Here, the use of ‘structure’ draws on Giddens’s definition which incorporates the resources that people have access to (personal, infrastructural, institutional), and the rules (or norms) that govern their practices (Giddens, 1984). Accidental environmentalists are ‘on the margins of consumerism’ for several possible reasons: because they do not participate in a consumerist culture in the way that those with different resources or norms do, or because in a specific domain of their life they are involved in a practice which is motivated by non-consumerist values.


This fellowship will conduct a cross-project analysis to explore how meso-level structuring factors result in people living more sustainably in this context.This will involve addressing the following questions:

  1. What types of accidental environmentalists have been identified in empirical or theoretical work on sustainable behaviour, and what types of structures influence their practices?
  2. How do sustainable practices emerge among accidental environmentalists, and how are they performed?
  3. What can we learn from accidental environmentalists when designing policy in this area?


The major contributions of this work will be developing an understanding of the role of structure in unconsciously shaping practices, and understanding how policy could attempt to influence structure in the future.


The fellowship will consist of the following core research tasks:

  1. A literature review to develop a typology of accidental environmentalists, beginning by identifying empirical and theoretical work in secondary sources which deals with the specific influence of structure on practice in the context of sustainability. Literature which deals with people on the margins of consumerism, will also be explored
  2. A theoretical comparison of three case studies (Women’s Institute members, people living in fuel poverty, and parents running a walking bus), revisiting the qualitative data for each case, and building a theory of the way in which practices are adopted and performed for structural reasons. Secondary empirical literature that was identified in the previous phase will be used to add to the rigour of this theoretical work.
  3. An analysis of current policy and government support, using the insights from the previous phase, to see how such accidental environmentalists are encouraged. This phase will also involve creative thinking about other potential policy and support measures to enable further action in the future.

Research Team:

Fellow: Lucie Middlemiss

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