Everyday Thriftiness: Austerity and Sustainability

By Helen Holmes

With 12.4 million people living in absolute low income poverty in the UK in 2016/17, continued uncertainty from Brexit, and persistent issues with the new benefits system, Universal Credit, life remains bleak for many in the UK.  As austerity measures carry on wreaking havoc, particularly amongst the most vulnerable in society, the government continues to push the responsibility of provision on to community and third sector organisations.  

In 2016 the Cabinet Office issued guidance on fostering and creating ‘community resilience’, whereby ‘communities, businesses, and individuals are empowered to harness local resources and expertise to help themselves and their communities’.  This was followed in 2018 by a lengthy document issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on creating ‘Integrated Communities’, drawing on multiple third sector and grassroots endeavours as case studies of community cohesion.  Coupled with terms such as ‘asset based’ approaches and ‘social prescribing’ becoming commonplace in national and local government rhetoric, the message continues that the onus for future provision resides not with the welfare state but with the goodwill (and continuation) of voluntary organisations and their supporters.  Take a recent case in Blackburn, of a locally well-known homeless man found dead outside a branch of Boots after a particularly cold night.  The council response was to direct any rough sleepers to The Salvation Army who can offer overnight accommodation.  The council work in partnership with the charity –seemingly no longer having the resources to deal with such issues, therefore they outsource and signpost to local, often voluntary, groups.  This model is prolific across UK local government.

My work examines thrift and diverse and alternative economies of provisioning.  I am interested in how third sector, voluntary organisations such as pay-as-you feel cafes like Real Junk Food Project, or furniture re-use networks like the charity Rebuild not only help to tackle issues of financial hardship but also challenges of sustainable resource use.  In particular, I am interested in ‘ordinary provision’ so provisioning activities which are not classed as ‘emergency’ with a specific temporality of speed and haste, such as food banks or homeless shelters, but those which are everyday and more mundane.   I believe that it is these often overlooked forms of provision which are central to people’s everyday opportunities of ‘getting on and getting by’ in everyday life and which could form the foundations of the ‘community resilience’ the government so desperately desires.

Yet a key part of my argument is that the activities of these organisations are not new.  They most certainly involve new spaces, new structures and new formats but the activities and materials remain the same.  As I have illustrated practices such as lending, sharing, repairing, making and mending are part of age old everyday activities of the political economy of the household and its networks, as brought to life by Ray Pahl (1984) in his seminal work The Divisions of Labour.  Such practices can be interpreted as everyday forms of thrift.  Whilst thrift is often read through a financial lens and the notion of saving to spend, unpicking thrift reveals a myriad of activities and practices which take place beyond the point of purchase and removed from monetary matters.

As I illustrate in my article exploring contemporary thrift in The Sociological Review, within the household, thrift is orientated around a constellation of motivations, these are financial necessity, conscience and enjoyment.  As resources move through the home, these motivations play out in different ways overlapping, competing and interweaving with one another through varying thrift activities and the values attached to them.  Examples include darning gloves, not just for financial reasons but also enjoyment at engaging in the practice, or using leftover food to save money but also being conscious of the environmental impact of wasting it.  Thrift therefore becomes not just an act of consumption but also one of production as objects are altered and changed as they journey into, through and out of the home.  Similar thrifty motivations and valuation practices can be identified in the activities of third sector provisioning organisations.  For example volunteers and service users of a food group I attended would regularly share home-made produce, often made from food received at the group, so that it is not wasted but also because of the enjoyment of gifting something homemade to others.

The important point being that in the context of austerity thrift activities are bought to the fore.  They are a means of saving precious resources and survival.  Households and community organisations draw upon practices of lending, sharing, mending and making to ensure that people can eat, and do have access to essential items such as clothing and furniture.  Yet the practices undertaken are not new activities, and this is not a resurgence in a romanticised notion of make do and mend.  Often these are everyday practices which have always been done but are now illuminated because of their deemed necessity in light of austerity.  Yet to view them only through a financial lens overlooks their multiplicity and importance in debates on austerity.  Such activities offer opportunities for enjoyment and socialising, a key nub in creating ‘community resilience’ and cohesion.  However, they are also significant for issues of sustainable resource use.  Circulating, sharing, re-using, repairing of resources all reduce waste and the requirement to produce more resources. 

Thus whilst the government pushes for community resilience and looks to third sector organisations to provision essential resources, they are overlooking a key component – thrifty everyday activities undertaken by communal organisations and households do offer a means to create community cohesion, but they also offer opportunities for much more sustainable forms of resource use.  Maybe future work could think carefully about the links between austerity and sustainability?    

Helen Holmes is a researcher based across the Sociology Department and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. She tweets @DrHEHolmes.

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