The opportunities different cultural contexts create for sustainable design

Over the last few decades the consumption patterns of the world’s wealthiest countries has led to the degradation of the environment and exploitation of the world’s finite resources. The developed world currently consumes at a level that requires up to five planets’ resources. The world average consumption, however, is a much lower 1.5 planets’. This reduction can be attributed to the lower consumption rates and more sustainable behaviours of developing countries. Increasing economic growth coupled with rapidly expanding populations in developing countries, however, has led to the emergence of a large “consumer class”. This radical increase in consumption has altered household consumption behaviour and resource use, often adversely affecting their environmental footprint. Sustainable resource use requires not only technological changes but also changes on a systems level relating to human needs, habits, behaviours, attitudes and lifestyles. There is, therefore, a pressing need to understand the effect culture has on product interactions, particularly when designing new products and systems for emerging markets. This paper presents the methodology and findings of two user studies which set out to explore the effect of culture on household resource use. In the first study 157 participants from the UK, India and Brazil responded to an extensive online questionnaire designed to gauge their perceptions and behaviours in relation to household consumption and its varying resource impacts. Following the extensive study, more in depth, qualitative user research was undertaken in three regions. In-context interviews, observations and household tours were carried out in 18 households across three sites; The East Midlands, UK; Curitiba, Brazil; and Bangalore, India. The focus of the in depth data collection was on the laundry procedure as this was identified as a particularly energy intensive behaviour that differed greatly between contexts. The findings revealed insights into the consumption habits of consumers, their perceptions of the laundry procedure and its energy implications, and familial and cultural influences which affected occupant’s behaviours and attitudes. The paper concludes by discussing potential directions for designing interventions for sustainable behaviour in different cultural contexts in order to reduce consumption whilst achieving the aspirational lifestyles of the emergent consumer classes in developing countries.