My thesis research explores the meanings and practices of sustainable consumption by focusing on a core component of consumers’ quests for sustainable lifestyles: how they conceptualize their relationship with nature. Previous research on sustainable consumption has often adopted romantic notions of “living in harmony with nature.” However, it is important to go beyond this celebratory, romantic view (Tumbat and Belk 2011) in order to better understand the complexities and contradictions in consumers’ negotiations of the human/nature relationship and their understandings of what it means to be a sustainable consumer.
Drawing on theories that emphasize how meanings and phenomena emerge from a heterogeneous assemblage of cultural and material resources, I explore in an ethnography of over-night, back-country hiking how consumers negotiate between romantic and utilitarian discourses of nature vis-à-vis their actual experiences of material forces of nature that are sometimes benign and sometimes dangerous.
This research offers several theoretical and practical contributions. By discussing how consumers’ agency is both enabled and constrained by “nature’s agency” and how consumers’ relationships with nature are the result of a precarious achievement, I formulate a material-semiotic or “post-human” account of sustainable consumption that neither essentializes nature nor over-emphasizes individual agency in the pursuit of sustainability. In addition to this theoretical contribution, my research offers important managerial implications. By highlighting conflicts and contradictions between commitments, cultural discourses and material forces, I discuss how marketers and consumers alike may respond to the charges of hypocrisy that are often made when some of their activities are perceived to be inconsistent with environmental ideals. Finally, a post-human account of sustainable consumption also informs public policy makers by pointing out the difficulties that lie in adopting romantic notions of nature as a basis for environmental policies.