Numerous studies point to differences between the sexes in consumer behavior. As a consequence, these differences in consumer behavior also lead to gender differences in consumption-related resource use. However, the studies and their results are criticized for the fact that women and men are mostly regarded as a homogeneous group respectively, leading to a generalization that risks reviving gender stereotypes in the context of sustainable consumption.
An overarching issue is the ongoing dynamics of production and consumption. Consumer influence on production is low and limited to making the 'right' purchase decision. Another overarching feature of consumption is the "feminization of environmental responsibility", which refers to the structural level of gender relations and the gender-specific division of labor, as well as the corresponding allocation of care work.
Consumption is a highly gendered area, due to social role attributions and identities that are conveyed by products. Conversely, products pick up on gender stereotypes and clichés, especially in marketing, whether to serve them or to address them and thus contribute to change. Data circulating worldwide indicate that women are responsible for 80 percent of consumption or make decisions about it (OECD 2008: 47). However, a different picture emerges when consumption is measured not by the number of products purchased but by the amount of money spent on them. Viewed in this way, men are also responsible for 80 percent of consumer spending (ibid.). (UBA Abschlussbericht, p.118f; English summary p. 27-39)
Main gender dimensions
Consumption has close links with the gender dimension of care work. In the case of everyday goods, but also in the area of social innovations and (product) service systems, the decision on resource conservation and its possible consequences for those operating in private households is shifted to those who perform care work. New, although sensible, everyday practices, ways of living and consumption may lead to an additional burden for those who have to change their daily routines and implement the practices. Here, the burden tends to fall more on women, who have traditionally been responsible for care work. There are initial indications that more egalitarian family roles can support sustainable consumption, but that at the same time negotiation processes in certain life phases, such as after the birth of a child, can reinforce a traditional gendered division of tasks in which responsibility for sustainable consumption is assigned to women. On the other hand, there is indication that biographical transitions and life events can provide significant opportunities that can support the perception and acceptance of more sustainable forms of consumption.
It is still unclear how gender inequalities in the distribution of time budgets for paid and unpaid work affect sustainable consumption, or in what ways sustainable consumption either saves or costs time.
With regard to the gender dimension of the labor economy, it should first be noted that inextricable links and reciprocal relationships exist within an overall system of consumption and production. In 2019, 65.1% of all office workers and commercial employees in Germany were women. Women accounted for 61.7% of workers in service occupations such as sales assistants. Women were underrepresented in the skilled trades and in industry and agriculture. Only 11.7% of those employed in craft occupations were female. Work in industry (for example, operating machinery and equipment and assembly work) was performed by women at a rate of 13.7%. (Statistisches Bundesamt) On a global scale, however, the textile industry, for example, is one of the most female-dominated industries in the world. With regard to sustainable consumption, social justice issues must be taken into account, especially the working conditions under which products are manufactured.
Analysis also shows that as income increases, more resources are consumed, and as income decreases, fewer resources are consumed. Conversely, higher income is also associated with a willingness to purchase more sustainable alternative products. The central importance of income level for sustainable consumption raises the as yet unanswered question of what influence, on average, the higher incomes of men and the lower incomes of women have on sustainable consumption.
In the sharing economy, it can be assumed that startups tend to be male-dominated due to their focus on digital media and thus on informatics, thereby possibly reflecting their preferences and preferred forms of work.
In terms of public resources, collaborative use needs to consider equitable distribution of access to public spaces. Some studies suggest that this is not necessarily the case to date. Issues to consider include participation in urban sharing initiatives and the accessibility and use of what are usually online sharing platforms for different social groups, including all genders.
The gender gap in defining and decision-making power is also reflected in the rather low proportion of women in product development and can translate into product design that misses the needs and wants of women consumers. Similarly, the question of whether new products are at all desired and necessary must be clarified with the participation of female consumers and/or their representation in the form of women's associations as well as the inclusion of gender expertise from the field of product development/design.
Levels of analysis
Gender references of consumption can be further differentiated in addition to the common distinction between sex as biological gender and gender as the social construction of gender. Three levels of analysis can be distinguished:
Individual level: the focus is on possible gender differences in consumption and sustainability-related attitudes, consumer behavior and the associated consumption of resources.
Structural level: The main focus is on the analysis of the gender-specific division of labor and power and its relevance for (sustainable) consumption. This draws attention to the distribution of burdens and reliefs, especially in the area of care, which are associated with behavioral changes in this regard.
Symbolic level: Here, among other things, the question of the evaluation and social perception of production and consumption, as well as the images of femininity and masculinity inscribed in the analyses and debates on (sustainable) consumption play a role.
- Moving beyond gender differences in research on sustainable consumption. Evidence from a discrete choice experiment (2010)
This paper by Julia C. Nentwich, Ursula Offenberger, Stefanie Heinzle and Josef Känzig introduces a new way of conceptualizing and researching gender and consumer behavior by investigating the results of discrete choice experiments with Swiss consumers. The authors analyzed stated preference data on decisions about buying washing machines and reviewed literature from gender and technology studies.
Overall, their findings show the relevance of gender relations and gender scripts for the analysis of gender effects in consumer behavior. Ihre results contribute to an understanding of gender in sustainable energy consumption and point the way for moving beyond the analysis of gender as individual differences.
- Gender aspects of sustainable consumption strategies and instruments (2009)
In this paper Irmgard Schultz and Immanuel Stieß present arguments and examples for the integration of gender aspects in sustainable consumption strategies and instruments. The paper summarizes some key points of the theoretical and conceptual debate on 'gender and sustainable consumption' and provides background information on gender policies in the international, UN and EU context, including key discussion points.