Accepted paper:

Sustainability and the co-production of substances and citizens in the UK materials industry


Sarah Wilkes (UCL)

Paper short abstract:

Looking at how different interest groups within the UK Materials Industry interpret the ambiguous concept of sustainability to prioritise certain aspects and ignore others, this paper explores the relationship between the substances and things that communities make and their ethical sensibilities.

Paper long abstract:

It is often argued that sustainability is a deliberately ambiguous concept (Summer 2005, O'Riordan and Voisey 1997, Reid 1995); a catch-all term covering considerations as diverse as the labour conditions of workers in a cotton factory to quantities of volatile organic compounds released from paints and coating materials. However, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, the perceived sustainability of a material like concrete or steel could be the differentiating factor that captivates or repulses materials users, causing them to specify or "deselect" it. This paper explores the ways in which a fuzzy and global concept is interpreted, implemented and institutionalised within the UK materials industry as different interest groups struggle to define what constitutes a morality of materials. Because sustainability covers such disparate concerns, some inevitably receive more attention than others. This paper explores the competing discourses, anxieties and patterns of attention of metallurgists, plastics producers, legislators, sustainability consultants, aerospace engineers, and fashion designers as they try to make sense of ethical matters when producing, choosing and using materials. Finally, this paper explores the role that materials play in ordering the relations between people. By looking at the association between the concerns we prioritise and particular kinds of substances or things we make (clothing, PVC, cars or steel), it questions whether different kinds of materials enable or constrain the creation of particular kinds of institution, community and ethical sensibility.

panel P26
Anthropology in the material world