View & Print PDF

GTI Forum

SCORAI: Advancing Sustainable Consumption
Contribution to GTI Forum Experiments in Movement Unity

Halina Brown

In the first decade of the new millennium, some academics were increasingly questioning the leading assumption that technological innovation will solve the problem of unsustainability by changing the dominant sociotechnical regimes. In Europe, project SCORE!, funded by the European Union, reflected these voices. It actively brought together—through conferences and workshops—researchers and practitioners in social sciences and technologic innovation studies to jointly explore ways to reduce consumption in affluent countries as a path toward sustainability. These novel interdisciplinary interactions were intellectually magnetic. Nothing like that existed in the US or Canada.

The idea of creating a similar knowledge network, with emphasis on societal institutions, was born in 2008 through discussions at weekly Tellus Institute lunch seminars. Four individuals—three academics and one senior member of Tellus Institute—led the effort. Most researchers and practitioners in North America had little opportunity to connect to or collaborate with each other, especially outside their own professional associations. SCORAI (Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative) sought to create a new intellectual community as “an international knowledge network of researchers and practitioners committed to building a flourishing and ecologically-sound society by changing the way we consume,” as its mission statement explains.

In 2009, we convened an inaugural two-day workshop at Clark University, the home of two of the founders. To our delighted surprise, most invitees (about forty) came, some from as far as Vancouver, and presented papers, even though we could offer no funding for travel, accommodation, or dinners. SCORAI was clearly meeting an unfulfilled need. The workshop’s conclusion— which we published—was that consumption is not individual but a collective process and should be studied as such. We also recognized the need to create a coherent body of theoretical and empirical knowledge on how consumer society functions and maintains itself, and where the leverage points for social change might exist. None of us could tell at that point how far into interdisciplinarity such an exploration would take us.

The Clark workshop was followed in 2011 by a larger workshop in Princeton, New Jersey, which specifically focused on three separate areas of research: social practice and institutional theories, sociotechnical system transformation, and the new economy. About sixty people attended, both North American and European. This workshop led to a book. We also continued meeting at Tellus lunches, with various invited speakers, to explore topics of interest.

At that point, the SCORAI community was growing largely through the intellectual entrepreneurship of the founders and word of mouth, and principally among the Europeans and North Americans in academia, research institutes, and (less so) in government. By 2013, we were sufficiently confident to host an international conference at Clark University, with modest seed funding from the hosting institution. The invited keynote speakers included a historian, a human happiness economist, a former Wall Street tycoon turned anti-corporate advocate, a consumer scholar, and others. After that conference, we received a substantial grant from Rasmussen Foundation to “continue doing what you have been doing.” This allowed us to become a more visible organization: we created a listserv and a webpage, and created a book series at Routledge on Sustainable Consumption (with eleven titles so far). We also organized a very visible seminar series at Tellus with invited celebrity speakers from various fields of knowledge and research, each of whom was asked to talk about their discipline’s theory of social change. We also became independent from Tellus Institute, which until then provided us with fiscal management and administrative services.

The interactive listserv and a newsletter propelled SCORAI’s growth in numbers and reach. Several other workshops and conferences (in Maine, Copenhagen, and Boston-Stockholm) followed. The 2012 Rio+20 gathering in Rio de Janeiro gave rise to a SCORAI node in Brazil. Other nodes emerged in China and Israel, and a sister organization SCORAI-Europe was created. Voices from India, Japan, Mexico, Uruguay, Hong Kong, Poland, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, and other regions joined the discussions on the listserv. The SCORAI Board became international as well. In July 2023, we convened the fifth international conference, this time in the Netherlands, with several hundred people participating. We also changed our name at that point to SCORAI-Global.

Since SCORAI’s founding, the topic of sustainable lifestyles and consumption has gained traction among academics and policymakers, and numerous knowledge networks, think tanks, commissions, institutes, and endowed chairs have emerged with a similar focus, primarily in Europe because of the generous EU funding. I dare say that SCORAI has made a significant contribution to this expansion and mainstreaming. We also made connections, generally through the professional entrepreneurship of the Board members, with the Next System Project, the Degrowth movement, C40, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network in the US and Canada, the KR Foundation, and European Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption and Production.

But the gap between research and action is not easily closed, and growth has consequences (at the time of this writing, SCORAI has 130 subscribers to the listserv and 1500 to the bimonthly Newsletter). SCORAI’s younger members are passionate about the need to push for radical societal change, including the economic system and power relations, but the demands of academic life interfere with combining scholarship with activism. With the growth of the sustainable consumption research community, early career academics are studying smaller and smaller slivers of the big picture, and do not necessarily fully grasp where their work fits in that picture. That, in turn, has diminishing interest for activists and practitioners.

SCORAI is undoubtedly successful on several counts: as an organization that promotes research, as a creator of an intellectual community, and as influencer of policy agendas. One of the key authors who put consumption and lifestyles prominently in the Sixth IPCC report is an active SCORAI member. We also contributed to the emergent understanding of how consumer society functions and maintains itself, and how it impacts human and non-human well-being. SCORAI has not yet sparked a social movement, but the awareness of the impacts of our lifestyles is rising.

I thank my collaborator Prof. Philip Vergragt for his contributions to this essay.

Halina Brown
Halina Brown is Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute and Professor Emerita at Clark University. Her research has focused on environmental policy and sustainable consumption.

Cite as Halina Brown, "SCORAI: Advancing Sustainable Consumption," contribution to GTI Forum "Experiments in Movement Unity," Great Transition Initiative (November 2023),

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.

Core GT Texts
The emergence of an organic planetary civilization has become both possible and necessary. What would it look like? How do we get there?

The classic essay on our planetary moment, global scenarios, and pathways to a just, fulfilling, and sustainable future.