A Guide to the Systems of Provision Approach

A review of A Guide to the Systems of Provision Approach by Kate Bayliss and Ben Fine, highlighting its relevance for greens seeking to understand consumption and demand.

Cover of book by Kate Bayliss and Ben Fine
Book by Kate Bayliss and Ben Fine

Who Gets What, How and Why

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2020

This new academic book by Kate Bayliss and Ben Fine lays out the main principles and applications of the Systems of Provision (SoP) approach. As an academic book it is priced accordingly. Moreover, the book is written largely for an academic audience; but nonetheless, is relatively accessible in its tone. Overall a very good companion to those wishing to think – and research – differently about consumption and demand.

Bayliss and Fine define a system of provision for a good or service “as the integral unity of the economic and social factors that go into both its creation and its use” (p. 29). Consequently, the SoP approach brings together elements from various social sciences to explain what determines what we consume. The SoP approach “views consumption as irreducibly attached to integrated [‘vertical’] chains of provisioning, linked to the materiality of specific goods or services and shaped by the agents within and associated with provisioning processes” (p. 144). These processes interact with ‘horizontal’ social structures, including gender, generating consumption norms that condition consumers’ decisions. Key here are material cultures, “which determine and reflect the meanings and understanding” (p. 144) of commodities. To understand consumption, then, all these factors are needed. Focusing consumption on individual preferences – as is typical in campaigns, to use some typical examples, to consume more ethically, eat less or better, or recycle more – is partial and likely to fail.

Significant new work that applies this framework can be found in the LiLi (Living well within limits) Project, which explores the biophysical requirements of the well-being of humans via research that draws on (among other disciplines) biophysical sciences, engineering and economics. As an example of this work, LiLi researchers recently discussed how car use can be reduced, stressing that a systemic approach to thinking is necessary to “untangle the complex systems of land use, physical infrastructure, social habits and political incentives that entrench the dominance of the car”.

The book’s theoretical core is presented in its Preface and chapters 1 and 2. The central claim of the SoP approach is that “consumption outcomes depend on the system by which a good or service is provided. This in turn is shaped by the nature of the good itself and the context in which both production and consumption, and the connections between them, are situated” (p. vi), entailing therefore that consumption within different systems (health or food, for example) must be different, driven by specific consumption norms rather than individual decisions or motivations. However, that is not to suggest that consumption decisions are pre-determined; rather they have multiple drivers.

The SoP approach claims to offer a coherent framework, with core general (but not mutually exclusive) categories such as agents, structures, processes and the relations between these, and what it calls material cultures, prevailing narratives and sets of meanings that are crucial to the reproduction of the system of provision in question. These concepts deserve some elaboration. Agents may be individuals but alternatively they can be collectives, but they are taken to have rationales and motives, which are not necessarily singular. Structures that have impact on the system of provision in question vary case-by-case but may be institutional or social, including racial or gender relations, or legal structures. Processes can be quite specific, for example, how labour is employed in a particular system, or more abstract, such as financialisation, the transformation of everyday life into financial market activities. Relations can be between any of these. As an example, the process of privatisation changes the agents (e.g., public to private employees) and the structures (e.g., the legal status of these employees) as the relation between state and market is changed.

As elucidated in the book’s chapter 3, material cultures concern meanings held by agents within each provisioning system. These meanings serve to either transform or reproduce the system, depending on their content, and can change, facilitating system change. Consider the image of an overweight person, which used to convey status (by projecting wealth) but now often has more negative associations. These meanings are ingrained in the prevailing culture and may have a partly subconscious effect. It is doubtful, for instance, that a person consciously seeks to emulate their neighbour, but the cultural norm of conformity exerts pressure on them to do so. Here, of course, advertising may play an important role in reinforcing such norms (see Green House’s report on restricting manipulative advertising). It is via these mechanisms that certain forms of transport, recreation, clothing, housing norms (or merely a general compulsion to expand consumption) become embedded.

Chapter 3 outlines the 10Cs, i.e., ten elements regarded as common to all material cultures, a device that some may regard as gimmicky or redolent of marketing texts; or perhaps a handy guide. Material cultures are constructed, i.e., influenced by the material practices of the provisioning system and the agents within it. Hence, consumers focus on the attributes of the product and not the characteristics of its production process. Such perceptions are construed, for instance by advertisers who frame commodified objects as embodying gender norms (e.g. picture the elegant vacuum cleaner). Such narratives become common sense to which agents conform, for instance by accepting home or car ownership as the norm. These norms operate at a collective level, but are nonetheless contextual, contradictory (chocolates and gym membership in the same Christmas stocking) and contested, rendering them somewhat chaotic, and yet at the same time, closed in that only some are empowered to challenge and change cultural mores. Thus, the key drivers of culture are not class, gender or ethnicity, at least not as separate categories, but they may manifest through the 10Cs.

Thus, the SOP approach offers a set of categories though which to think through specific provisioning systems, and about the questions of who gets what (and who does not) and how and why this occurs. However, it seeks to avoid creating categories that are universals, and instead stresses the need to understand contexts of individual systems. Further, the SoP approach claims not to offer a blueprint or cookbook of research methods, instead seeking strategies and tools for research tailored to each specific situation. These strategies are elaborated relatively more abstractly in chapter 2 and explored via concrete cases in subsequent chapters. Indeed, the book is structured around such examples, throughout focusing on food, housing, transport, water, and fashion, considered at the system level. These cases are introduced in the preface and returned to regularly, most notably in chapters 4 and 5, the latter considering the foundational example of the SoP approach, its treatment of food consumption.

It is mainly via these cases that the value of the SoP approach is conveyed. Take housing, for example. “In the UK housing sector for example, immense housing wealth sits alongside rapidly rising homelessness” (p. 154). Additionally, both buying and renting homes have become unaffordable.  Recall that we are not long out of the era of the NINJA (no income, no job, no assets) loans that helped precipitate the global financial crisis, and yet pressures on people to buy homes remains relentless. As chapter 4 outlines, the standard narrative is that the solution to the housing problem is simply to build more houses.

In contrast, SoP studies stress the importance of structures such as social housing (and its degradation) and the financial system that seeks to transform all aspects of everyday life into opportunities for profit, and house purchasing into an act of speculation. The associated material cultures of housing in countries like the UK have engendered a belief in the inherent superiority of home ownership and in viewing the house, not as a home, but as a financial asset. More broadly, under neoliberalism responsibility has shifted from the collective to the individual. Thus, powerful agents create conditions in which the less powerful (including tenants and potential homeowners) feel compelled to engage in excessive borrowing, cosmetic home improvement expenditures and the like. These analyses suggest that merely increasing house construction is likely simply to increase speculation and the concentration of house ownership in the financial sector as well as in the portfolios of buy-to-let property speculators. The alternative policy is to reinvigorate social housing, including perhaps strengthening the power and budgets of local government but also to building finance systems that are driven by the goal of satisfying people’s needs for housing, not short-term revenue streams.

These arguments will resonate with greens. Green House’s own report on housing argued the solutions to current problems lie not in building more houses but in financial and economic policy, and by measures such as  enhancing the rights of tenants to make buy-for-let less attractive. Of course, none of these proposals are silver bullets. The values, goals and other aspects of material cultures at play in the housing and other systems underpinning them are crucial to the success of any policy intervention. Social housing, local government empowerment and even inclusive finance regimes could still be detrimental if they still allow misuses of power.

Food is another area in which provisioning exhibits symptoms of crisis. Even within countries of the global north food poverty and obesity co-exist, food supply chains are vast, global and rather fragile, food production has for too long relied on ecologically destructive methods and remains extremely vulnerable to climate change. As its focus is on consumption, the SoP approach investigates how over-eating (and the proliferation of non-nutritious foods) comes about and might be addressed. As chapter 5 explores, the standard solution is to focus on the consumer of food, to blame them for poor choices or a lack of moral (as well as material) fibre. However, as has been pointed out, consumers face mixed messages, for instance receiving diet and cookery books in their Christmas stockings. The SoP approach argues that these apparently contradictory material cultures (or norms) arise within the context of a food provisioning system that “rewards ever-expanding food production” (p. x) and thus must find ways to persuade consumers to eat beyond their bodily needs.

A system for pervasive and incessant food consumption has been created, and again, advertising plays a role in fomenting desires for food. This includes, of course, the demand for places where such calories can be burned off, in turn generating more demand for re-fuelling. In sum, therefore, in the SoP approach “the epidemic of obesity [is] in part due to the systemic imperative to accommodate profitable supply” (p. x). Of course, this point must not be pushed too far: cultures around food can be many centuries old. Many traditional ceremonies are based around the provision of food, and any in many cultures, hosting is associated with over-provision. Again, material cultures, and how they have evolved, are important to understand and may be affected by many strands, including the traditional and the corporate.

By this point, readers may now be more aware of what the SoP approach entails, but not sure why they should care. Two questions to address further therefore are: why is the SoP different to existing approaches; and what might the way of thinking presented by SoP mean for greens?

The SoP framework is potentially important for Green House’s audience. Greens are, generally, very good at thinking in terms of systems, being able to understand ecosystems and their relations to human social systems, grasping the intricacies of sustainable transport systems or food systems and, to some extent, wrestling successfully with political systems. Indeed, such thinking is at the very foundation of green critiques of modern economic systems. And yet, it is also arguable that greens have failed to think clearly enough about the economy, meaning that proposals for de-growth or alternatives to conventional money have been in some cases insufficiently radical, or in others, failed to grasp their fundamental clash with prevailing capitalism. For example, such proposals sometimes rely on moral suasion, or tax-based market mechanisms, which focus on changing individual level decisions and miss the systemic dimension of consumption.

The SoP approach, therefore, offers an alternative to treatments of consumption that merely focus on the individual, or changing their behaviour. It openly rejects mainstream economic approaches, reflecting one of the strands of Fine’s lifework. Postmodernism, with its emphasis on the continuous reinvention of the self, is also criticised for its individualism. Indeed, as elucidated in chapter 1 of the book, the SoP approach has been developed as a response to the failures of the above approaches, or indeed of consumption studies, which were rooted in disciplines, to adequately explain consumption patterns. Similarly, SoP is grounded somewhat in Marxian analysis (see section 2.2), evident through its language of structures, agents and power, and by identifying neoliberalism and financialization as important cross-cutting processes affecting individual systems of provision and their material cultures. Further, the SoP approach holds that under capitalism, the consumer is distanced (alienated) from the social relations that underpin provisioning, in favour of focusing on the characteristics and capabilities of the commodity and the consumer. However, SoP should not fairly be regarded as an approach that views everything as determined by the economic. It acknowledges the importance of both material conditions and meanings.

According to Bayliss and Fine, the SoP approach also “goes beyond the simple tracking of value chains and agents, to consider how these interact and how the state is involved in promoting specific outcomes” (p. Xi) and, different from typical supply chain analysis, adopts an interdisciplinary approach. For the SoP approach, “different areas of provisioning are seen as forming separate but integral social entities that are themselves constituted out of the chains of activities that are involved from production through to consumption or, more generally, use or application” (pp. 29-30). “As a result, the SoP approach examines the system as a whole even if the focus of interest, for research or policy purposes, might be on one aspect of the SoP alone” (p. 30).

Bayliss and Fine address climate change and sustainability throughout, noting that the sustainability literature has always deployed systems thinking. The SoP approach complements those ways of thinking by offering ways of thinking about concrete systems, and about a ‘System of systems’ (p. 152). The book notes recent applications of SoP to transport. It also offers greens systematic ways of thinking about – if not concrete recommendations for – demand reduction, the key point from the SoP approach being that it is insufficient to think only of factors that affect demand without considering the push to demand coming from the provision of supply. Indeed, even thinking of demand as an entity separate from supply makes little sense. When some speak of a collective addiction, we need to understand that this is not (merely, if at all) the summation of individual addiction but is driven by norms and created by suppliers. Of course, much of this is recognised by greens (on fossil fuels, see Berners-Lee and Clark, and Pirani). Further, Bayliss and Fine consider pollution as,

a modern phenomenon that is a social and material determinant of breathing disorders, as is obvious irrespective of which individuals succumb or not, with some worse hit than others in part because of life choices and psychological dispositions (urban environment, smoking, etc). For the SoP approach, the focus is at the systemic rather than the individual level, and parallels could be drawn with the Covid 19 pandemic (see Chap. 6) as well as the social determinants of health more generally (pp. 121-2).

This systemic element means that “[t]ransformational change is likely hindered by a reluctance to relinquish home comforts and is also impeded by deeply embedded narratives and structures that lock in the status quo” (p. xi), a sentiment embraced by many greens. More uncomfortably for them and other well-meaning agents of change, the SoP approach rejects some of the favourite micro-actions of the community. Baylis and Fine report on SoP-informed work on waste resources recovery, done by a collaboration of engineers, environmental scientists and economists, which has shown the inefficacy of current recycling: in 2010/11 in England only 4.2% of current plastic packaging is recycled. The work also reports that local authorities and consumers are largely paying for plastic waste management, while the big five waste management firms (2018 revenues: £4.8bn) largely profit.

Equally uncomfortably, perhaps, Brooks’s work argues that “Fairtrade labour may attract a slightly higher wage or improved conditions but the underlying capitalist social relations are unchanged” (p. 159) and that “the act of consumption ‘makes us complicit in a system which is denying people in the global South the chance to escape poverty’” (p. 158). Further, “carbon trading, for example, is about allowing for expansion of both clean and dirty energy and, by the way, consumers pursuing clean energy or energy products creates the space for more dirty energy in production” (p. 131).

As greens seek to grasp, the SoP approach aims to reveal the ‘contextual backstory [of commodity production that] is typically unknown in capitalist exchange’ (p. 33), something else that greens care about too, via ethical consumption. However, Bayliss and Fine discuss work on carbon labelling schemes such as that for orange juice, rendered ineffective “due to path-dependent consumer expectations and their links to ‘wider food-related practices’” (p. 124). More broadly, Bayliss and Fine argue, “…the search for ethical consumption is riddled with incoherencies around equity, fairness, human (and animal) rights and so on, such that to be ethical in principle would even prejudice mere survival in practice” (p. 123). Again, whilst I take Bayliss and Fine’s point, some caution is advisable. Just because ethical behaviour is complex does not mean it’s not worthwhile. Ethical decisions are often complex, involving many strands of ethical reasoning. One might often consider both the intentions and the consequences of an action. The key point from Bayliss and Fine is that such calculations are complex.

In sum, the SoP approach, as laid out by Bayliss and Fine, appears to give greens a way to think about areas of concern in a systemic way, which allows them to consider how current practices are situated in capitalism; and to see how, perhaps, the causes they champion are often thwarted by the structures, processes, agents, relations and material cultures of that system of systems. Having said that, for those readers seeking a step-by-step toolkit or handbook for activists, the book will leave them disappointed. The book does not offer a set of recommendations on how to reduce either one’s own demand, or to encourage others to do the same. Despite being titled a guide to the SoP approach, the book is not a textbook or manual, because there is no textbook guide available as each case is so specific. There is no alternative but to dive into individual cases to see how different theories, methods and data types are used. Ultimately, as Bayliss and Fine advise, “just get on your SoP bike and pedal!” (p. 73).

Available in hardback £74.99 RRP ISBN 978-3-030-54142-2, e-book £59.99 RRP ISBN 978-3-030-54143-9