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Book launch: A virtual conversation with Daniel Newman on his contribution to advancing sustainable economic systems

9 February 2021
Dr Daniel Newman, Senior Lecturer in the School of Law and Politics
Dr Daniel Newman, Senior Lecturer in the School of Law and Politics

In these virtual days I have begun to feel this strange sense of disconnection from colleagues and students, so I really appreciate the opportunity to hear about and share colleague’s research and recent achievements. This month Dr Daniel Newman, a senior lecturer in the School of Law and Politics, is launching a new co-authored book that aims to contribute to debates on advancing more sustainable economic systems. The book: Sustainable Consumption, Production and Supply Chain Management is co-authored with Dr Paul Nieuwenhuis and Dr Anne Touboulic and published with Edward Elgar Publishing. Ben and I had some questions for Dan and were fascinated to hear about how, by chance, he became engaged in issues of sustainability and how the book emerged from academic disappointments.

Hannah: Can you tell us a bit about when you first became interested in sustainability issues and how you have researched this topic?

I was a bit of a late arrival to sustainability research. My PhD was on access to justice, looking at how people navigate the justice system. As I got towards the end of that, I started applying for jobs – with my focus being able to come back home to south Wales from England rather than anything more substantive or career-minded. I got interviewed and was successful on the first job I applied for – though if I remember rightly, I was the reserve and the first-choice candidate dropped out for a better gig!

It turned out that the job was as a research assistant for a project on electric cars. I had no interest in cars but was so incredibly grateful to be given a chance that it was the most exciting thing in the world to me. Coming at the field afresh and immersing myself in what was written allowed me to see there were big gaps on sustainable mobility – there was a great deal of focus on swapping out internal combustion engine cars for electric vehicles as if that little change would right all the wrongs of the car system.

On my time working on that project, I could develop a scholarship grounded in my interest in Marxist theory that critiqued the car system as the most pronounced, obnoxious and dangerous aspect of our consumer capitalist culture. My research in this area argues that any sustainable mobility worthy of the name must look to combine changing the type of cars with a whole different relationship between people and personal mobility. This requires a cultural shift on how we relate to cars, how we operate within our communities, how we access services and so on. I’ve since developed that in relation to my more traditional access to justice research through looking at, for example, the impact of austerity on how people access justice in rural communities – the way the assumption for private car ownership is written through UK government reforms such as the court closure programme.

Hannah: How did your collaboration with Paul Nieuwenhuis and Anne Touboulic begin?

Once upon a time we were all at Cardiff Business School, albeit we overlapped only for a short spell. Paul is now retired from teaching, Anne is at Nottingham and I moved to Cardiff Law School about five years ago. So I had worked with Paul previously – he was my first boss at Cardiff. Which was handy because the little that I knew about cars was more than compensated by him having a greater knowledge of cars than I have knowledge in my head full-stop. He is also such a deep thinker on what sustainability is, and provided such a robust challenge to the facile and superficial sustainability debates that I had generally been exposed to previously. I started out by going along to his lectures on sustainable mobility, which gave me a crash course in both cars and sustainability, and then we started writing together – we have a handful of papers published from that time.

I didn’t know Anne when she was in Cardiff. And with the pandemic, we have only met over Zoom. Which I won’t complain about too much because it means we also get treated to seeing her beautiful boy Leo almost every time we meet! She’s so impressive though, her work is super progressive in being truly interdisciplinary but also in looking for purposeful change at all times. I have always felt like the weak link in our team so have mostly been grateful to be involved. Most of my research is still on access to justice – I actually have two other monographs coming out this year on criminal justice and on social welfare law – so writing the book has been really interesting to keep thinking about sustainability, and it has allowed me to learn so much from Paul and Anne.

Hannah: Where did the idea of this book come from?

I think the story of this book is probably worth telling as it’s not a typical academic success story. It should give encouragement to other academics on the journal publication (rejections) treadmill. Me and Paul had written a paper on sustainable consumption that kept getting rejected – I think we told ourselves it was because it was too radical! Paul and Anne also had a paper rejected, theirs was on supply chains and offered something really distinctive to the literature. At one point, both papers got rejected within 12 hours of each other so Paul brought the three of us together and suggested that we combine them into a book. We sketched out what it might look like, pitched it to Edward Elgar and were delighted to see how receptive they were. So when we came to write it, we effectively had two sections of the book from those papers, which we then expanded with the added freedom to pursue our particular interests that a book offers over a journal. We wrote another section in-between linking them up through discussing sustainable production, and then we put together a final section of where all this stuff left us and the field. It came together so easily and was a joy to write. It’s definitely a lesson that you shouldn’t give up after a couple of journal rejections; good work tends to find its home if you have the self-confidence and stamina to stick with it and push your scholarship.

Hannah: What do you aim bring to the debate through this book?

It tries to challenge the dominant capitalist paradigm that informs our relationship to our stuff; it offers something to move beyond the economy-focused approach to the products we consume. It’s about what we buy, how that’s made and how it reaches us. And how using a different lens – that recognises our place in the natural world – could lead to more sustainable approaches to consumption and production.

Our starting point was that there is a significant gap in the literature on sustainable consumption and production in that most of the literature is about consumption, not production. To our minds there was actually very little about production. And further, the sustainable consumption and production literature has said little, if anything, about the supply chains that link consumption and production. An analysis of consumption without looking at production or supply chains will always be limited. So what we’re offering up here is a book that would address these absences.

Of course, we put the book together under the shadow of Covid-19 when the future of our economic system that had been under increasing scrutiny for some time – particularly in the context of sustainability thinking – was becoming an increasing debating point. What we look to do is address the question of what extent is our current way of consuming, producing and moving stuff about is sensible, and giving the prompt that we need to rethink all this and the way we do business, as well as the kind of businesses folk run. We have tried – for the first time we reckon – to tackle the problems inherent in our current economic model, as exemplified by its unsustainable consumption patterns, in an integrated manner. We do this recognising that it is driven by unsustainable production systems and business models, while being facilitated by unsustainable supply chains.

Hannah: What would you identify as the most important shift in your own understanding of sustainability that has been bought about by writing this book?

What I really came away with was the value of understanding ourselves as part of natural systems. Paul’s previous book (Sustainable Automobility) was a real eye-opener for me here where he used object-oriented ontology to explain the car system. We develop that insight and expand this idea that we can better understand the world through questioning our relationship to the stuff we have. Here we look at the whole system of consumption and production that defines capitalist society in the 21st century. What I see now is that the idea of sustainability is best approached by trying to think of ourselves as part of a natural system where our actions, however trivial, can have impacts on other parts of the system without us even being aware of them.

My politics has always been primarily class-based rather than environmental and I’m aware how growing up poor you often covet nice things, whether they’re the items that adorn your middle-class mate’s parent’s house or what you see on fancy TV shows. When I was kid it was all about the treasures contained in the Argos catalogue but today it’s probably more about what you see a Vlogger unboxing on You Tube or what is being shown off by an influencer on Instagram. I’ve always found it difficult to navigate recognising the aspirational value of owning these nice things with my distaste for consumer capitalism and awareness of how destructive it has been for the planet. I’ve struggled to fully embrace sustainability without feeling like I was shutting down these aspirations, making people feel guilty for wanting. But what we show in the book is that being ecologically aware does not have to be all or nothing and our model helps to make consumption more sustainable without telling others they should just go without for the greater good.

The arguments we build mean that folk can still covet nice stuff, they can still have nice stuff. But it should be about quality not quantity, and a model of consumption wherein we are encouraged to appreciate what we have, asked to maintain it and allowed to grow with it rather than just move onto the next thing that’s thrown at us. And its about the transformative value of doing this while relating to other elements of the natural system, people realising that they are part of a local community, that they have a family, and that they already relate to animals and plants on a daily basis with their pets or in their gardens, seeing that connectedness and relating to it in their practices. If we all had just a little bit more self-awareness about how we fit into the whole around us – and stopped seeing nature as something other than ourselves – then that could inform all kinds of activity, such as the negative consumption and production patterns that we focus on here.

Ben: In many respects, you have chosen the hardest time to write about consumption as in bears on sustainability, with not only the problem of the ‘UK internal market’ arising from Brexit but the deep restrictions on society and economy arising from Covid-19. Do you see yourself returning to this topic in the future, to reflect on the impact of these monumental pressures?

This is not the moment to be making definitive statements! Apart from that one. Brexit and the internal market will change a lot – I’ve felt very sorry for our wonderful colleague writing a book on Brexit and agriculture where things seem to be in such a state of flux on a weekly basis. Our experience here hasn’t been that bad, partly because we have tried to take a step back and not just write about the UK. We are trying to think in broader terms for a wider engagement with the topic so we aren’t so tied down into national or regional politics.

Covid-19 is a different matter though, it was impossible to ignore. I remember being sat there thinking these ideas through afresh after getting the contract in the early days of the first lockdown. I was struck by how there was just so little that was solid to grasp on to because it felt hard to believe things would ever be the same again; it took me a while to get my head around writing for a world that I couldn’t quite grasp at that moment.

The pandemic has exposed so many of the flaws in neoliberalism and its certainly shone a light on many of the flaws in the capitalist state for people who might not have thought about that kind of thing previously. And for a gorgeous moment the pandemic seemed to offer the glimpse of a life past some of consumer capitalism’s worst excesses. I remember writing a section on the rebirth of community and the way people seemed to be reassessing what was important in their lives, which was hugely optimistic with regards to us moving onto healthier consumption habits and appreciating the small things more. I am increasingly worried I was a little naïve because there seems such a drive to go back to things as they were as soon as possible. So I would love to revisit that in a few years when hopefully the worst of the pandemic has passed and whatever life looks like in a post-pandemic world has established itself.