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Social innovations for sustainable consumption: a theory-based comparison of cases in Germany, Brazil and Iran
Social innovations for sustainable consumption have gained increasing attention in political and scientific discourses worldwide, and it seems to be commons sense that the associated initiatives and projects, like sharing communities, housing cooperatives and producer-consumer-associations can make a valuable contribution to sustainable development. While many studies approach social innovations from a normative perspective and focus on how current unsustainable consumption patterns can change and how the associated projects can be scaled up to increase their impact, there are only a few theory-based descriptions of the field highlighting the quality of change. In this realm, Jaeger-Erben et al. (2015) proposed a typology of social innovations of sustainable consumption inspired by the evolutionary model of social change from Sociological Innovation Theory and based on a process-oriented case study of 62 cases of innovative practices and projects. Although the proposed typology considered different qualities of social change ranging from low-threshold and short-term initiatives like boycott-activities to more engagement-intensive and long-term projects like sharing communities, so far it is focused on the European context. Considering the globalisation of unsustainable consumption practices on the one hand and the specific cultural backgrounds, problem constellations and social settings for consumption, on the other side, the generalisability or need of adaptation of the typology and/or the central categories is a crucial question. Therefore, this paper aims to explore a large set of cases for socially innovative projects and initiatives selected in Brazil and Iran. By using the central categories developed by Jaeger-Erben et al. (2015) (i.e., innovativeness, communality, personal engagement, formality, qualitative sustainability assessment) to analyse Brazilian and Iranian cases of social innovations, we draw conclusions regarding the appropriateness of these categories. We also consider characteristics of the innovation process as well as barriers, challenges and success factors which are specific for the Brazilian and Iranian context, as, e.g. the need to address poverty and social inequality, promote the access to financial resources, to livelihoods and public services, or job opportunities for untrained people (e.g. in recycling cooperatives). Based on a qualitative approach, a systematic desk research was carried out to explore a variety of socially innovative cases in Brazil and Iran. If possible, this initial research was complemented by participant observation and/or interviews with the representatives of the innovative initiatives to examine the processes of change of social practices in detail concerning the three phases of innovation: problematisation, experimentation, and stabilisation.. Regarding the problems or challenges, which are addressed by the social innovations, the analyses show that ‘globalized’ problems can be differentiated from more locally emerging or context-specific challenges or deficits. ‘Globalized’ problems were defined as the result of resource intensive (post)modern ways of production and consumption with characteristics as mass production, global division of labour and individualisation. On the other hand, social innovations react to problems or deficits that are specific for the respective socio-economic, political and cultural context, as e.g. high social injustice, religious rules affecting e.g. women rights, a lack of state or municipal services (as e.g. waste collection, public transport, social welfare) or problems of public security. As a reaction to those problems, social innovations experiment with alternative practices of producing and consuming. Again, experiments or ‘solutions’ which are globally diffused and somehow ‘imported’ from other contexts (as e.g. car sharing or bike rentals) can be differentiated from social innovations which emerged locally or are tailored to the specific context. Furthermore, the comparison showed that issues as dealing with class and gender differences, social trust and the challenge of building or stabilizing communities are important for designing social innovations in countries beyond the European context. These explorative findings will be illustrated with concrete examples from the three countries.