The use of services is a part of the everyday life of households and their members. In most cases, this happens subconsciously, meaning that the impact that the usage of these services has on the environment is not considered. While the demand for the sustainability of consumer goods is constantly rising, these aspects nevertheless receive little attention in the services sector. A closer look at this topic is required, especially given the increasing role played by social services in the lives of customers and, as a result, in the lives of employees. As a first approach, this examination shows the demand for services in the context of working conditions and payment structures. It outlines possibilities for establishing a way to provide and consume services which offers quality of life both for the producer and the consumer. The proposals regarding social policy and the company-intern level are intended to lead to the more conscious treatment of services and their provision. The examination is intended to constitute a starting point for further debate and studies into the more sustainable demand for services.
Title of author
Name of institution
Justus Liebig University Giessen
Address of institution
Institute of Household Science
E-mail address of author
I graduated from the University of Giessen with a Bachelor of Science degree in “Ecotrophology” in 2010. I am currently studying “Home Economics and Service Sciences”, which I am aiming to complete in 2012. The focal point of my studies involves elderly care.
Title of author
Name of institution
Justus Liebig University Giessen
Address of institution
Institute of Household Science
E-mail address of author
I am a Ph.D student at the University of Giessen.
I graduated from the University of Giessen with a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree in “Ecotrophology “ and a Master of Science (M.Sc.) degree in “Home Economics and Service Sciences”.
I am currently the chairperson of the young professional network “JUNGES FORUM”, which is part of the German Association of Home Economics.
The private consumer exerts considerable influence on the implementation of sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns. This can specifically be traced back to a change in perspective starting in the 1970s and continuing through to the 1980s. Before that time, the main responsibility for increasing environmental destruction had been attributed to companies (Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband, 2011). Since then, the activities of private households have been brought into the spotlight as part of the debate concerning sustainable economic activity and living. According to the German Federal Environmental Agency, 30 to 40 percent of all environmental problems can be directly or indirectly explained by existing consumption patterns (Hirschl, Konrad and Scholl, 2002).
Members of private households have an influence on their immediate and surrounding environments due to their economic activity. The management and structure of the everyday lives of household members is reflected by the size of the household and its possessions within it. These members need to choose between different alternatives for satisfying their needs whilst taking into consideration auxiliary functions such as status symbols, self-definition or differentiation from other people. The pursuit of a good life leads people to make decisions regarding the organization of spare time and everyday life. The comprehension of what a ‘good’ life is can differ per individual, depending on the state of resources (education, income, time) and the environment (Spangenberg and Lorek, 2001). In Germany, a variety of studies have already addressed the sustainable consumption of consumer goods. Today, it is certain that personal and intra-household environmental awareness is particularly dependent on individual living conditions, and relates to the education of consumers (Scherhorn, 2003; Häußler, 2007; Avermann, 2009). An aspect in these previous studies which receives little attention is the sustainable consumption of services. For many years, Germany has been referred to as a services sector society, and the importance of the services sector for the economic position of Germany is extremely high (Weihrich and Dunkel, 2003). Services, though generally not noticed on a conscious level, play a significant role in the everyday life of the German population. Every German citizen makes use of these services on an almost daily basis, whether it is a newspaper in the mailbox, a meal in the cafeteria or shopping at the butcher’s store. Services provide a beneficial effect either for the people themselves (for instance the treatment of diseases or alleviating hunger) or objects belonging to them (for instance repairing a car, cleaning the apartment or doing the laundry) (Hirschl, Konrad and Scholl, 2002).
The services provided only attract attention if a problem occurs. Sustainability is a topic to which little attention is paid. From a Home Economics’ perspective, there is an urgent need to take a closer look at these aspects; both consumers and producers and the structuring of their daily lives are affected by these services. Their importance may perhaps even increase, especially in the field of elderly care, in which numerous additional employees will be required in the future. Since little research has been carried out in this field despite its importance, the following sections consider aspects which may lead to the sustainable consumption of social services, taking into account a socially acceptable service provision. When taking these aspects into consideration, specific focus will be placed on the identification of backgrounds and opportunities for sustainable demand by the service users. The examination is intended to generate further debate about how the provision of services for the different target groups can be ensured in a sustainable manner.
To serve this purpose, the term ‘social services’ and the characteristics of service relationships and the service sector are examined. Furthermore, aspects of sustainable service consumption in private households are discussed. The final section highlights those elements of the production of social services that are affected by these problems and the way in which households can make a contribution to more sustainable developments in this sector.
2 Social services and sustainable consumption patterns in private households
The term ‘service’ can be understood as an immaterial output which manifests itself via an effect (change or preservation of a specific condition) (Bottler, 2004). To circumscribe the field of social services, which is of interest in this examination, it is first of all necessary to familiarize oneself with certain conceptual specifications. In the following, the main concerns involve social services as a partition of personal services. Therefore, non-personal, issue-related services are not considered here. Personal services are characterized by immediate interaction between the service provider and the customer. The aim is to change the decision-making skills, knowledge or mental state of the service customer (Evers, Heinze and Olk, 2011).
Since the term ‘service’ is only approximately outlined in the social sciences, the sector is characterized by immense heterogeneity (Heinze, 2011). A set of specific characteristics allows for the differentiation between respective services. To begin with, service work results in outcomes that are non-material and non-storable, for example the care of people. The processes cannot be technically or organizationally rationalized, whether at all or on a small scale. Moreover, productivity is highly dependent on the co-work of the service consumer, and can hardly be measured or simulated (Weihrich and Dunkel, 2003; Evers, Heinze and Olk, 2011).
From a customer perspective, the demand for a particular service is part of the private living environment, for example, the care of children or close relatives. At the same time it is, from the producer’s perspective, part of the production process. Consequently, services are characterized in particular by the fact that production and consumption cannot be separated. At the point of encounter dynamic developments, conflicts and tensions often arise (Jacobsen, 2005).
The commitment to provide the service is based on an incomplete contract. Both the service provider and consumer have to contribute to the implementation of the service. The type of contribution and the extent thereof are not completely definable in advance, meaning that the quality of the service can be evaluated afterwards (Weihrich and Dunkel, 2003).
In the last few years, fundamental structural changes in society have taken place, and the importance of the service sector is increasing. In this context, social services are focused in the sociology of work and economic sociology as well as in employment-policy discourses. During the economic upturn between 2006 and 2007, the number of employees in the social sector grew by over 500,000. Due to demographic change and the alteration of lifestyles in Germany, social services are destined to increase their importance in German society (Heinze, 2011). In particular, major potential for development in Germany can be found in elderly care and accompanying and supporting services, as well as in day care for toddlers. In addition, branches of personal-oriented luxury and spa services also offer the potential for development.
These new and changing service structures might contribute to achieving sustainable development, which is defined as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p.43). This leitmotif combines environmental policy concerns with economical and social developments. Hence, sustainable development requires an integrated approach. This new way of thinking requires the integration of ecological, economical and social interests (Loske and Bleischwitz, 1997).
Hence, an immense complexity of sustainability aims arises: sustainable activity is environmentally aware, socially acceptable, economical and participatory at the same time. This includes the following aspects:
the gender equitable division of duties with regard to the provisions of the family
environmentally conscious consumption, which prefers regional goods and services as well as food and textiles from organic farming
the preference for products which are produced in a socially acceptable manner. Socially unacceptable production would consist of goods originating from hard labor or produced in dangerous and/or unsatisfactory working conditions (Spangenberg, n.d.).
In this context, a set of basic problems emerges. First, consumption decisions are made on a product-specific basis. Hence, the use of information which is not product or behaviorally specific is often limited. Furthermore, access to some information, especially concerning social aspects, is either difficult or impossible. Additionally, it turns out that the decision-making competence within households is rather limited. However, by means of their demand, they can strengthen the market position of environmentally and socially acceptable produced goods and services, but only if there is corresponding supply. Due to the multidimensionality of the term, sustainability is furthermore not clearly definable. For instance, the consumption of regional products is referred to as sustainable, as is the consumption of fair trade products from economically undeveloped countries. Sustainable consumption relates to increased expenditure of time, and represents a constant process of optimization. It is based on individual consideration as well as on different preferences and consumption patterns (Spangenberg, n.d.). Figure 1 illustrates the functionality of, and influences upon, sustainable activity in private households.
Figure 1: System of sustainable activity in households
Source: modified according to von Schweitzer, 1991, p.138
Families or private household systems can be recognized as such by the fact that consumptive and productive activities immediately take place within them. These activities are called ‘household activities’. Each household activity depends on its self-defined aims, which consist of requirements and expectations. Each activity requires the use of funds, and each has at least one alternative, namely, the avoidance of the activity. In systems theory terms, every action is integrated into surrounding systems, like the social, the economical and the social political system. Consequently, the private household itself is a subsystem of other systems (von Schweitzer, 1991). Of fundamental importance here is the fact that household activities have an effect on many other systems, and are at the same time influenced by the activities of other systems. Hence, the sustainable consumption of a private household can originate from the intention of the household members or be initiated from an external source.
It is clear that in general, social services constitute a form of proficiency whereby the outcome rather than the production process itself is of more significance to the customer. To inform members of private households about sustainable social services, this has to begin with the service provider, which is addressed in the following section.
In the course of these arguments, the fact needs to be emphasized that the sustainability of services does not only mean eco-efficiency. The discussion about this topic has often concentrated on ecological aspects and lost sight of social or socio-economic deliberations (Halme et al., 2005). Hence, this examination highlights the social and socio-economic aspects, and thereby attempts to contribute to a more holistic view of sustainable services.
3 Aspects of sustainable consumption in the service sector
3.1 Social services and employment
The predominant matter of interest for this sector lies in the effects of the service consumer on the service provider (namely the employees). In this context, the economic and social dimension of sustainable consumption are considered.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2005) states that the social services sector has a 70 % share of total employment in the European member states, and accounts almost all employment growth (OECD, 2005). Nevertheless, the social services sector is characterized by a growing number of part-time employees and unstable employment throughout Europe. This can partially be traced back to the fact that many women, pupils and students work in the social sector. These people are often only available to work on a limited basis, or prefer employment with less working hours. This is, for example, due to parenting, studying, household activities et cetera (Naegele, Frerichs and Reichert, 2000; Bosch and Wagner, 2003).
In addition, there is a high degree of unstable employment and substandard salaries, which has increased since the mid-1990s. This supports the assumption that there is no guarantee that all full-time employees are able to live on their wage or pension after retirement. The private household is therefore considered to be a good opportunity to establish an employment sector which only requires a limited degree of specialization and only offers low wages (Naegele, Frerichs and Reichert, 2000; Geissler, 2006).
However, the research of Home Economics and vocational training shows that employees definitely need specific knowledge and abilities as well as non-specific competences. The replacement of skilled personnel by assistants and the increased involvement of unstable employments lead to a decreasing level of expertise, thereby threatening the competence level of services. In the fields of elderly and child care in particular, associations and scientific developments make efforts to stop these developments (Naegele, Frerichs and Reichert, 2000; Geissler, 2006).
In this context, the willingness to pay is a factor that should be analyzed above all. This is the maximum amount that customers are willing to pay for a service. This amount plays a significant role in the decision as to whether a service is undertaken at all and which option is chosen among the various alternatives. The perceived net benefit (advantage) is the central cause variable of the individual willingness to pay for services. Usage of the service is only considered if the price for its implementation does not exceed the perceived net benefit (Schmitz and Picard, 2006). The individual willingness to pay for services is furthermore affected by situative variables. For example, perceived social pressure and perceived behavioral control are highly influential regarding the individual willingness of pay (Schmitz and Picard, 2006), as figure 2 below shows.
Figure 2: Conceptional model of the individual willingness to pay for services
Source: modified according to Schmitz and Picard 2006, p.171
At the same time, demands are made by science and society for higher quality and more customer-orientation. While important, these demands increase the pressure on employees. The fact that service provision does not sufficiently meet the changed preferences and attitudes of the customers (for example concerning arrangements of services, accessibility and quality) is criticized above all. The thesis contends that services are provided, customers are too often treated as welfare recipients, minor customers or needy persons. Many customers of services are more critical and selective concerning the level and the arrangement of services as well as the local and temporal availability. This is mainly due to increased educational levels, higher income, more choice of services and changed life-courses in comparison with the former customer. New research regarding the workload involved in elderly care shows that increased time pressure can be considered to be the main problem, and can have a negative effect on work-related motivation, health and willingness to earn further qualifications (Naegele, Frerichs and Reichert, 2000).
The focus on service provision should not just be limited to the customer; the needs of the employees in the service sector should not be neglected. Demand for a considerable degree of reliability and flexibility is high. Changing working times (day/night duty and weekend service), for instance, plays a role in this. These can cause adverse physiological reactions and psycho-physiological effects (such as nervousness or headache) to affect the health of the nursing staff. The constant duty schedule changes can lead to psycho-social effects, because social contacts in the private area can hardly be planned. As such, everyday life as a whole must be synchronized with one’s work timetable (Naegele, Frerichs and Reichert, 2000; Hertl, Baumann and Messer, 2004).
3.2 Approaches to an establishment of sustainable services in Germany
The examinations presented lead to two approaches which are essential to the establishment of sustainable social services in Germany. The first approach is a need to act on the sociopolitical level, and the second approach deals with the company-internal level.
Social political approach – appreciation of social services
Providing professional help is closely related to the tasks carried out on a daily, non-professional basis, and therefore enjoys relatively little prestige (Hamburger, 2005) This affects the perceived net benefit (advantage) and consequently the willingness to pay. Hence, a social appreciation of the work carried out by support facilities, politics and science is generally required by public relations activities. This low reputation is not least responsible for the demotivation of employees and high employee turnover. An indication for this can be seen in the extremely low residence time for employees in elderly care. Finally, the more welcoming image of the industry should lead to a change in wages and salaries that can be upgraded (Naegele, Frerichs and Reichert, 2000).
There needs to be a social willingness to request high quality in social services and a willingness to support this financially. To achieve higher quality among social services, qualified employees and their continuous education are of central importance. Hence, opportunities for further education, supervision and qualified support for the further development of actual tangible work are proposed. Therefore, new negotiations for refinancing in the course of the performance agreement must be made (Naegele, Frerichs and Reichert, 2000). The OECD (2008) describes human resources as being of key importance to services sector performance. The aim is to gain the qualifications that are needed. Education needs “to be supplemented with actions, partnerships and co-financing by firms, workers and governments to foster life-long learning” (OECD, 2005, p.3).
In total, there is a close relationship between the quality of services and a willingness to pay for these services, which is shown in figure 3.
Figure 3: Relationship between willingness to pay for services and quality of services
Source: Own representation
Company-internal approaches – new management approaches
New models of work structuring must not only focus on the customers, but also on the available time of employees and their income situation and load limits. If night duty and shift work are necessary, working models should be implemented which include ways in which to reduce psycho-physical loads. Furthermore, adjustments to work time in order to accommodate for life outside of work is necessary, as this will ameliorate the work-life-balance. Such adjustments may include time credits and sabbaticals which can incorporate personal needs as well as breaks for regeneration and further education. The problem of increasing work intensification can primarily be attributed to restrictions in the financial area and partly to growing competition structures in the social sector. The effects of this situation can be alleviated by utilizing management instruments such as professional performance structures and the reduction of hierarchies (Naegele, Frerichs and Reichert, 2000).
To accomplish long-term employee-retention and a higher quality of the services, there should be a systematic planning of career opportunities. The creation of career opportunities on the vertical as well as the horizontal level is required. On the vertical level, this happens for example via job rotation moving from a care role to a consultation position. On the horizontal level, career chances are, due to rationalizations, rather limited. In this case, qualified positions should be created whereby the employee needs a higher level of experience and social competence in order to do it; in doing so, this leads to job enrichment (Naegele, Frerichs and Reichert, 2000).
The decisions made by members of households in the course of creating their everyday life have an influence not only on the household itself but also on the direct and indirect environment. This is the case both with consumer goods and immaterial services. In this context, social services, such as care of the elderly and children, are characterized by the simultaneity of production and consumption, which leads to a direct and immediate mutual influence of the actors involved and their respective lives. Hence, the customers of services have an immense influence on the working conditions in the service sector and can make a contribution to a socially acceptable provision.
It has been illustrated that the social services sector is characterized by high demand for quality and a low willingness on the part of the consumer and support facilities to pay for this. Unstable employment, low wages and high demands regarding the flexibility of working hours have a stressful effect on the lives of employees. This therefore explains why professions such as elderly care have such high employee turnover.
The abovementioned social policy and company-internal approaches have shown how sustainable services can be established. One condition for the sustainable consumption of services is a corresponding supply of services, as well as the communication of this supply to households. The potential higher market price of sustainable services can be explained to members of a private household only by means of secondary services. While services guarantee a better quality of life, sustainable services guarantee quality of life to both the service receiver and the provider. The debate concerning burnout in social sector professions as well as the supply deficit of trained professionals to care for the elderly will lead to immense challenges in German society if the supply level is to be sustained. These results can be applied to the whole of Europe, the population of which is ageing as well. It is understood that age is no longer associated with a certain level of health, wealth or social status, meaning that there is a need for a change with regard to previous approaches and stereotypes (Bockel, 2007). From a Home Economics’ perspective, there is an urgent need for action in this respect.
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