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| Sustainable domestic services bring quality-of-life bonus



Substituting product-based consumption with services delivered to the home could promote eco-efficiency, while also providing significant cost savings and an enhanced quality of life for citizens. The partners in the EU-supported Sustainable Homeservices project conducted an in-depth analysis of the actual and potential status of service provision in six countries. The results point to a number of measures that could be taken to align services with the demographic, cultural and economic realities of Europe’s future.

A Shiva-like project logotype symbolises the huge range of sustainable in-home services that could enhance quality of life
A Shiva-like project logotype symbolises the huge range of sustainable in-home services that could enhance quality of life
Institutions from Austria, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain joined forces to investigate the premise that domestically delivered services can contribute to sustainable development in environmental, societal and economic terms.

Previous studies had shown that on the one hand, consumers are unlikely to be attracted to services costing more than ownership of the equivalent products (e.g. laundry services vs washing machines). On the other hand, explorations of sustainability measures have tended to concentrate on gains in eco-efficiency, while paying less attention to more radical solutions.

The partners in Sustainable Homeservices (Benchmarking sustainable services for the housing sector in the city of tomorrow) sought to break new ground by obtaining a broader picture of how sustainable services fit into the overall context of service provision, from the viewpoint of both users and providers.


New method developed

Completed in October 2004, the two-year initiative began by identifying and evaluating the services available in one city and one small town in each of the six target countries. For this purpose, the consortium developed a Sustainability Evaluation Method comprising 18 ecological, social and economic indicators. The method was simple, but took account of the societal factors that had largely been neglected in former analyses.

This exercise produced a list of more than 200 ‘innovative sustainable services’ that could be regarded as representing best practices. These could conveniently be classified into seven principal categories:

  • Counselling and information;
  • Care and supervision;
  • Leisure time activities;
  • Repairs;
  • Mobility and delivery;
  • Safety and security; and,
  • Supply and disposal.

The findings confirmed that eco-efficiency alone is not a sufficient condition for the acceptability of such services. Rather, social sustainability –primarily the ability to improve the quality of life for users – is a crucial determinant of their competitiveness in the marketplace.


Who supplies?

In this award-winning Amsterdam housing development, a combination of private and communal gardens strengthens the social fabric of the neighbourhood, thereby improving security and living conditions
In this award-winning Amsterdam housing development, a combination of private and communal gardens strengthens the social fabric of the neighbourhood, thereby improving security and living conditions
The next step was to determine how services could most effectively be provided to individual homes or communal buildings. Housing organisations would appear to be the natural partners in this process – yet they currently deliver only 26% of the studied best practices. This is because they are only slowly developing into service providers in Northern Europe, while in some southern countries the concept is completely new. Commercial providers – mainly SMEs – lead the field, supplying 38% of the demand. Non-profit organisations occupy second place with 28%, while public providers account for only 8%.

The researchers conclude that housing organizations could do more, either alone or in various forms of co-operation with other service providers. In countries where such bodies hardly exist, other actors such as housing management companies or maintenance companies become more relevant.


Demand exists

To assess the degree of public demand, the consortium conducted a small, in-depth survey of 333 residents. The results indicate that, while there are national differences in patterns of service use, some commonalities do exist.

An ageing population is a phenomenon that raises the incidence of single-person households throughout Europe. More young professionals, who follow their jobs from one city to another, are also living alone. Both groups are potential clients for home services, especially in the areas of care and supervision, repair, and mobility.

There is a general consensus that high levels of demand for energy-related and waste disposal services exist in most cities and towns, while problems with the provision of parking areas are a widely voiced concern. Leisure time activities leading to improved social communication would be greatly appreciated in nearly all countries. In most other service fields, demand is largely determined by the local supply situation, making it difficult to draw general conclusions.

Consumers appear to be prepared to pay for repair services, care services and supply and disposal, whereas consulting and information services are mainly expected to be free of charge. Users also appreciate the convenience of accessing multiple services via one contact point, indicating that there is a role for intermediate coordinators.


Strategic proposals

“We made a thorough analysis of the positive influences and obstacles relating to sustainable household services,” notes project coordinator Dr Christine Jasch, of the Institute for Environmental Management and Economics (IÖW), Vienna. “Based on this, we have proposed strategies to policy makers and regulators at both European and national level, as well as grass-root implementation strategies for enterprises, housing organisations, non-profit organisations and public providers.”

“One of the preconditions for increased service use in general at the European level would be deduction of the indirect labour costs of services,” she continues. “As to sustainable household services in particular, we recommend support for social enterprises and service intermediaries. After all, fulfilling European consumers’ needs increasingly with services instead of products, puts the emphasis on an economic activity that keeps jobs in the EU, at a time when manufacturing of products is increasingly shifting to other continents.”

Plans are in hand to publish the scientific report of Sustainable Homeservices in book form later in 2005. Meanwhile, the partners are already beginning to work on the development of service engineering handbooks as a means of promoting the sustainable services concept to housing organisations and municipalities across the Community.

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