The Construction of Normal Expectations

Consumption Drivers for the Danish Bathroom Boom


Address correspondence to:
Maj-Britt Quitzau
Department of Civil Engineering
Technical University of Denmark
Brovej, Building 118
2800 Kgs. Lyngby, Denmark


The gradual upward changes of standards in normal everyday life have significant environmental implications, and it is therefore important to study how these changes come about. The intention of the article is to analyze the social construction of normal expectations through a case study. The case concerns the present boom in bathroom renovations in Denmark, which offers an excellent opportunity to study the interplay between a wide variety of consumption drivers and social changes pointing toward long-term changes of normal expectations regarding bathroom standards. The study is problem-oriented and transdisciplinary and draws on a wide range of sociological, anthropological, and economic theories. The empirical basis comprises a combination of statistics, a review of magazine and media coverage, visits to exhibitions, and qualitative interviews. A variety of consumption drivers are identified. Among the drivers are the increasing importance of the home as a core identity project and a symbol of the unity of the family, the opportunities for creative work, the convenience of more grooming capacity during the busy family's rush hours, the perceived need for retreat and indulgence in a hectic everyday life, and the increased focus on body care and fitness. The contours of the emerging normal expectations are outlined and discussed in an environmental perspective.


Since the mid-1990s, the interest in consumption and environment has increased immensely. As part of this wave, the issue of consumption has made its way into the transdisciplinary and partly overlapping fields of ecological economics and industrial ecology (for overviews, see work by Reisch and Røpke [2004]; Hertwich [2005]; Røpke [2005]; and Jackson 2006).1 The contributions to these fields span a variety of perspectives, from the measurement of environmental impacts of consumption to consumption drivers and the questionable relationship between consumption and well-being. A particular perspective focuses on the gradual changes of standards in normal everyday life, the background for these changes, and their environmental implications (Shove 2003; Jackson [2005] related this to other perspectives). The main point of this perspective is that much environmentally costly consumption is related to ordinary and routinized practices that are taken for granted and seldom considered in an environmental perspective by either consumers or politicians. “Green” behavior is related to selected practices (the choice of labeled goods, etc.), and although the range of such practices is extending over time, they still constitute a minor part of the consumption-related environmental impact. Therefore, it is important to take an interest in the long-term changes of daily life—the social construction of what is taken to be just the normal standard that most people can expect to achieve. The importance of this issue is emphasized by the current diffusion of the Western lifestyle to the rapidly increasing group of “new consumers” in Asia and elsewhere (Myers and Kent 2004): When new standards are developed in the industrialized countries, there will be even more to aspire to.

The present article reports on a case study within this perspective of the social construction of normality. We were inspired to take up the change of bathroom standards, because in Denmark we seem to be in the middle of a bathroom boom that offers an excellent opportunity to study the driving forces that point toward long-term changes in normal expectations. Responses to presentations of our preliminary results at conferences suggest that related trends can be identified in many other industrialized countries, so we expect the findings to be quite generally applicable.

The environmental implications of bathroom arrangements and activities appear in relation to other issues in the environmental literature. Several studies have dealt with water usage and possibilities for water savings in relation to toilets, in particular (e.g., Lazarova et al. 2003); other studies have dealt with the wastewater aspect, including the handling of nutrients (Larsen et al. 2001; Magid et al. 2006); and life cycle assessment (LCA) studies have been carried out for bathroom products (Takada et al. 1999; Xu and Galloway 2003). The trend toward increasing bathroom standards and the related environmental impacts does not seem to have attracted much interest, however. This is the gap that we intend to fill.

The increasing interest in bathroom improvements follows a longer period with much focus on kitchen improvements. Since the mid-1980s, investments in refurbishing and renovating kitchens have continued to be at a high level. Since the mid-1990s, bathrooms have attracted more interest, with increasing investments in refurbishing and renovating existing bathrooms as well as installing more bathrooms in existing dwellings, codeveloping with a substantial increase in media coverage (Quitzau 2004; Institute for Business Cycle Analysis 2005).2

Studies on kitchen renovations have demonstrated that renewals and aesthetic upgrading have codeveloped with changes in the status and functions of the kitchen space—from being the housewife's workplace to being the social center of family life (Lupton and Miller 1992; Silva 2000; Cieraad 2002; Hand and Shove 2004). The development of a room thus reflects the interplay between broader social changes and the workings of different consumption drivers. In this article, we intend to follow this interplay for the case of the bathroom. The main questions are as follows:

  • • Which consumption drivers are active in this boom?
  • • Which social changes are reflected in the present changes of the bathroom?
  • • Can the contours of new normal expectations be outlined?
  • • What are the environmental implications of the present changes?

The article covers a relatively short time period, mainly from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. We draw some lines back in history, but for a more elaborate analysis of the historical transformation of the bathroom from the late 19th century till today, we must refer readers to another article (Quitzau and Røpke forthcoming). Although the longer time perspective of that article calls for an explicitly coevolutionary approach inspired by social and historical studies on technological change, the coevolutionary approach is more implicit in the present article, where present consumption trends constitute the main focus and inspiration is drawn from consumption theories. We thus apply the term consumption drivers, but these should not be interpreted as factors mechanically leading to predetermined outcomes. The drivers are historically and situationally specific, and the resulting consumption patterns emerge from the complex interplay of a variety of forces.

The article is structured as follows: In the second section, we introduce the background by briefly describing renovation expenditures in kitchens and bathrooms. In the third section, we summarize the methodological basis of the study. The fourth section focuses on drivers behind housing renovations in general, whereas the fifth section addresses specific drivers in relation to bathrooms, including reflections on the social changes that seem to influence the present process. In the sixth section, the contours of normal expectations and environmental implications are discussed, and the concluding remarks deal with the possibilities for counteracting the development of an environmentally costly new normality.

The Bathroom Boom

Danish housing standards are among the highest in the world, with a living area of about 55 square meters3 per person (calculations are based on data from StatBank Denmark, 2006), and nearly all dwellings have their own toilet and bath/shower (Statistics Denmark 2001). The high priority given to housing is reflected in the distribution of household consumption: Housing constituted 21% of consumption expenditures in 2003, followed by transport and communication (14%) and food (11%; Bach et al. 2005).

Installation of new kitchens has constituted an important part of renovation expenditures during the last 20 years, and the accumulated result is that Danish households have installed around 2 million new kitchens during this period (Institute for Business Cycle Analysis 2005). A market survey shows that the interest in having new kitchens has been high during the last 10 years, as 1.1 million out of a total number of 2.49 million households have installed new kitchens. This survey paints a bleak picture of the future, seen from a commercial point of view, as there will be no more old kitchens to replace approximately 6–7 years from now, if kitchen replacements continue at the high rate of the last 5 years. The survey provides some consolation, however, in the fact that fashions change quickly and that some of the installed kitchens are so inexpensive that their economic life can be expected to become shorter than the present average of 19 years. The survey concluded,

It is a challenge for the trade to make sure that the media continue to focus on the home and the kitchen. In this way, quicker replacements can be encouraged and the kitchen trade can maintain its turnover. (Institute for Business Cycle Analysis 2005, 49, our translation)

The relative satiation with regard to kitchen replacements may lead to increasing interest in bathroom renovations.

Since the mid-1990s, bathrooms have become an increasingly important part of renovation expenditures, and current trends suggest that much effort and money are being invested in renewal of this specific room. According to a representative poll carried out by Rassing and Thulstrup (2004), 5.2% of Danish households installed a new bathroom in 2004. During the last decade, an investment trend has been developing, as illustrated in figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1.

Purchase (black line) and planned purchase (gray line) of new bathrooms.
Source: IFKA (2005). The original data source for the graph (including more recent data) have also been provided by Nielsen (2006).

Figure 2.

Developments in the supply of sanitary commodities (left axis) and the numbers of dwellings in Denmark (right axis). Source: Commissioned work by Statistics Denmark, based on industrial commodity statistics of sanitary commodities (import + production – export = supply to Danish bathrooms in weight) and occupied dwellings by time, area, type, and construction year.

Figure 1 shows that bathroom market demand has increased, with the rate of renewal of existing bathrooms rising at the beginning and middle of the 1990s and stabilized at present at a relatively high level (Institute for Business Cycle Analysis 2005). Figure 2 illustrates that the number of supplied sanitary appliances (e.g., toilets and sinks, which are mainly used in bathrooms) has, in total, increased 58% from 1998 to 2004 (which is significantly more than the increase in new housing). This indicates that bathrooms have turned into a more significant consumption area in Denmark; a similar trend has been observed in other Western countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom (Shove 2003). The focus on bathrooms has come later than the interest in kitchens, so fewer households have already replaced their bathrooms. Furthermore, more bathrooms can be added in each dwelling, which is not usual for kitchens (except for the recent trend toward establishment of outdoor kitchens). Bathrooms thus represent a potential area of further growth in consumption and further escalation of normal standards of everyday life.

Methodological Approach

The present study is based on a problem-oriented, transdisciplinary approach, with the intention to achieve an understanding of the bathroom boom and a deeper insight into the variety of drivers involved in a specific consumption boom and in the construction of new normal standards over time. The emergence of new normal consumption standards is a complex process, with economic, social, and cultural dimensions that cut across macro, meso, and micro levels. In accordance with this complexity, we draw on a wide range of theories that help us to interpret and organize our empirical observations. The main theoretical inspiration comes from various sociological and anthropological theories on consumption and everyday life, combined with insights from economics.

The empirical data are provided through a combination of methods, from reviewing existing statistical material to gathering various types of primary qualitative data concerning bathroom consumption:

  • • Review of existing statistical material. The sources include both official statistics and marketing analyses, whenever available. This material provides various details about bathroom consumption.
  • • Review of the magazine Bo Bedre (in English, Live Better). This monthly magazine covers interior decoration and is the oldest Danish magazine within this field (first published in 1961 and still a core magazine). Our sample included 2 years per decade (1961, 1965, 1970, 1976, 1983, 1986, 1993, 1996, 2000, and 2002). We read through each of these issues of the magazines to collect articles and advertisements concerning bathrooms. This material provides insight into changing ways of perceiving, arranging, and furnishing bathrooms in Denmark.
  • • General observations on current coverage of bathrooms. This involved materials gathered from various media (magazines, newspapers, radio, television), visits to exhibitions and shops, and contact with bathroom suppliers. This material provides insight into current trends.
  • • Qualitative interviews on bathrooms. We carried out six semistructured qualitative interviews to investigate how individuals renovate, arrange, and use their bathrooms. The informants were chosen to provide insight into various ways of life and various bathroom experiences. Common for all informants was that they were families with (or expecting) children and that they had recently experienced changes in relation to their bathroom setting. The informants varied in relation to age, educational background, type of residence, and geographical residential area. Each of the interviews took place at the family's home and was carried out as a semistructured conversation about their everyday life and their way of arranging and using their bathroom. This material provides in-depth insight into the specific setting in which bathroom renovations occur.

The following two sections are based on interplay between, on the one hand, theoretical and empirical insights from other studies and, on the other, a presentation of our own empirical observations. We start by considering the more general consumption drivers related to housing renovation and furnishing, and in this section of the article we draw mainly on existing studies, supplemented with examples from the bathroom case. Then we turn to the consumption dynamics related specifically to renovation and furnishing of bathrooms, and here we mainly draw on our empirical observations.

General Consumption Dynamics Related to Housing Renovation and Furnishing

Basically, of course, housing quality and housing renovation depend on economic growth and the relatively high income elasticity of housing expenditures. Furthermore, the general trend toward better housing standards has been heavily subsidized in Denmark by political measures since the welfare state first emerged. In the years following the Second World War, there was a severe housing shortage, and the building of new housing was supported both through public support for social rental housing and through tax allowances for homeowners. When the housing subsidies and tax allowances were in place, it became politically impossible to change the system fundamentally because of vested interests and the delicate balance between the interests of homeowners and tenants. In spite of minor changes, housing is thus still a subsidized part of consumption, which obviously contributes to the increasing number of square meters per person over time.

Consumption is also high with regard to renovation, in decoration and furnishings. Through these consumption activities, the resident both increases his or her standards and personalizes the house or apartment by transforming it into a home. The interest in these activities has a long history, but recent years have seen an upsurge of this interest. This is reflected by the increasing attention to activities related to renovation, refurbishing, and interior decoration in the public media. Prime time television is devoted to a large number of programs displaying individuals who undertake renovation projects under the guidance of interior decorators and other professionals (TV2 2006), and such programs receive great attention. For instance, programs such as Roomservice (in English, Changing Rooms) and Huset (translates into The House), broadcast on the public service channel TV2, were viewed by an average of 15.5% of the Danish population over 12 years (corresponding to about 800,000 viewers) for all the seasons these programs were shown, which often placed them on the top-ten list of the week's programs on TV24 (TNS Gallup TV-Meter 2006).

In the following, we discuss why home decoration is so important and is becoming increasingly so. First, we concentrate on consumption drivers that apply to modern societies in general and, in some cases, to the Scandinavian countries in particular, and then we add a few drivers that are specific for the recent period when the bathroom boom has emerged. The following outline draws on different Scandinavian studies, particularly some by Marianne Gullestad (1992, 1989), a Norwegian cultural anthropologist who has studied Norwegian households in the 1970s and 1980s. Her observations are supported by Swedish and more recent Danish studies (Löfgren 1984, 1990; Gram-Hanssen and Bech-Danielsen 2004, 2000; Winther 2004) and by more general theoretical discussions on modernity (Beck 1992). The outline is combined with a presentation of some of our own observations from the bathroom case.

Drivers in Modern Societies

Identity formation is often pointed out as an important aspect of consumption and a strong driver behind increasing consumption (Røpke 1999). As commonly observed in studies of late-modern societies, individuals' social roles are no longer given factors established by tradition and socioeconomic circumstances; therefore, individuals face the challenge of forming their own identity. In the process of identity formation, individuals cannot choose whatever they like, as they are dependent on having their identity confirmed by others in a process of symbolic communication. For instance, through the way a person dresses, he or she sends out visual messages that other people respond to, by either confirming or rejecting the self-image that the sender intends to communicate. These conditions imply that the expressive side of everyday activities becomes more important and that the symbolic value becomes detached from the practical use value for such consumer goods as textiles, food, and holiday travels. Gullestad (1992) argued that this has also happened for the home, and this development is intensified when economic growth and increasing incomes are accompanied by increasing possibilities for choice. When a rich variety of items and materials for furnishing and decorating the home is supplied, the home becomes an expressive manifestation of ever more subtle and complex messages (Gullestad 1992).

Working on the home has a special status, because the home is the base for everyday life—the point of departure for integrating the activities of everyday life (Gullestad 1992; Bech-Jørgensen 1994). A person's life is closely related to the homes in which he or she has lived, so when people are asked to tell the story of the places where they have lived, they tell their life stories (Gullestad 1992; Gram-Hanssen and Bech-Danielsen 2004). Forming the house (or apartment) and forming the life are closely related, and forming the home is a core identity project—in relation to family relationships, social reference group, and lifestyle: “People create themselves as individuals and as families through the processes of objectification involved in creating a home” (Gullestad 1992, 79). For persons living alone, the home can be an important expression of freedom and independence, because it is a product of their own choices and abilities (Gullestad 1992; Christensen 2001), and for families, home improvements can be a joint project that unites the family. Through the project of building the home, the family is constantly being repaired and renovated, so building the home is about building the family (Löfgren 1990). Home improvements both create and express unity, as the physical home becomes a visible framework for the existence of the family and symbolizes the emotional closeness of the family members.

Both a move to different dwelling and more thorough renovations within a given dwelling are often related to life phase changes when demands arise for different spaces and changed arrangements. No longer do such life phase changes occur only due to the traditional pattern of starting a family that gradually develops. The high number of divorces and the establishment of new marriages, confirmed by new children, multiply the number of life phase changes, and these changes call for rearrangements at both the practical and the symbolic levels. When people remarry, they can rarely accept moving into rooms designed by others—a new family needs a new symbolic framework (Christensen 2001).

The symbolic unity of the family expressed in the home has become even more important concurrently with the increasing fragility of the family's solidarity (Gullestad 1992). The centripetal force related to the individualization projects of family members, women's economic independence, and the like imply strong pressures on the family, leading to high divorce rates (Beck 1992; Dencik 1996). There is thus a strong need for continuous confirmation of the relationship through cooperative and symbolic efforts. This need is further strengthened by the increasing emotional importance of families. Whereas family households are no longer necessary as basic economic and productive units in society, they are emotionally more important than ever. In secularized societies, religion no longer offers integration and meaning, and for many “the home and the sphere of intimacy have become sources for deeper meanings” (Gullestad 1992, 82). Beck (1992) argued along the same lines, stating that the loss of God, traditions, and bonds to social class and neighbors imply that ever more hope is vested in the relationship to partner and children as the last defense against loneliness. When the home is seen in this perspective, it is not surprising that so much is invested in this key symbol of community.

The act of undertaking projects to decorate the home—or specifically the bathroom—can in itself also represent an important driving force for consumption. Some find renovation and decoration activities in the home particularly enjoyable, as they offer an opportunity for creativity and manual work in an industrialized society where much creative and skilled artisan's work has disappeared from work life. In a study of home decoration in Denmark (Gram-Hanssen and Bech-Danielsen 2000, 2004), some of the informants chose to buy an old house in need of repair because they liked to do the work. Work related to home improvements still often reflects a traditional gender division of labor, whereby the couple plans together what to do, the woman takes care of the aesthetic aspects, and the husband does the practical work (Gullestad 1992; Gram-Hanssen and Bech-Danielsen 2004). In modern Scandinavian families, the division of tasks cannot be taken for granted and must constantly be negotiated. In these negotiations, men often prefer to undertake tasks related to renovation and redecoration rather than cleaning and other traditionally female tasks, and this division of labor is often accepted by the wife. Gullestad (1992) formulated it this way: “Making home improvements is in a special way an expression of a man's love for his wife” (85).

In addition to social and cultural considerations, it is important to emphasize an economic motivation for homeowners: Renovation activities in the home—particularly, modernization of kitchens and bathrooms—are considered to be investments rather than consumption, as they will be reflected in a higher price should the house or apartment be sold. Therefore, this category of consumption is considered much more legitimate than most other ways of spending money—also in families with reminiscences of old-fashioned thrift. Furthermore, the capitalization of renovation expenditures in the price of the house implies that it is easier to fund such activities with loans than it is to fund other forms of consumption.

The above observations make sense in most of Western Europe and North America, but the Scandinavian countries offer particularly strong examples of home-centered cultures. One reason is the climate, which limits the possibilities for socializing outside. And, at least until recently, pub and restaurant culture was not very well developed, so the home has been and still is an important setting for social life. Another reason is that modernization processes related to secularization and disintegration of traditional gender roles have advanced particularly far in Scandinavia. Finally, Gullestad (1992) argued that home improvement gives Norwegians “the opportunity to carry out creative and playful activities camouflaged as serious useful things which ‘must’ be done” (80). This fits well with a culture of modesty, but, given that this culture is losing ground, this form of legitimization is probably not so important anymore. The idea of something that “must” be done has survived, however.

These observations on identity formation, building the family, creative activities, and economic considerations are clearly reflected in our material on bathrooms. It is a relatively recent phenomenon that the arrangement and decoration of bathrooms have acquired a richer potential for symbolic messages. In the early history of bathrooms in the late 1900s, just to have a bathroom was a sign of social status (Lupton and Miller 1992), and later, when bathrooms became standard, the symbolic messages were mainly related to hygiene and cleanliness—with shining white tiles and metallic taps. The first steps toward increasing interest in bathroom decoration were taken in the early 1960s (Quitzau and Røpke, forthcoming), but, after a slow start, the present potential is overwhelming. The magazine Bo Bedre (Live Better) increasingly focuses on personalization and individualization in relation to bathroom decoration and renovation, and the variety of materials, objects, and arrangements that can be used in the identity-formation project has increased immensely. Current magazines tend to divide bathroom accessories into different styles (e.g., masculine, feminine, fresh and colorful, romantic sensations, and ethnic brushes) when they guide readers through various messages (Boligmagasinet 2003 54–57). Similarly, producers attempt to single out their products by differentiating them, for instance, through exclusive or romantic designs (Grohe 1970; Sphinx Silica 1983; Cadazzo 1993; Vola 1996; Strømberg 2003). Some of our informants clearly drew on such messages when they decorated their own bathrooms and created what they associated with personal expression.

The importance of the home-building project was relevant for all the informants, and some enjoyed the creative work involved. In particular, a couple in their 50s with one son living at home truly enjoyed undertaking a variety of projects in their home—often in a way that illustrates the traditional gender division of labor. The wife, who was mostly absorbed by interior design activities, rearranged the home and pursued new ideas about decoration (to such an extent that her husband had given up the idea of fastening any wires). In relation to the bathroom, she could only rearrange the fixtures to a limited extent, but she had made certain improvements, such as removing a cupboard door and placing free-standing baskets on the cupboard shelves instead. The husband, being more absorbed by do-it-yourself (DIY) projects, enjoyed repairing things that were broken or fabricating the things they would like to have. He had taken on several DIY projects in the bathroom—for example, installing speakers and producing fitted cabinets—and he had planned new projects, such as mounting a roof window. Although this couple expressed practical reasons for taking on such projects, it was clear that the opportunity for creativity and manual work represented enjoyment in itself.

The identity issue was clearly relevant for one of our informants in particular, a young woman living with her son. She emphasized that for her the task of renovating a new apartment was also a means of getting through a recent divorce. Concurrent with the renovation, the identity of the family was reestablished, and the work contributed to a closer bonding between this single parent and her child, as they proudly spoke of the renovated apartment—and not least the nice bathroom—as an achievement.

Period-Specific Drivers

The arguments above can explain why housing renovation and furnishing are popular activities that people plunge into when they can afford it, thus relating the specific timing of these activities to the economic possibilities. The upsurge in renovation activities in Denmark during the last 10–15 years is strongly correlated with income growth and especially the dramatic escalation of property values. New types of loans were introduced in the mid-1990s and early 2000s (loans with variable interest rates in 1996, and loans without amortization in 2003), which meant that a buyer could afford to pay a higher price. Obviously, because such new possibilities become capitalized in property prices over some years, already established owners earned fortunes that could be cashed in for consumption. This was also encouraged by low real interest rates.

As already mentioned, the increasing consumer interest in renovation activities has developed in interplay with increased commercial supply of materials, equipment, consultancy services, magazines for inspiration, and, not the least, a proliferation of television programs broadcast on both commercial and public service channels covering different aspects of housing, renovation, and decoration. These television programs can be seen as part of the broader trend toward provision of light entertainment at the expense of more informative and educational programs that followed in the wake of the commercialization of television and the increasing number of competing channels. Since the end of the 1980s, all these channels have provided new possibilities for advertising, so that retailers have better opportunities to reach more consumers, but even more important was the influence of advertising on the supply of programs. Although Denmark has strict regulations about advertising on sponsored programs (which is less the case in the United States, where sponsors, such as Sears on the ABC network show Extreme Makeover Home Edition, have more freedom5), companies are probably more interested in spending their advertising money on channels with programs that both attract many viewers and integrate the companies' products with their advice to consumers (e.g., when programs such as Roomservice feature a detailed product list on their Web site; Roomservice 2006).

Specific Consumption Dynamics Related to Bathroom Renovation and Furnishing

Whereas the previous section dealt with the general drivers related to housing renovation and furnishing, in this section we turn to the more specific drivers behind the increasing focus on bathrooms. First we discuss the trend toward an increasing number of bathrooms in the home, and then we address the trend toward altered ways of perceiving and using the bathroom.6

The Multiplication of Bathrooms

Usually, Danish dwellings have only one bathroom. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, it became popular to have a guest toilet, and since the 1990s a trend toward having two bathrooms for daily use has emerged. It is not possible to obtain precise statistical information on these changes over time, but in January 2006, 19.7% of all detached houses, terraced houses, and double houses had two bathrooms (based on information from Statistics Denmark and Bolius, a knowledge center for homeowners in Tre badeværelser [2006], and own calculations). Presently, several Danish builders of standard housing mostly offer detached houses with two bathrooms, one in connection with the master bedroom and one in connection with the children's rooms (Bülow and Nielsen 2006; Eurodan 2006; Lind og Risør 2006). Allan Dahl, managing director of Skovbo,7 observed that the once-popular guest toilet has been replaced by a guest bathroom and that the main bathroom of the house has to contain both a shower and a spa/bath (Danske huse har vokseværk 2006). Consequently, the builders (e.g., Skovbo and Eurodan) have observed an increasing demand for more square meters devoted to bathrooms (Danske huse har vokseværk 2006).

An important part of bathroom investments thus consists of adding more bathrooms to existing dwellings and including more bathrooms in newly built dwellings. Informants often complain about congestion and capacity problems in the bathroom, especially when the household includes teenagers, and this argument is decisive for the addition of new bathrooms or for choosing a dwelling with more bathrooms when a family moves.

The capacity problems arise from several different trends. The most important is the changing showering practice—from the weekly bath or shower to the daily (or twice daily) shower. It is not easy to date this change, but the information we have gathered, both from interviews and from informal discussions with families, friends, and colleagues, indicates that the change took place during late 1960s and the 1970s. Such changes do not involve everybody, but since the 1980s the daily shower has been a norm for the younger and middle-aged generations. There are no data to substantiate this claim, but a recent qualitative study on teenage cleanliness (Gram-Hanssen 2007) indicates the strength of this norm. Another indication is the widespread indignation when old people in need of care are not offered a daily shower (a much-debated issue during the Danish general election campaign in 2007). Hand and colleagues (2005) identified the same trend in the United Kingdom and tried to explain it within a longer historical perspective than we apply here. In relation to recent history, the British account includes some technical aspects that are less relevant in a Danish context, where the change took place during a period with little technical progress with regard to bathroom installations. More people gained access to bathrooms during this period, which was characterized by much new building, but in many households the change took place within a basically unaltered physical framework. First of all, it was a change in standards and expectations, with less tolerance of bodily smells and stricter demands for freshly washed hair. An important change during the period that might have had an impact on norms was the rapid increase in women's participation in the workforce and the related wish to be “presentable.” The increase in showering might also have codeveloped with the diffusion of the washing machine, which helped provide clean clothes at shorter intervals and thus called for bodily cleanliness as well.

Whatever the reasons behind the changing showering practice, it has contributed to capacity problems in the bathroom. As Danish women, including women with small children, now have almost the same level of participation in the workforce as men and usually work full time, the common pattern is that the whole family leaves the house in the morning, and all family members have to get ready within a relatively short slot of time. Coordinating activities in the bathroom may be especially challenging, compared to other rooms in the house, as the bathroom is a place of intimacy and privacy. Family members may wish to be on their own when using this particular room. Of course, families find practical solutions to this coordination problem (e.g., making use of the bathroom one by one or using it simultaneously), but the calls for relieving the problem through increased capacity are strong.

This pattern is reinforced by the general trend toward individualization in modern societies: Each individual seeks independence and finds it unacceptable to have to wait his or her turn or to share. This is also reflected in the acquisition of multiple televisions, video players, and other devices. This pursuit of increased capacity is also supported by new ideas of personalized bathrooms, illustrated, for instance, by images of both intimate and remote parental bathrooms (e.g., in direct connection to the master bedroom) and colorful and playful children's bathrooms, or by feminine and masculine bathrooms for wife and husband, respectively (Grey et al. 1998; Boligmagasinet 2003). In this trend, the objective is to have a private bathroom in connection to each bedroom—besides, of course, one for the guests.

In a study on British house extensions (i.e., additions to dwelling space), Hand and colleagues (2007) also observed the trend toward the multiplication of bathrooms, and their respondents also mentioned congestion problems in the family and the interest in having toilets both downstairs and upstairs (a more obvious consideration in a British multistory dwelling than in the Danish housing tradition). Besides, some of their respondents emphasized that they wanted additional bathrooms and toilets because it is convenient when they have guests—some houses are simply transformed into guesthouses, where guests have facilities they can think of and use as “their own” (Hand et al. 2007, 14–15). The idea of guest toilets is also found in Danish households, but our observations indicate that this was more fashionable in the 1970s, whereas the present multiplication of bathrooms is mainly motivated by congestion and timing problems.

In some cases, the installation of new bathrooms in relation to home extensions, conversion of basements, and the like makes it possible to establish a more independent accommodation unit within the household, so grown-up children stay with their parents a little longer. After a long period when children left home at an ever younger age—concurrent with improvements in the housing situation—the trend has turned in recent years (Carlsen 2005). Parents have become less restrictive, and young people enjoy the convenience of staying at home.

The Multifunctioning of Bathrooms

Besides multiplying bathrooms, much investment is related to the arrangement and upgrading of bathrooms. In the British study on home extensions mentioned earlier, Hand and colleagues (2007) distinguished between the trends for kitchens and bathrooms, observing that bathrooms are multiplying, whereas the spatial changes in the kitchen appear to be related to multifunctioning. Our study suggests that multifunctioning is also an important element of bathroom renovations in Denmark and thus contributes to the increased focus on bathrooms. The investments go beyond simply renewing outdated bathrooms, as the functions of the room are being developed in new directions.

The changing functions are indicated by the changing images that drive bathroom renovations. As Hand and Shove (2004) observed in their study of kitchens, “investments in new appliances and in kitchen makeovers were commonly desired, anticipated or justified as a means of bridging between the dissatisfactions of the present and an image of a better, more appropriate future” (4). They emphasized that the image includes not only the potential pleasures related to changing material possessions but also the performance of specific practices related to the material changes. In our analysis of our interview material, magazines, advertisements, and other material, the focus is thus not only on aesthetic changes but also on the changing practices and reinterpretations of old practices that the images imply.

The importance of images as a driver of consumption was emphasized by Campbell (1987), who identified a modern form of hedonism that is pursued through daydreaming: Pleasure is derived from imagining a future situation that one could achieve by acquiring various consumer goods. When the consumer succeeds in acquiring the goods, the reality often falls short of the imagined pleasure, and the consumer ventures into new dreams and a ceaseless search for novelty.

More recently, related ideas have been elaborated by others who study modern time-pressured families and the impact of busyness on consumption. Hochschild (1997) described in The Time Bind (see also Wilson and Lande 2005) one of the coping strategies applied by busy families: A parent who is not able to live up to her (or his) ideal of being a good parent can cope with this by distinguishing between her “potential self”—the person she would be if only she had time—and her “real self” with limited time. Objects can then function as totems to the potential self, as they represent a potential future when the ideals can be realized. Families are thus motivated to buy, for instance, fishing equipment that can be used in an imagined future when the family has time to go fishing.

Sullivan and Gershuny (2004) elaborated on this observation and identified a particular form of consumption whereby expensive leisure goods are purchased and stored away due to lack of time. By owning the goods, a person can signal to himself or herself what sort of person he or she is (e.g., a person actively participating in outdoor activities) and thus strengthen his or her self-image, and although the goods are seldom or never used, satisfaction may be obtained by the mere consciousness of possession. Such considerations can also be relevant for the bathroom case: Sometimes consumers succeed in realizing their dreams and carrying out the imagined practices, but sometimes the goods remain as symbols of an imagined future.

In the following, we aim at identifying some of the dominant images in relation to how a better and more appropriate future is represented in relation to bathrooms. Of course, in each of the individual stories told by our informants, several of these images are combined, but for analytical purposes we identify the different dimensions separately.

Taking care of the body has from the beginning been a core activity in the bathroom, and daily practices such as washing and preparing the body are still viewed as central bathroom functions. In a symbolic sense, this employs the bathroom as a setting for backstage preparation that has to do with relations between self and society, with individuals conveying certain messages to the surrounding world through these types of performances—for example, ensuring proper front-stage appearance (Goffman 1959; Shove 2003). Currently, these preparation activities seem more important than ever. According to a Danish time use study, an increasing amount of time is used for taking care of the body. In 2001, Danish women spent almost an hour washing and dressing on an average day, which represents an increase of half an hour since 1987, whereas men spent around three quarters of an hour in 2001, an increase of 20 min since 1987 (Bonke 2002). The variety of specialized products currently found in supermarkets and special stores is impressive, offering consumers a wide variety of options for customizing aspects of themselves (skin, hair, and scent) after having stripped the body of its natural odors (Shove 2003). Spending time on taking care of the body is not new, as humans have always modified and ornamented their bodies, sometimes in highly painful ways, but it is a relatively new phenomenon that such a large part of the population spends so much time on the process. Present demands concerning body care were effectively summarized in the novel Bridget Jones's Diary (Fielding 1996):

6. p.m. Completely exhausted by entire day of date-preparation. Being a woman is worse than being a farmer—there is so much harvesting and crop spraying to be done: legs to be waxed, underarms shaved, eyebrows plucked, feet pumiced, skin exfoliated and moisturized, spots cleansed, roots dyed, eyelashes tinted, nails filed, cellulite massaged, stomach muscles exercised. The whole performance is so highly tuned you only need to neglect it for a few days for the whole thing to go to seed. Sometimes I wonder what I would be like if left to revert to nature…. Is it any wonder girls have no confidence? (30)

At a general level, this can be seen in the perspective of identity formation in postmodern societies, where also the body is viewed as a vehicle of self-expression, and where the commercial supply of means for constructing and maintaining bodily appearance is larger than ever (Howson 2004). The theoretical discussion of the background and implications of the preoccupation with bodily appearance and body fitness and health is to be found in a variety of literature that we must omit here, but we wish to emphasize that the developing preoccupation with body care influences the visions of the bathroom and contributes to its changed status.

Demands on the bathroom are escalating as preparation activities become more demanding and require more and more time. The bathroom is turned into a kind of beauty salon, providing the right conditions: a multitude of body care products (shampoos, balms, and crèmes) and tools (razors, nail file, scissors) and a proper setting (with mirrors, storage capacity, and a nice atmosphere). The current fitness trend, whereby people exercise their body as a part of body care activities, may also influence the future status of the bathroom, as it can develop into a setting for fitness activities in the home. Many people go to fitness centers, but we can observe an increasing supply of home-fitness equipment from both ordinary supermarkets and specialist stores. It is plausible that the bathroom can turn into a kind of fitness center, especially given the ongoing trend toward enlarging the room, which will make it more appropriate for such activities. Furthermore, it seems plausible that fitness facilities in the home can be an example of the phenomenon whereby objects function as totems to a potential self and as a device for developing self-identity—unless, of course, the facilities provoke a bad conscience when they are not used as much as expected.

Another aspect of body care is the widespread tendency to associate body care with wellness, pampering, and self-indulgence. Some people experience body care activities, such as bathing or showering, moisturizing the skin, and applying hair balm as enjoyable, interpreting them as body treats, whereas others consider them to be laborious duties. In a historical perspective, bathing has long been a valued and pleasant experience due to the curative properties of water. Immersion in water has been widely believed to benefit both health and well-being (Shove 2003). The appreciation of this experience has shifted over time, however, and in many Danish homes, bathtubs have been gradually replaced with showers (more appropriate for a quick wash), as daily showering has become more commonplace. In 1979 a spokesperson from Max Sibbern, one of the main suppliers of sanitary appliances in Denmark, explained that the bathtub was on its way out compared to the shower, which was considered more efficient for daily use (Albertsen 1979).

Currently, the bath is experiencing a renaissance in Denmark, as the idea of enjoying a nice bath regains momentum, but now as a supplement to the shower. It is worth noting, as some of our informants did, that the idea of health and pampering applies not only to bathing but also to showering:

I think it [her evening shower] is just so nice. It is so relaxing. Ahh, then I relax. And I also think it provides such calm when I have taken a bath. I feel such a pffff [exhales], not tired but relaxed. I get such a feeling of calm in my body. And it's lovely, oh ahh, you smell good. It's also lovely to smell good in the morning, but then you still do for a little while yet. And ahh, then you are clean and lovely when you go to bed. (Katrine, aged 33, cleaning supervisor)

Then [when you don't have to consider others in relation to the warm water], I love to take a very long, boiling hot shower. Without thinking about anything else at all than that it is just wonderful…. It's just, if there is time for it, such a luxury. Something enjoyable that is just pleasant and terrific. (Betina, aged 34, self-employed animation instructor)

Often, the association between pleasure and showering or bathing is related to accounts of stress and hard work and, hence, a wish to delve into body care once in a while, enjoying the opportunity to pamper oneself (Alt for Damerne 1999; Boligmagasinet 2004; Tidens Bolig 2004). Enjoying a relaxing bath is often portrayed as a way of reacting against stress and as a healthy way to recover from a hard day's work:

A bath can provide a feeling of being reborn, a gift in a busy everyday life. No matter how worn out you are, a 20-minute soak can give extra energy. (Alt for Damerne 1999, 121)

The bathroom is definitely becoming the home's new room for enjoyment. The place where you relax and gather new energy for a hectic everyday life. (Boligmagasinet 2003, 35)

Such tendencies contribute to the escalating demands on the bathroom, as the room becomes staged as a place where people can find good recreational experiences. The bathroom comes to represent a kind of sanatorium, where more recreational activities are located. This encourages the installation of more luxurious fixtures in the bathroom, such as freestanding bathtubs or spas, and other features—for example, transforming the shower into a massage shower—have also become more popular (Bo Bedre 1993b; Boligmagasinet 2003; Familieliv i badeværelset 2003; Byggecentrum 2004). Figure 3 shows an example of a bathroom sanatorium.

Figure 3.

A private bathroom with a spa. Photograph of a friend's bathroom, taken by the authors.

It has not been possible to collect data to document this development, because bathroom suppliers and producers are reluctant to reveal their sales figures. Nevertheless, wellness is an important issue for customers, noted the sales and marketing director of HansGrohe, Thomas Leth. According to Leth, the increasing focus on wellness is supported by the fact that the Rain Dance showerhead, which has a wellness feature of providing huge amounts of water, now represents 10% of the turnover of HansGrohe (Sørensen 2007). The trend also influences the overall arrangement of the room. For example, one of our informants described a romantic atmosphere in the bathroom as being central to the experience of a relaxing bath. Similarly, a typical illustration in the press is that of a person lying in a bathtub with foamy suds and a romantic setting, with beautiful colors and lighted candles (Alt for Damerne 1999; Boligmagasinet 2004).

A special element of this well-being theme is the wish for retreat; the bathroom is increasingly presented as an oasis where individual family members can find peace and take care of themselves. This develops further the idea of privacy that has long characterized the bathroom. Traditionally, the room is considered to be a private space, placed relatively remotely, and with activities being carried out behind a locked door and frosted windows. This makes the bathroom one of the few places in the home where individuals can—without question—withdraw for a short time and be themselves. This symbolic status of the bathroom has probably contributed to nurturing the current idea of making more conscious use of the bathroom as a place for retreat, an idea that is often put forward in media coverage:

Now, it is the bathroom that is the centre of the home. It is not here we gather, but it is here family members can find peace to care for themselves. Pampering themselves in beautiful surroundings. (Byggecentrum 2005)

Now, extra focus is being directed toward contentment and well-being in the only room where we can withdraw and be ourselves in peace and quiet, the bathroom. (Spabad i stor stil 2006)

As with well-being, retreat is linked to the hectic pace of people's lives, as stress and hard work give rise to a need not only for relaxing but also for withdrawing. In several of our bathroom cases, husbands explained that they found relief in the possibility of retreating from the hullabaloo of everyday life by spending some time alone on the toilet, reading. Other activities, such as bathing or showering, reflect the similar pleasure of having the possibility to enjoy a brief time alone. The current idea of retreat affects the status of the bathroom, as it is interpreted as a kind of sanctuary, especially when it is linked to images of pampering oneself and relaxing. Obviously, such use contributes to the demand for multiple bathrooms so there is room for everyone.

The opposite idea to the idea of retreat was also present in the material we reviewed. Some persons express the wish to enjoy each other's company in the bathroom. In general, the home is an important setting for socializing within the family, and recent developments in the kitchen reflect the increasing need for socializing in busy families: It has become popular to arrange the kitchen as a “kitchen for conversation” (SamtaleKøkken), where family members can be together while they are preparing dinner (KVIK 2006). Although bathrooms are not developing into rooms for conversation, the idea of the bathroom as a private place is subject to change:

The bathroom is becoming the family's most popular room to be in. Here, you shall be able to use more time to care for your body in beautiful surroundings, and maybe entertain each other while doing so. (Baderummet ændrer status 2004, 30)

One way of enjoying each other's company is by taking care of daily routines together, interacting in the bathroom while preparing for the day. This was illustrated by one of our informants:

It was something we wanted—a bathroom with two sinks. And we have it now, so we can brush our teeth at the same time. That way, we can be together in the bathroom much more than we could before. Now, people might say, yes, but brushing teeth takes only a minute, but it can take three or four minutes for us both, with dental floss and all. So it actually means a lot. (Henrik, aged 40, lawyer)

There are two aspects to this bathroom idea. One has to do with congestion problems in the bathroom (e.g., during the rush hour in the morning). In order for daily preparation activities in the family to go smoothly, it may be a possibility (or a necessity) to be together in the bathroom rather than have multiple bathrooms.

The other aspect has to do with finding time to be together in a situation where many families experience stressful lives. The bathroom and its related activities thus become linked to ideas of proximity, finding time to be together in stressful family lives. The proximity aspect also explains why the bathroom may also, to a greater extent, be used to perform recreational activities together (e.g., enjoying a bath together), as this provides yet another opportunity for quality time together. The status of the bathroom can thus be envisioned as a family room, or a kind of “living room,” on the same footing as other rooms in the home where the family enjoy being together. This image implies new demands with regard to the physical layout of the room, as more space is typically necessary and some fixtures have to be multiplied in order for several people to use the room simultaneously. Also, we have observed a tendency to develop bathroom products for more than one user. This is currently the case with spas, which are also designed for two or more people (Jysk Spabad 2006; Westerbergs 2006). Figure 4 illustrates a bathroom for two.

Figure 4.

A room for two. Commercial picture from Westerbergs homepage (Westerbergs 2007).

Two final issues that we want to emphasize are convenience and aesthetics, as these have become more central in connection with current developments of the bathroom. With regard to convenience, we observe that many new types of appliances and accessories are making their way into the bathroom in connection with the earlier described development of bathroom activities. This is also connected with new standards and expectations in the home in general. For example, common products such as radios, televisions (even waterproof versions), and telephones are now appearing in the bathroom (Familieliv i badeværelset 2003; Boligkataloget Eksklusiv 2004; Tidens Bolig 2004) to entertain the bathroom user or keep the busy bathroom user in contact with the surroundings.

It had to come. The shower stall with built-in telephone. Who hasn't been in the situation where the telephone rings just as you are standing there with your hair full of soapsuds. Instead of rushing out of the shower, you can now push a button and redirect the call to the shower. The same model also contains a built-in radio and a connection for a CD player. (Byggecentrum 2004, 5)

This suggests that the bathroom is being turned into a high-tech room, with much effort being put into arranging the room in appropriate ways with regard to facilities. This kind of consumption often requires more room, for practical reasons (e.g., to make room for more storage or large equipment).

With regard to aesthetics, the private, hygienic, and utilitarian room has developed into a presentable, beautiful, and impressive room, where individual styles and personal accessories replace the standard bathroom picture (Lupton and Miller 1992; Bo Bedre 1996b, 2004; Baderummet ændrer status 2004). The consumption trends related to the rest of the home have diffused to the bathroom, as this is now designed and equipped in the same way as the living room. In the coverage of bathrooms in Bo Bedre, there is an increased interest in aesthetics. The issue of decoration is taken up in a larger number of articles than in earlier years, and decoration is portrayed as a more central element of the bathroom (Quitzau 2004). Characteristically, the aesthetics of bathrooms mainly concern the atmosphere of the room rather than such details as colors and accessories:

The home's wet room can easily breathe warmth, coziness and personality. We have chosen three bathrooms that resolutely turn their backs on the white streamlined style and are instead fashioned with colored walls, golden metals and dark woods. (Bo Bedre 1993a, 68–71)

Providing good atmosphere involves both a nice physical environment (e.g., heat and humidity) and a pleasurable aesthetic experience (e.g., style). More tolerable and pleasant conditions are expected because of the prolonged stays in the bathroom. As one informant put it, “one learns to make many demands for the bathroom” when one spends so much more time there. Central themes in the media coverage relate to notions of well-being and of having a good experience in the bathroom (Bo Bedre 1993b, 1996a, 1996b; Badeland 1996; Bo Bedre A-Z 2000; Boligmagasinet 2004). The bathroom is staged as an oasis where atmosphere and ambiance have high priority. It has emerged as a front-stage room: The bathroom door is, to a greater extent than earlier, left open for visitors to take a peek. According to trend researcher Kirsten Poulsen, the bathroom has become a showroom that reflects the identity of its owner, and this only makes sense if the room is visible (Sørensen 2007).

New Normal Expectations and Their Environmental Implications

The present bathroom boom is not only interesting as a consumption boom here and now, with the immediate environmental implications connected with the renovation activities. Even more important are the implications that the boom might have for the long-term expectations regarding the standards of bathrooms. Of course, the higher standards do not materialize across the whole population over a short period, and economic crises may well curb the process of diffusion (it is illustrative that it took many decades to implement the simplest bathrooms in the majority of dwellings), but the emerging expectations form a new aspiration level that many people will aim at and try to realize over time.

The present trends point toward emerging normal expectations in Denmark that are characterized by the following:

  • • more than one bathroom in each dwelling, preferably more than two;
  • • more spacious bathrooms
  • • with more functions
  • • and more equipment related to the various functions;
  • • more focus on the personal appropriation of the room through creative processes, more influence from fashion,
  • • and thus more frequent replacements and renovations of a room
  • • that has developed into a real front-stage room merging aspects of various kinds of rooms, such as the beauty salon, fitness center, sanatorium, sanctuary, high-tech room, and family room.

These trends are not special for Denmark—rather, Danish developments are lagging a little behind changes in the United States. According to a U.S. survey on bathroom habits, for instance, enlargement of bathrooms is the number one bathroom design trend, and in general, the idea of having luxurious bathrooms with more fixtures (including spas, armoires for storage, music and television, and chaise lounges) is emphasized (Grey et al. 1998; “Pleasant dreams” 2003; A Bathroom Guide 2005).

The increasing standards of bathrooms have various environmental implications. The multiplication and enlargement of bathrooms imply greater use of energy and materials, both in the construction process (the bathroom is often more demanding with regard to construction materials compared to other rooms of the dwelling) and in energy consumption (e.g., for heating and lighting), and in the long term, bathroom development contributes to the increase in the overall size of dwellings. In general, large houses consume more resources—both in construction and during operation—as calculations by Wilson and Boehland (2005) demonstrated. These authors even argued that increasing size may lead to a more than proportional increase in resource consumption, if the geometry of the house becomes more complex.

The larger bathrooms make room for more equipment and accessories, from sinks to TV sets, again with related environmental impacts in production, use, and disposal. An example is the introduction of electronic equipment in bathrooms, which adds to the known environmental problems related to electronics—energy consumption, consumption of scarce raw materials, flame retardants, and problematic waste, for instance. In some cases, new equipment, such as fitness gear and spas, in private bathrooms can transfer the use of certain services from the public to the private sphere. This can imply increased use of resources, as fewer resources are required to share facilities than to multiply them—although less transport counteracts the increase.

The increased rate of replacement diminishes the life span of bathroom elements and leads to increased amounts of waste as the old elements are disposed of. Local recycling stations in Denmark have thus already noted the increased disposal load from kitchens and bathrooms (From 2004). A particular concern in relation to the rate of renovation is if people are so preoccupied with renewal that they choose to install facilities of poorer quality (which was the case with kitchens; Institute for Business Cycle Analysis 2005), as this would contribute to the reduction of the life span of bathroom elements and demand quicker replacements.

The previous arguments are mostly directed toward the implications of the changing material structures, without much consideration of the changing practices that coevolve with material change. Including the bathroom's usage in the equation tends to aggravate the environmental impacts, as the new infrastructure scripts practices that are more water and energy intensive. It is difficult to predict whether people actually will follow the scripts of the new infrastructure (e.g., they may not have the time)—but if the pleasurable practices become increasingly popular, even people without the most recent material arrangements may try to enact them. Bathroom-related pleasurable and recreational activities often involve increased use of hot water (e.g., a long shower, bath, or spa). A Rain Dance Rainfall overhead shower from Hans Grohe has a flow rate of 40 liters (L)8 of water per minute, according to product details, whereas a regular hand shower, common in Denmark, has a minimum flow rate of approximately 9 L of water per minute (Hans Grohe 2007). When it comes to pleasure, people tend to give priority to a good bathing experience rather than taking steps to minimize the use of water and energy. Danish authorities have achieved positive results with regard to decreased water consumption since the early 1990s, as many people have installed water-saving toilets and other devices inspired by campaigns and higher water taxes (Hoffmann et al. 2005; StatBank Denmark 2005); however, the current developments in recreational bathroom practices might undermine these efforts.

Concluding Remarks

When people plan their new bathrooms during the present boom, they may well have great expectations regarding the pleasures to be experienced from the new aesthetic arrangements and the practices they intend to indulge in—and sometimes these expectations will be fulfilled. When viewed from just a slightly longer perspective, however, the present boom is seen to be integrated in a process that generates new normal expectations—new standards for how a decent bathroom should look and how many bathrooms are needed in a household. The bathroom case thus exemplifies the development of new normal expectations—a development that takes place in many other fields of practice and consumption as well.

The case demonstrates the complexity of drivers and other aspects involved in the construction of new normality. The changing material standards coevolve with a variety of social trends and a broad range of consumption drivers—for instance, the increasing importance of the home as a core identity project and a symbol of the unity of the family, the opportunities for creative work, the convenience of more grooming capacity during the busy family's rush hours, the perceived need for retreat and indulgence in a hectic everyday life, and the increased focus on body care and fitness. The case also illustrates that when people have the economic possibilities for increasing consumption, they will have many ideas that are closely integrated with their prevailing everyday concerns.

Because environmental concerns in consumption are still mainly related to various symbolic actions, the gradual development of new normal expectations is seldom considered in an environmental perspective. There is an obvious need to bring this issue higher up on the agenda for both citizens and politicians. Probably, only few consumers are willing to go against dominant trends, but if their civic responsibility were invoked more people might be willing to counteract the process of rising standards. As Shove (2003) pointed out, the complex dynamics of this process open up a variety of intervention points that can be used, if the political will exists. For instance, through collective decisions, we can constrain our economic possibilities through various forms of taxation—including taxes on increased property value—and by reducing general housing subsidies. Another well-known suggestion is to restrict advertising, particularly on television, and thus reduce the inspiration for consumption. Simultaneously, the complex consumption drivers call for considering everyday concerns in ways that do not encourage material consumption. For instance, an obvious approach is to take steps to reduce busyness through shorter working hours. With less time pressure and more attractive collective facilities, it might be less tempting to acquire all kinds of equipment and facilities individually. A tough challenge is determining how to encourage more immaterial ways of identity formation. Maybe more of people's time can be opened for engagement in less resource-intensive and more time-consuming activities that can contribute to constituting identity.


Maj-Britt Quitzau gratefully acknowledges economic support from the Department of Policy Analysis within the National Environmental Research Institute of Denmark, Roskilde, Denmark, and the Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming, Tjele, Denmark. A previous version of this article was presented at The International Society for Ecological Economics conference in Montreal, Canada, in July 2004. The article has benefited from comments from participants at this conference. We are also grateful to the referees for careful comments on a previous version.


  • 1

    Editor's note: See the special issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology on consumption and industrial ecology, volume 9, numbers 1–2, for an extensive collection of articles on this topic.

  • 2

    In this article, the term bathroom refers to a room that typically includes a toilet, a sink, and a facility for either showering or bathing.

  • 3

    One square meter (m2, SI) ≈ 10.76 square feet (ft2).

  • 4

    E-mail correspondance with Lone Bjerring, who is a viewer analyst at TV2, regarding statistics on numbers of viewers of Roomservice and Huset (28 June 2006). The TV meter is based on registers of all TV viewing among 1,000 selected households, thus representing the total population in Denmark.

  • 5

    See, for example, the Web site of the American television program Extreme Makeover Home Edition (

  • 6

    In this study, we have chosen not to deal with issues related to the body, including aspects of nudity and excretion, although these are important aspects of social norms that influence the design and use of bathrooms. This is because the topic opens up a whole new literature.

  • 7

    Skovbo is a construction firm that specializes in wooden standard houses.

  • 8

    One liter (L) = 0.001 cubic meters (m3, SI) ≈ 0.264 gallons (gal).

About the Authors

Maj-Britt Quitzau was a doctoral student at the Department of Policy Analysis, National Environmental Research Institute of Denmark in Roskilde, Denmark, at the time when the article was written. She is now researcher at the Institute of Civil Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark, in Lyngby, Denmark. Inge Røpke is associate professor at the Department of Manufacturing Engineering and Management, Technical University of Denmark.