A Review of May’s PubhD

PubhD May

Don’t besmirch the research

On an evening that’s too warm for a coat but too cool to be without a jacket, PubhD returns to the welcoming environs of The Vat & Fiddle. Where not even a man dressed as Robin Hood can distract our speakers from their 10 minutes of presenting and 20 minutes of questions and answers.

First up this month is Alex. He’s spent the past 8 years doing his PhD part time and he has been researching ethical buying.

So what is ethical consumption? In the 1970s it was considered to be “green” consumption. These days it has broadened to include things such as labour and supply chain issues. Doug Miller, an expert in the field of ethical clothing, says that there is now a morality to ethical consumption – ensuring that you buy thrifty so that you can look after your family.

There are four prisms to examine ethical consumption through. Firstly, there is marketing who see it as being a segmentation problem. They are under the assumption that there will be particular people (be they differentiated by age or gender or class) that are interested. However, ethical consumption is far more complicated than that. The other problem that marketing has is that if you interview people and ask them if they plan on being ethical they will always say yes. Yet this clearly doesn’t always pan out in the shop.

The second lens is psychology. They use expecting value models where they look at the pros and cons of behaviour and then compare them to your own values. The flip-side of this is looking at moral models where they see how your values drive your behaviour.

Then there is sociology. They look at identity theory or your sense of who you are. Then they look at in practice theory or what you actually do.

Finally there are some critical perspectives – “Ethical consumption is a load of rubbish”, “It’s just assuaging middle class guilt”. They’re very keen to point out the attitude behaviour gap – the fact that people rarely do what they say that they’ll do.

However, ethical consumption all comes down to trade offs. Where is the value for the customer? What is the balance of benefit vs sacrifice? How much guilt will they feel? How would ethically principled people make these trade offs?

Well, it turns out that identity is really important to people – how you want to be and how you appear to other people. Alex’s research has mainly focused on clothing as it really ties into this idea of identity. It is also an industry that has a massive environmental impact. In fact it be as much as 10% of the global impact.

The research has shown the importance of habit. People tend to do what they have always done. There is also a trend now to “buy less, buy better”. It also seems that context is key. For example, it’s very easy to buy eggs ethically. However, clothing is different.

Key learning: Everyone questioned as part of the research hated the idea of the “ethical consumer”

Up second is Stephen who is looking at anti-fouling coatings for ships.

Bio-fouling is a significant problem for ships and while there is no quantitative idea of what a bio-film actually is, it’s generally caused by long chain molecules forming on a ship’s hull. Bacteria then form and these make a film. Then other things like molluscs and mussels attach to this film. The more of these things on the hull, the greater the friction and so the harder it is for the ship to move through the water.

To prevent irreversible climate change, we can only burn 565 gigatonnes of carbon by 2050. Every year, bio-fouling increases the carbon footprint of ships by 40%. By that 2050 deadline, 13.4 gigatonnes will have been produced by bio-fouling.

Stephen’s research is taking him back to basics – how do bacteria work? How do they adhere to things? How can we stop them?

Previously an anti-bacterial chemical called TBT was used to remove bio-fouling. However, despite it being incredibly effective, it can no longer be used due to its effect on eco-systems. Now, due to an increase in anti-bacterial resistance, solutions that prevent the bacteria adhering are being looked at rather than actually killing the bacteria.

Current thinking is that silicones could hold the answer. Silicones are hydro-phobic (they repel water) and some bacteria can’t stick to hydro-phobic things. However, there are some that can’t stick to hydro-philic things. Is it possible to create a coating with both properties? Can we create a coating that would change when it’s under water?

It’s such a big issue that the US Navy are investing $1 Billion to deal with it. It’s also something that needs a quick solution as the long chain molecules can begin forming after as little as 30 minutes and a boat can become unusable after three months. Bio-films also exist in the body and can cause issues with things such as catheters so this research could have applications outside of just shipping.

Key learning: No two bio-films are the same

Finally, we have Lexi. She has been researching food experience in primary schools.

Jamie Oliver has been promoting Food Revolution Day – it’s trying to get food education into schools and it’s seen as an opportunity to fix the obesity epidemic. Lexi is looking past the PR fluff and is asking the important questions:

– Is there really an obesity epidemic?
– Where should the responsibility for healthy eating lie – with the individual or with schools?
– What does healthy eating actually mean? Does it mean that you only eat fruit and veg? Are you allowed to eat a Big Mac sometimes? Do you avoid all processed foods?

People are classified as being obese using the Body Mass Index (BMI) which is a ratio between a person’s height and weight. Everyone falls into one of four categories – Underweight, Normal, Overweight and Obese. However, the way that these classifications are used can be problematic and can lead to foods being seen as being “good” and “bad”

What about families that can’t afford this “good food”? It might not actually be possible for people to change this. Looking at schools, we know that packed lunches aren’t as nutritionally good as school meals. However, if you don’t qualify for free school meals then packed lunches are a lot cheaper. Are universal free school meals a viable option?

The other question is how do you make school dinners “cool”? Even the government have realised that this is a problem and have brought in someone from Innocent Drinks to try and give them a make-over.

While there is a lot of good that can be done through education; for example cooking classes and organising farm trips so that children can understand where food comes from, schools can only do so much. There also has to be some education of the parents too.

Key leaning: The category for Normal BMI shifted in the early 2000s – people who were Normal became Overweight overnight

PubhD will return on the 17 June 2015 at The Vat & Fiddle at 7:30 pm where three researchers will speak on History, Psychology & Physics…

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