Urbanisation is changing the way we live – literally. Along with lower marriage and fertility rates, ageing populations and rising disposable income, urbanisation is one of the main factors contributing to the rise of single-person households. In an interview with Smithsonian.com’s Joseph Stormberg, Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo, observed that cities enable people to live alone but still go out in public with each other.
Single-person households are a relatively new phenomenon according to Klinenberg, who points out that until the 1950s, there was no society in the history of our species that supported large numbers of people living alone. Estimates put the number of single person households at 330 million at the end of 2016, and Euromonitor expects that number to rise by 120 million by 2030 globally.
We spoke with Lulu, Anna and Alice, three women who live by themselves in some of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, to see how living alone influences purchasing decisions, especially in food and dining, among singletons.
Technology as an enabler
I don’t eat a lot of takeout, maybe about once or twice a week through food-ordering apps like Eleme,” says Lu Ying, co-founder of Future Urban Living. “I often eat out when I have business meetings or have made plans with friends. Eating out is not just about getting something to eat because I’m hungry; it’s just as much about the social aspect of it.”
Lulu lives in Shanghai, where eating out is the norm rather than the exception. Lulu attributes this to the fact that Asian meals are comprised of many different dishes. “It’s not unusual even for families who cook at home to supplement their cooking with something already prepared for variety. When I visit my grandparents for dinner, they buy ingredients from the local wet market. I prefer going to supermarkets or ordering from online supermarkets; it’s just more convenient, since the products are pre-packaged and ready for use. We cook at home, but we also buy some dishes from restaurants; this is because in China, we can have up to 25 small dishes to sample throughout a meal.”
In China, which is the world’s biggest e-commerce market, even fresh fruits and produce can be ordered online. “I mostly use online supermarket Hema to shop for groceries. I have a friend who cooks at home, but she has not been inside a supermarket in years. Ordering home is so easy. You choose whatever fruits or vegetables you want online and they are delivered within 20 minutes, usually for free, no matter the time or weather,” Lulu explains.
As more and more consumers in countries like China – whether they live alone or not – leave the local wet markets for the convenience offered by supermarkets, the need for labels for packaged foods will grow. At the same time, brand owners are likely to respond to the growing trend of single person households by launching smaller package sizes instead of the family or value saver packs that have been popular in years past.
Waste not, want not
Milan-based Alice Casiraghi, a service designer by trade who co-founded Future Urban Living with Lulu, places a premium on sustainability. “I am not a fan of chain supermarkets, because I see a lot of waste in their packaging. I prefer going to small shops run by families and putting my purchases in a reusable bag,” she notes.
“I’m lucky to live in a country with high quality produce and I want to make sure I respect food by not wasting it. Part of this is buying only what’s needed. But I also – and I think this is a skill that many people have lost – try to rescue food before it goes bad.
For example, by turning overripe berries into jam or even by simply remembering to put food into the freezer before it goes bad." Anna Kuusela, a life coach and author of The Wander Woman’s
Playbook, is a Finnish transplant to London and a staunch advocate against food waste. “I travel a lot and often have meetings with clients, so it makes more sense sometimes not to cook for myself. I don’t want to buy food and then end up throwing it away because I’m not home to eat it.”
Anna uses apps like Ocado to order food for takeaway. “I also order fruits and vegetables through Abel & Cole. They deliver a box with enough ingredients for about two big salads, and since I live alone, it’s usually enough for four servings. I like their farm-to-table approach and the fact that they pick up the empty box from my flat, too.”
Reading the labels
Lulu, Alice and Anna all share a preference for organic and local produce. “I read the labels carefully to check if a product is organic,” says Lulu. “I try to eat organic as much as possible. I buy fruits and vegetables locally and eat what’s in season. Eating seasonal means food is cheaper and fresher. Organic seems like a fairer option, with better quality and superior products, although of course it’s not always guaranteed.”
Anna, who describes her diet as “almost vegan,” chooses organic for health reasons. “My health is important to me. One of the good things about living in a melting pot like London is the number of choices available. I don’t mind paying a premium for organic because I think it’s important that we take care of ourselves.”
Alice also prefers supporting small, family-owned shops to promote organic and local products. “Buying from specialty shops might be a bit more expensive, but I prefer it to chain supermarkets. Thankfully, I can afford to make these kinds of choices. I know there are people, like those who are just starting out, who cannot do the same.”
Conscious consumption patterns
Single-person households have the advantage of autonomy. They can freely decide what to spend their money on, with only their personal preferences in mind. As consumers, this gives singletons immense power – to choose products that reflect their beliefs and values. Sustainability, especially of the packaging used, is proving to be one of the most important determinants of what makes it into a singleton’s shopping basket.
Takeaway coffee is something commuters all over the world pick up almost without a second thought. For Lulu, though, this requisite prop for working people everywhere has raised some questions. “I make coffee at home in the morning. It’s the only thing I have for breakfast. Have you noticed how much trash takeaway coffee produces? I’m always surprised at the amount of plastic waste it creates.”
Alice, too, tries to avoid overly packaged products. “I try and reduce the amount of plastic waste I generate by buying shampoo and conditioner bars, so they don’t come in bottles. I have started making my own toothpaste, for example, it’s really quite easy.”
“It’s easier in Europe to carry a reusable water bottle, but this could be difficult in places where tap water is not safe to drink. I also try to avoid eating and drinking on the go. It’s part of Italian culture to sit down for food – whether it’s just for an espresso or for a full meal. If I have no other choice, though, I’ll choose unpackaged options like a focaccia or a panino,” Alice explains.
As sustainability becomes even more important in singletons’ purchase decisions, brand owners
need to be able to provide more sustainable packaging alternatives. The range of fibre-based packaging materials offered by UPM Specialty Papers meets consumer and brand requirements for renewable and recyclable alternatives to fossil-based materials.
“We’re usually too busy to have a proper meal at lunch here in London, so you end up buying a sandwich and a drink and then eating it ‘al desko,’” Anna says with a laugh. “I tend to make a conscious decision about what I buy, but I am also practical. Sometimes you can only make the best choice among what’s possible. One thing I still do here – a habit I picked up in Finland – is that I always carry a canvas bag for my shopping. That way, I can at least avoid using plastic bags.”
- Since 2001, the number of single-person households has risen by 50%, to 330 million in 2016.
- By 2020, single-person households will account for 18% of total households globally.
- Most of the more than 16 million people who live alone in the US are between the ages of 35 and 64.
- Single-person households are the most common household type in the EU. In Sweden, 59% of households have only one member.
Text: Geni Raitisoja
Photography: Fabio Pilotti; Aska; James Tye