Posts Tagged ‘consumption’
I find it difficult to avoid the topic of Wal-Mart when speaking of sustainability and marketing. The company came up again today at a breakfast presentation by two professors of business from the University of Portland, sponsored by the Oregon Natural Step Network. And once again I find myself bristling at the notion of Wal-Mart playing any part in the ultimate sustainability solutions for our planet.
Here’s a silver lining in the existing or pending US recession: Chances are consumption and production will slow, meaning less fossil fuel expended and fewer greenhouse gases emitted. Feel better? I didn’t think so. None of us wants to see the inevitable wrenching loss of jobs, income and personal security that comes during a major economic slowdown.
The attention of government and business leaders, as well as the public, is increasingly fixed on the economy. And while that’s understandable, every other public concern will likely take a back seat to the economy. Including climate change. America, the largest source of CO2 emissions in the world, will be telling the world that we can only afford to focus on climate change as long as our economy is growing (and spewing growing amounts of CO2).
The effects of a recession are painfully real. I started my career in the early 1980s when Oregon was in the midst of a miserable recession — depression, really. I was fortunate to find a job. Some of my friends, meanwhile, lost their homes. Earlier this decade, I felt the tech implosion in a very personal way. The marketing business I co-founded lost half of our revenue in just a couple months in 2001. Within a year we had laid off nearly half our staff. It doesn’t get much worse than that as an employer.
For those of us who believe global warming is real and human-caused, this recession — if that’s what we’re in — poses a vexing question: Can we or how do we keep the very real concerns of recession from overwhelming the equally real threats of climate change?
We may be entering a very nasty period of job and income loss for millions of Americans — and perhaps for many others around the globe dependent upon our economy. A recession is one of those clear and present dangers experienced at the personal level. It’s difficult to think about much else when you’re faced with the prospect of losing your livelihood or your home.
And yet, climate change is no less urgent of a matter than the health of the US economy. The UN Human Development Report 2007/2008 calls climate change “the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced.” Its authors warn:
(Climate change) is still a preventable crisis — but only just. The world has less than a decade to change course. No issue merits more urgent attention — or more immediate action.
Try telling that to someone who’s lost his or her job or home. Or to the political candidate who can’t get the words “It’s the economy, stupid” out of his or her head. To them, global warming is a faraway worry. Unfortunately, it’s not. When we get through this recession — and we will, as history shows — the issue of climate change will still be with us. Every year our political leaders back burner the issue draws us that much closer to irreversible harm. As the UN report makes clear, “The world’s poor will suffer the earliest and most damaging impacts.” They have no political voice in America. And neither do future generations.
If the world is going to avoid the worst of global warming, America and Americans must be completely engaged and leading the way. We’re about to find out whether we’re up to the challenge.
Among the many observations that jumped out at me in her lecture was what she called “the aesthetization of American life.” Not sure that’s a word, but the point is fast-changing fashion, long the staple of the apparel industry, is now central to the selling of many retail products. In recent years, furniture, cellphone, home electronics and other manufacturers have joined clothing makers in emphasizing the design — or aesthetic appeal — of their products. A New York Times piece yesterday, appropriately headlined “Hoping to Make Phone Buyers Flip,” helped make Schor’s point:
Like fashion or entertainment, the cellphone industry is increasingly hit-driven, and new models that do not fly off the shelves within weeks of their debut are considered duds.
I like attractive, well-designed products as much as the next person. However, when it becomes industry’s prevailing practice to change product designs with the season and encourage us to discard perfectly good items because they are no longer “fashionable,” then we have a problem. Making more of the products we buy fashion statements only encourages us to purchase more. This may bolster the financial bottom lines of producers and retailers. But it puts the world’s environmental bottom line further in the red.
To illustrate her point, Schor projected a graph from the World Wildlife Foundation’s Living Planet Report 2006. You can access the report here. According to the WWF:
The Living Planet Report 2006 confirms that we are using the planet’s resources faster than they can be renewed — the latest data available (for 2003) indicate that humanity’s Ecological Footprint, our impact on the planet, has more than tripled since 1961. Our footprint now exceeds the world’s ability to regenerate by about 25 per cent…This global trend suggests we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history…Effectively, the Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand — people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste into resources.
WWF offers several alternatives to our unsustainable (and potentially catastrophic) “business as usual” course of human development. If you’re wondering what you can do, start by examining your consumption choices. Resist the urge to stay at fashion’s leading edge, no matter the product. Buy less stuff. When you do make purchases, reward producers and retailers who embrace sustainability.
And if it’s aesthetics you value, ask yourself this: What better designer than Mother Nature?
Call me a hopeless idealist, but I happen to believe we need no other motivation for living more sustainably than simply doing the right thing. I’m no fan of leading with competitive, economic or profit-based appeals when arguing for sustainability, as The Oregonian did earlier this week in their editorial, “Racing to stay ahead of the pack.”
The editors cautioned Portlanders that we can’t stop doing what has made us a world leader in sustainability because other cities worldwide are “hellbent on catching up”:
Daily we are reminded just how global, competitive and interconnected the modern economy has become. The consequence is clear: In this new world economic order, only the nimble will thrive. This fresh market reality places cities — not generally known for being light on their feet — in extreme peril. Those that have a clear sense of purpose and direction will flourish. Those lacking this trait will wilt.
Accompanying the written editorial was a cartoon of man in a meeting room pointing to a large poster of a dollar bill and telling his colleagues, “Actually there is one rather compelling ‘green argument’ for sustainability.”
The message was clear: There’s money to be made in sustainability, and if Portland loses its position as a global leader in sustainability, we will also lose out on the economic spoils that go to the victors in this race. Maybe so, but in looking at sustainability through the lens of economics we lose sight of the much greater social and moral imperatives for changing how we live.
The editors got it partially right when they concluded:
Current consumption patterns cannot endure. We all will have to use fewer resources, use them more wisely, reuse them, then recycle them. That is the core of sustainability. That is the manner of living Portland must role-model for the world.
The very fact that our global consumption patterns are unsustainable is all the motivation we need to live more sustainably. And Portland should be the role model for the world because the world desperately needs one. Period.
Let’s just keep doing the right thing. If our economy grows as a result, so be it.
Good news! Consumer confidence drops in October.
Where’s the good news there, you ask? Doesn’t this portend a slowing economy, perhaps a recession? After all, our economy lives and dies on consumer spending. If we consumers aren’t optimistic about the future, we’re going to reel in our spending. And that will bring businesses to their knees and cost us our jobs.
Or at least that’s what we have been led to believe for years and years.
No, I don’t yet see the good news in the fall in consumer confidence. But I do look forward to the day when consumers are actually confident enough to spend less — not more. I mean, look at what we’re being told by those guiding our economy: We are to be afraid, very afraid, when surveys tell us that collectively we may spend less in the months ahead. We have learned to use that fear of spending less as a motivation to spend more so we protect our economy, jobs and way of life.
Americans are conditioned to believe it’s consume or bust. But I’m pretty sure we have things turned upside down here. We’re in an age of rapidly disappearing natural resources, a warming atmosphere and exploding consumer economies in China, India and elsewhere. Never has it been more evident that too much consumption — not too little — is the thing we ought to be concerned about most.
In other words, strong consumer confidence, as it’s defined today, is as much a negative social and environmental indicator as a positive economic indicator. If we could somehow find ourselves in an economy built on limited consumption of material goods, we would track our collective confidence in buying less. Meaning, we are optimistic that if we save our money or spend it on non-material stuff, the economy will prosper, and so will we.
I recognize I’m dreaming here. But look where our existing American Dream has taken us.