Posts Tagged ‘consumption’

Rethinking sustainability in a world of ‘murketing’

Several months have passed since Rob Walker’s book, “Buying In,” hit bookstores. Having now read it, I suggest you get your hands on a copy. I recommend it specifically to marketers or anyone else trying to make sense of where marketing is headed and what the consumption behaviors of today’s Americans are telling us.

If you’re looking for wisdom on sustainability, this book may do more to discourage than enlighten. But I believe Walker has given us plenty to ponder when it comes to sustainability, even though it’s not a central topic in his book.

Walker, author of the “Consumed” column in the New York Times Magazine, attempts to decode what he calls “the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are.” The publisher accurately describes the book as “Part marketing primer, part work of cultural anthropology.” Walker makes a convincing argument, backed by strong reporting and research, that Americans—far from being immune to marketing, as most of us think of ourselves—are in fact “embracing brands more than ever before.” And marketing, while certainly not alone in explaining our enthrall with brands, is doing more than ever to encourage it. Walker writes:

The modern relationship between consumer and consumed—what I’m calling murketing—is defined not by rejection (of commercial persuasion) at all, but rather by frank complicity.

Walker’s term “murketing” blends murky and marketing to describe the blurring of lines between branding channels and everyday life. Marketers, usually referred to by Walker as “commercial persuaders,” are using increasingly sophisticated and unconventional tactics to brand products and companies. Indeed, there seems to be no limits anymore to where and how we might be delivered a commercial message, as Walker illustrates in his explanation of the word of mouth tactics used by new breed marketing agencies such as BzzAgent.

But Walker doesn’t paint a picture of Americans as innocent victims of shameless commercial persuaders. On the contrary, he uncovers numerous examples to show we are often the ones providing a brand with meaning, sometimes far different from the one intended by its owner. And once we endow a brand with meaning that works for us, we become its biggest champions. Walker’s stories of how a factory worker boot made by Timberland became part of the “global hip-hop uniform” is just one of many great examples.

Today’s youth, the most commercially exposed generation ever, may be more aware than any other group when they’re being pitched. But Walker says they are also “most amenable to using brand to fashion meaning for themselves, to announce who they are and what they stand for.” Brands are just a form of useful raw material for expressing identity and creativity. Perhaps because of the ubiquity and familiarity of our commercial culture, Americans return to it over and over to resolve what Walker calls “the fundamental tension of modern life”—how to reconcile our desire to feel like individuals while also feeling part of something bigger than ourselves.

If youth are indeed “a proxy for the future,” Walker’s findings don’t offer much hope that we’ll see a mass movement toward a less materialistic society anytime soon. He describes a cloudy, cluttered marketplace that “makes it dizzingly difficult to walk your talk” when it comes to simplifying life or buying with environmental and ethical considerations always in mind. And perhaps more significantly, commercial objects are what so many Americans use to project the meaning of our lives, according to Walker. “Meaning and value are things we give to symbols, not things we get from them,” Walker writes.

From a sustainability standpoint, what does it mean that material, branded objects are becoming more, not less, important in the collective lives of Americans? I think it asks for a fundamental change in strategy in how we confront consumerism. Attempts to educate everyone to consume less or differently have had marginal success. And that’s unlikely to change if, as Walker argues, Americans use the commercial marketplace to set ourselves apart from the crowd and to participate in something bigger. We must recognize how difficult it will be in the near-term to supplant this central role of commercial goods in our lives, especially when marketers are hell-bent on keeping consumption our top priority.

So if demand for material goods is unlikely to slacken, maybe we need to make the goods themselves our primary focus. If producers make and sell only sustainable products, customers won’t have to think twice about how a product is made. Sustainability will be embedded. That places the onus on manufacturers and those who market their products to take responsibility for the environmental and social impact of what they sell.

I don’t want to let individuals off the hook for what and how much we consume. But pleas to consume less will keep falling on deaf ears as long as the things we buy are how we tell ourselves we matter. Maybe the key to sustainability is how we confront meaning, not consumption.


There’s no consuming our way to green

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.

Professors Diane Martin and John Schouten conduct research related to sustainable marketing. Included in their work is the study of Wal-Mart’s aggressive sustainability initiatives. They receive no payment from Wal-Mart as part of their research. Nor do they shop there.

Martin and Schouten peppered their presentations this morning with examples of what Wal-Mart was doing to lessen the environmental impact of its business operations, the products it sells and the global supply chain that feeds its stores. Schouten says the company is so serious about its sustainability efforts it has reached out to detractors such as the World Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Conservation International to involve them in their green initiatives.

But when asked whether she was aware of Wal-Mart actually encouraging their customers to consume less, Martin quickly replied, “No.” Schouten said the mindset that “growth is good” is still very much present in Bentonville, although its managers are all evaluated by metrics of sustainability. He didn’t say what those metrics were, but clearly they don’t involve helping Wal-Mart customers buy fewer products. Wal-Mart doesn’t plan to relinquish its role as the world’s largest retailer — indeed, its revenues make it the equivalent of the world’s 19th largest economy, Martin said.

This raises what I believe to be the fundamental question for companies and marketers embracing sustainability principals: Can humans consume their way to green? In other words, can we simply switch from brown products to green products across the board and create the sustainable future we all want? 

Wal-Mart and most other companies can’t envision a future where their customers dramatically lessen the amount of goods they buy. After all, what would happen to their growth ambitions and their need to create adequate shareholder return? Their solution is to get us to consume differently: less brown, more green. 

I don’t believe we have the luxury of simply shifting to green products. In fact, I can’t imagine a sustainable future where humans — at least in the developed countries — don’t reduce their consumption many fold. That’s a prospect few in business, including those of us in marketing, want to either accept or condone. Where’s the money in non-consumption?

Last week, I heard author and Boston College Professor Juliet Schor speak for the second time in several months, this time at the national conference of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) in Boston. Schor is a well-known critic of over-consumption by the middle/upper classes of developed countries. She cited new data that illustrate how the growing scale of consumption among higher-income people is swamping virtually all the product greening steps our society is taking. 

The de-materialization of our economy is not happening. For example, in what Schor calls “the Ikea effect,” American consumption of furniture in material weight increased from 6 billion kilograms in 1998 to 12 billion kilograms in 2005. Our population increased 10 percent in that time, but our furniture consumption doubled. We consumed 2.9 billion kilograms of ceramics in 1998 and 5.7 billion kilograms in 2005. Our electronics consumption — despite the ongoing miniaturization of digital gadgets — increased from 3.8 billion kilograms in 1998 to 6.2 billion kilograms in 2005.

Schor’s solution is to engage people in redefining the good life. One where we acquire more time and far less stuff. A life in which we work fewer hours, and use that time to reconnect with ourselves, our families, our communities and nature and rediscover our happiness. Schor didn’t say it, but I’m pretty sure you won’t find even a green Wal-Mart in her picture of the good life. You certainly won’t in mine.

Recession or no, climate change can’t be put on hold

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.


Spread of fashion undermines sustainability

One of America’s foremost critics of our consuming ways is Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak this week in Portland.

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?


Making the wrong argument for sustainability

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.


How about consumer confidence to buy less?

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.