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How Sustainable Consumerism Might Change the World

RP Siegel | Thursday November 22nd, 2012 | 1 Comment

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Poking around the web this week, I came across a great article written years ago by Chris Riley, who, at least at the time, was Chief Strategy Officer for Wieden + Kennedy, one of the top ad agencies in the U.S.

Riley, as an ad guy, is interested in brands. He says that brands are business ideas that have influenced our culture, business ideas being, essentially, ways of making money.

He argues that the value of brands lies in their relationships with customers, a fact which has always been true, but has become increasingly apparent in the internet age. Meanwhile, back in the 90s, “as capital became more and more powerful, primarily as technology enabled businesses to scale to the global level, the human relationship factors that underpin business eroded.”

Even back in 2001, Riley said, “It need not be so. In fact, other work in the field of business analysis suggests that a pure focus on the capital aspects of business is a deeply flawed way of thinking about how business works and how businesses can succeed in the long run. Some early pioneers of consumer businesses seemed to understand this. In their world, business was an integral part of society. The role of the business was not only to generate wealth for the business owner, but to create opportunity for all who engaged in the business transaction, from the entry level employee to the most distant customer.”

In other words, businesses that focus solely on ROI run the risk of becoming disconnected from their customers, employees and stockholders at a time when those connections, exposed by the digital transparency of today’s world, are more important than ever. These three groups have the potential to drive fundamental change in the way that businesses relate to their surroundings. How? Well, it’s as simple as this: consumers can boycott, employees can strike, and investors can sell.

And given the fact that most, if not all of us are members of at least one of these groups; the question is what are we going to do about it? After all, our money is the water that these big fish swim in, and in 9 cases out of 10, they need us more than we need them.

One could argue that the marketplace has become more democratic than it’s ever been. We’re just not used to the power that we have and we don’t know what to do with it. But that could change rapidly. All of the awareness that the Occupy movement brought forth, might just be ready to “trickle down” into the marketplace.

So what that means is that a company’s survival now really depends on its relationship with us. One way to enhance that relationship, for example, is to provide products that, according to Riley, “not only have benefits, but narratives as well.” This is because meaning resides at the intersection of relationship and knowledge. And people today are beginning to seek more meaningful interactions as consumers. Part of that meaning revolves around the realization that is beginning to seep in, that unsustainable consumerism, if left unchecked, will destroy our planet.

Riley suggests that a new generation of consumers, who grew up “as progeny of the consumer age,” are more demanding, not for lower prices, but for a higher meaning content. They want more than products, they want participation.

They “do not aspire to manufactured dreams that reduce [their] capacity to feel individual.”

These folks, “have engaged with and then experienced the emotional hollowness of the consumer promise, that what you buy dictates how well you feel. They still felt bad when things don’t go right. They have learned through experience that promises are shallow and that there must be an ulterior motive for everything.”

“They want to enjoy the benefits of a healthy economy (don’t we all?) without the guilt of screwing it up for everyone else. How can you enjoy your smart new shoes if you know there are unhappy people living in dangerous conditions so that you can have them? This was never part of the promise but it was always part of the reality. Now that reality is visible and the new consumer is aware and engaged.”

Riley closes his essay with this really great point:

“It turns out that buying stuff because it satisfies desire is OK. …. We want as well as need. The experience of desire is nice! We love it! In my view the crisis of consumerism is not that it creates desire but that it fails to satiate. Most critiques of consumerism and the advertising industry it created seem to focus on how bad creating desire is rather than asking if we can create desire for, well, something else.  This turns out to be on the minds of the new consumer: I want to want but I want to want what will actually satisfy me.”

As the poet once said, “the end of desire, is the end of desire.”

So could that something else, then, perhaps be a more sustainable human presence in the world?

All of this sets the stage nicely for David Korten’s Agenda for a New Economy.

“The New Economy story that we humans are capable of creating a vibrant, peaceful, cooperative world bursting with life resonates deep within most people. Once that connection is made, the trance is broken and we are free to find a path to reclaim control of our lives and get on with living a beautiful world into being.

Corporate advertisers and public relations propagandists have mastered and professionalized the arts of such cultural manipulation, particularly through corporate-controlled mass media. They would have us base our individual identity on the corporate logos we wear, the branded products we consume, the corporation for which we work, and the Wall Street–funded political party to which we belong.”

As we sit here on the verge of the 2012 annual day of shopping hysteria, with Cyber Monday sales already breaking new records, we can reflect on the thought that things are starting to change and that this could be the beginning of the end of an era. Once, we the people begin to realize that we are really the ones in charge of deciding what we want; that will be a powerful moment. It might just open the way to the creation of an economy that works for all of us, not just the guys running the calculators.

[Image credit: Michael Holden: Flickr Creative Commons]

 

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Verne_J_Hostan

    Well said. Our wealth is enormous and our society has become sated. The urgent requirements for survival are gone; perversely, we’ve also lost the satisfaction of participating in the production of meaningful value. That is, looking after each other in important ways. We can learn how again, as businesses, as government and as people – let’s be actively hopeful.