Can Aspirationals’ Idea of Sustainable Consumption Bring a Better Future?

2013 Aspirational Consumer Index
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If you feel a little bit down lately with the U.S. government shutdown, the latest IPPC report, the end of Breaking Bad and other devastating news, we have something that might cheer you up a little.

This is the 2013 Aspirational Consumer Index that was published last week, offering a fresh glimpse into the rise of the Aspirationals, more than a third of the consumers worldwide who are uniting style, social status and sustainability values to redefine consumption. The index offers a positive outlook into the future, where Aspirationals, especially in emerging markets, will “shift in sustainable consumption from obligation to desire.”

While it sounds promising, please note that I mentioned that this news might cheer you up. The reason I’m cautious is not because I don’t believe in the Aspirationals, but because I’m not sure a future shaped by their sustainable shopping habits is necessarily a sustainable one.

Let’s look at the findings of the index and then try to figure out how sustainable the future portrayed there is. The index follows Re:Thinking Consumption, a report published last year by BBMG, GlobeScan and SustainAbility, where you could learn for the first time about this promising consumer segment called the Aspirationals. These consumers, the authors wrote back then, “are materialistically oriented while at the same time aspiring to be sustainable in their purchases and beliefs.”

And now comes the index, an in-depth survey of over 21,000 participants across 21 international markets. The index identifies more than one-third of consumers globally (36.4 percent) as Aspirationals, defined by their love of shopping (78 percent), desire for responsible consumption (92 percent) and their trust in brands to act in the best interest of society (58 percent).

The authors note that this trend sounds very promising. “Driven by young, optimistic consumers in emerging markets and amplified by technology and social media’s influence, Aspirationals represent a powerful shift in sustainable consumption from obligation to desire,” said Raphael Bemporad, co-founder and chief strategy officer at BBMG. “By engaging Aspirational consumers, brands can further the shift toward more sustainable consumption and influence behavior change at scale,” added Eric Whan, Sustainability Director at GlobeScan.

The demographic data certainly backs up these hopes – Aspirationals are young (they’re the largest segments among Millennials and Gen Xers), urban, have a strong presence in emerging markets like China (46 percent of the population), Pakistan (44 percent) and India (42 percent). And they even show strong presence in major developed markets like the U.S. (36 percent), the UK (34 percent), Australia (41 percent) and Canada (40 percent).

So far, so good, right? Still, something still bugs me when I read these numbers and the analysis. Actually, I’ve got three issues that make me question the premise of the Aspirationals.

First, the numbers. The index states that the Aspirationals represent 36.4 percent of the consumers worldwide or nearly 2.5 billion consumers. The index also characterizes the Aspirationals as responsible consumers who say “I believe we need to consume less to preserve the environment for future generations” (92 percent of the Aspirationals), and are “willing to pay more for products produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way” (91 percent).

It seems though that these figures mainly represent a promise for the future that, for now, has yet to be realized. Otherwise, we would have seen a much faster shift towards sustainability among consumers and wouldn’t have so many companies complaining that consumer demand for sustainability is far from clear.

Second, it’s apparent that Aspirationals have this tension between consumption and shopping. You can see it in the following findings – while nearly eight in ten Aspirational consumers say “shopping for new things excites me,” nine in ten Aspirational consumers say “I believe we need to consume less to preserve the environment for future generations.” In a way, this is a struggle between the heart and the mind, or between the right thing to do and the thing you love to do, and I’m not sure sustainability can ever win this fight.

Third, it’s the premise behind the Aspirationals, which basically says that sustainability doesn’t need to win this fight because if companies embed sustainability into their offerings, Aspirationals can have their cake and eat it too. This approach is, in a way, a reflection of the concepts of decoupling and closed loop economy (aka the circular economy) that many sustainable leaders in business believe are the best strategies for a sustainable future. As Hannah Jones, VP of sustainable business and innovation at Nike explains:

“As we move into a sustainable economy, we will need to move into a closed loop economy. We will be providing products that allow businesses to grow, are profitable, meet the demands of shareholders but are also de-coupled from scarce resources… It’s not about saying to the emerging middle class in China ‘you don’t get to consume as much.’ It’s about a new definition of premium products that are closed loop, using only materials that can be fully recycled.”

But can we really shop our way into a sustainable future? If you ask economists and authors like Tim Jackson, Dan O’Neill, Paul Gilding and others, the answer is no. Why? Because, as Tim Jackson explains in his book, Prosperity Without Growth, when you do the math, absolute decoupling, where economic output becomes progressively less dependent on material throughput and hence the economy can grow without running out of resources is just not feasible. Scale always outweighs efficiency, he explains and therefore in a world of 9 billion people there’s a very slim chance that a decoupling strategy will succeed.

As Ezio Manzinir, one of world’s leading experts on sustainable design explains, if you take cars for example, a car, per se, is not sustainable and even if you transform all the cars today to the most advanced, sustainable form possible, you will still have junk and traffic and you won’t be able to provide a mobility solution to all the people worldwide. Better cars can be useful, he suggests, but the solution is in rethinking mobility.

Will Aspirationals be able to think of solutions in terms of mobility rather than just in terms of eco-friendlier and better-designed cars? If they can, then their rise is definitely good news. If not, then their fusion of sustainability and consumption is definitely a sign of progress, but not necessarily of hope.

[Image credit: BBMG, GlobeScan, SustainAbility]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

5 responses

  1. Raz, Thanks for this thoughtful piece. Frankly, I wasn’t so convinced about the Aspirationals myself when I saw those numbers come out last year. Too much of a disconnect between ‘loving to shop’ and ‘wanting to do good.’ Facts are, there will be 3 billion new middle class consumers on the planet by 2030; recycling still uses energy and creates waste and leads to entropy — nothing goes round and round forever. I haven’t had a chance yet but really need the folks at BBMG and Globescan (whom I have alot of respect for) (and the Nike folks, too!) to explain this dichotomy.

    As far as I’m concerned the numbers tell me that we need to do a lot less shopping and a lot more sharing, a lot less recycling and a lot more reducing, reusing and refilling. That’s why I founded http://www.WeHateToWaste.com earlier this year. So far, we finding that our “NoWaste Lifestyle tm” is a pretty nice ‘aspirationally’ place to livel.

  2. Thanks Raz for this excellent analysis, and thanks to Jacquie as well for your comments and builds. What makes the Aspirationals so interesting (and essential for norming sustainable behavior) is that they are the first to unite economic, social/environmental and cultural forces in one segment. We believe Aspirationals offer an important opportunity to shift behavior on consumption precisely because they are driven by shopping, social status AND environmental values. So, the solution lies not in producing more stuff, but in re-imagining what it means to shop and unleashing sustainable innovation through sharing, DIY, closed loop product design and more delightful services and experiences.

  3. I’m always skeptical of these figures because the nature of the methodology influences greatly the results. Let’s consider some figures.

    First of all 50% of world population lives in poverty. That means their only aspiration is to make it through every day and may be eat twice that day. Another 30% suffer some kind of material limitation, weather housing, running water or are incapable of saving. These people use all their income to cover their basic needs and are also exclusively driven by price, when it comes to shopping decision. In total, were talking about 5.68 billion people.

    This means that, according to the numbers of the study, 100% of the remaining population would be an aspirational buyers plus almost a billion of poor people, which is quite unreal. In truth, we could expect that the figures shown in the study apply to the 1.32 billion middle to upper class people. This would mean that about 450 million people in the world are aspirational buyers. That’s more realistic.

    I do agree thought with your skepticism on shopping ourselves out of global problems. The root of the problem is not only what we buy but how much we buy. It is so because it reflects, not only in the size of the human ecological footprint but also on the distribution of that footprint; who gets to buy his/her access to natural resources and who can’t.

  4. ‘Aspirationals’ are better than ‘the-who-cares-the-more-I-buy-the-happier-I-am-consumer’ that is perhaps the alternative … but this is not enough by a mile to get to a truly sustainable society and economy.

    As long as the dominant corporate measure of success is revenue and profit growth then the change towards sustainability will be at the margin, and nothing more. The metrics need to be changed so that we optimize for people’s quality of life and the the stress on the planet.

    Most people in rich countries with high GDP could have a better quality of life with perhaps 50% of their consumption … but this requires a different messaging through corporate advertising than the one that operates at the moment which has a focus merely on buying more and more so that revenues and profits go up!

    Changing the metrics can be done. I believe it is the way to go.

    Peter Burgess TrueValueMetrics
    Multi Dimension Impact Accounting

  5. Brilliant piece and analysis. thank you! I met the aspirational criteria a number of years ago and willingly paid more for more responsible goods (hybrid car before they were mainstream; solar panels before mainstream; free range/organic, furniture, et al). I have shifted away from ‘loving to shop’ due to the bigger picture reality of consumption, ‘responsible consumption’ or not. I think this stage is just that – a stage – and am hopeful that there is a natural progression where awareness and mindfulness intersect causing shopping/consumerism to result in less fulfillment thus being less desirable. Only time will tell.

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