Monthly Archives: February 2011

Sustainability. The end, but the means?

I’ve been having a few chats recently about the fact that the sustainability debate, in the UK at least, is confined to a minority.  The sort of person who reads The Guardian, watches Channel 4 and knows that there is social value in being a globally-concerned individual.  That’s all well and good, but whilst they might be the heart and soul of the debate and movement (if it could be called a movement), they’re too small in numbers to make any real difference.  The action has to be in the mainstream.  In terms of media, it has to be with The Sun and ITV1.  The question is, how do you make that happen?  How do you get sustainability to become a mainstream issue?

Government regulation aside, there seem to be two options.  Popularise the existing narrative.  Or change the narrative.  The first option is to make ‘being green’ more popular; more attractive; more socially acceptable.  This is entirely possible, but it hasn’t happened yet – there seems no appetite for it so far, but who’s to say that there will be in future?  However, I don’t see Ant and Dec giving a way an electric car on their new gameshow before sticking up their ‘How To Be Green’ wallchart from the centre pages of The Sun any time soon.  But it might happen.

In thinking about the possibility of being an alternative narrative, it seems important to make a distinction between the means and the end.  At the end of the day, we, as a nation (and a species), need to live in a more sustainable way.  This is the desirable ‘end’.  It’s the ‘means’ to achieve that end that I’m interested in.

To use an analogy – and one that helped get us in this mess in the first place –  is that in the 1950s President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors stated “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods”.  So, the ‘end’ was an thriving economy based on the production of more ‘stuff’.  How do you make that happen?  There seem to be a number of different ‘means’ that could have been used to achieve this.  It was the 1950’s so you could have created a narrative about it being your duty as an American to buy things in the ideological fight against Communism.  Or you could could create a narrative where people would feel more altruistic by encouraging them to buy bigger and better gifts for friends and relatives.  Or you could create a narrative whereby you can achieve greater personal fulfillment and happiness by buying more things.  It seems that the latter was the primary narrative that was chosen as the ‘means’.  It certainly wasn’t a narrative around ‘please buy more because our economy depends on it’.  So, the means were different to the ends.

So, why, when it comes to the issue of sustainability, should it be any different?

Now, it’s likely that it will be a combination of narratives to help achieve the sustainable end that’s required, but looking beyond the current means = end thinking might move things into the mainstream a little bit quicker.

If you know what those alternative narratives are, you might just help save the world.


Quote of the week

Went to the Natural History Museum at the weekend and saw this under the statue of the Big-D.

Seemed a pertinent quote for the remaining Climate Sceptics, especially after watching the Horizon programme ‘Science Under Attack’ with Sir Paul Nurse .  In it he stays very cool listening to and then taking apart some tit called James Delingpole from The Daily Telegraph.  Delingople helped fan the flames of Climategate pre-Stern report without exercising much of what could be called ‘Journalistic Craft’.  Which is a shame as he’s a Journalist.

I buy brands, therefore I am.

In week 2, we had a very interesting talk from Victoria Hurth who’s doing a Ph.D. looking into the relationship between sustainability and affluence.  In particular, she’s interested in seeing if you can re-orientate the ‘affluent lifestyle’ to one which promotes the values of sustainability.  This is because the affluent lifestyle is the one many people aspire to and currently it’s a very carbon-heavy (big cars, big houses, foreign holidays).  Or as Donald put it ‘You need to make women want to sleep with tree-huggers rather than footballers’.  Or words to that effect.

Anyway, the very memorable quote from her session was ‘When you buy a brand you’re sub-contracting part of your identity‘.

This is because in our (western) society our ‘subsistence’ needs (i.e. food, warmth, shelter) are easily met.  Therefore, we’ve got a lot of spare time to think about and exercise our higher-order needs – e.g. how do I fit in socially, how to gain peer acceptance etc.  Coupled with this, we now live in a time where there is no class system – you can become whoever you want to be.  Put these things together in an economic machine geared for growth and we’re obliged to consume to create our identity.  Consumption becomes the main means to form our social world as everything we do (and buy) says something about us.  As a result, we’ve become an incredibly reflexive society where we are very conscious of what we do and how other people see and perceive us.  This therefore puts a lot of pressure on us as our identity is very fragile – ‘the way I portray myself says a lot about who I am’ – and we don’t like putting ourselves on the line as being rejected can be devastating.

So, in step brands.  They’re incredibly carefully constructed ideas which eliminate a great deal of personal risk.  In buying a brand, you’re buying what that says about you, based on the shop, design, price, marketing and all the other people who buy the same thing.  This is a much safer choice than going it alone and creating your own identity from scratch.  So, why wouldn’t you?

This point is bought home to me when I think about the last item of clothing I bought.  It was a V-neck black sweater at a shop called ‘Loft’ in West London.  To say that that is a cliche for someone of my age and job title is an understatement.  I really was ‘sub-contracting part of my identity’ as I now understand it.  ‘Loft’ is French shop which has, I think, two stores in London and has a sort the French cool that the British lap up.  Despite this, the clothes themselves pretty dull.  As a result, in reality, the jumper could be from The Gap.  But of course, that’s not the point.  It’s about me wanting to be the sort of person that can and does buy clothes at a shop called ‘Loft’.  The really odd thing about all this is that the sweater has no logo on the outside.  So only I know.  When you think about that, it’s very sophisticated branding that they know that I want to buy into a brand whereby only I know what it is.  Now, I could go on about ‘the quality and the cut are fantastic’ but that of course is just bluster.  It’s a V-neck black sweater.  How different can it be from any other V-neck black sweater?

Next time it’s M&S.  Or the charity shop.  Or Primark.  Or Gucci.  Or Top Man.  The point is of course, all V-neck sweaters are the same and it’s just a case of deciding who I want to be and who I want others to see me as being.

Now you could say that this is a middle-class issue, but it’s not.  If you just take clothes, obviously everybody wears clothes and whether you shop at Loft, Top Shop, JD Sports or Austin Reed, you are always using the brand to say something about who you are.

So, taking this on I would say that in a consumerist society, the majority of our identity is a result of curating the brands we buy, rather than creating and projecting our own identity from within.

Make a list of all the brands that you’ve bought in the last month.  If you gave that list to someone and asked ‘What sort of person would buy these brands?’, what would their reply be?  I bet you a tenner that their description would be very close to you.  If it’s not, I will show you the money.

Think about that and then think about what you buy.  Who’s in charge of who you are?