Category Archives: Shopping

How long does it take to ‘go sustainable’?

A lot of my posts have been in and around how you can get people to change their behaviour.  In particular, how can you get people to act in a way that is more ‘sustainable’.  To me this usually means buying less stuff or eating less meat.  I’ve been thinking about trying to solve this from an advertising or communications perspective because that’s where my (work) experience lies.  However, I’ve come to realise that thinking of the issue of sustainability through the lens of advertising is this is far too simplistic.

This is because advertising, on the whole, works by trying to encourage you to choose a brand when you are already thinking about buying that category.  So, feel like a pint?  Choose Stella over the others for these reasons.  Need to buy some washing powder?  Then this is why Ariel is the one to buy.

(I know this is a gross over simplication, but when you think about a lot of categories, it’s true – all FMCG, fashion, health and beauty, car insurance etc etc).

So, advertising is typically short form (from posters up to 30′ TV ads) which is proven (sometimes) to encourage people to buy more of a particular brand.  The important thing however is how much of the work the consumer has already done for the advertiser.  For example, the consumer is typically  a) in a ‘consuming’ mindset – they have money in their pocket  b) are in the environment (e.g. shop or online) where you are available c) are in the mood to buy from the category (e.g. after work in the pub, or in the supermarket doing the weekly shop).  As a result, all the advertising has to do is to tip people to buy your brand rather than the competitor, which are likely to be next to them.  It’s pretty simple job really.

Now consider that against communications to try and get people to buy less.  This is going to be far more difficult because it’s about reversing the ‘consuming mindset’.  To get people to consider whether or not they actually need to buy what they are thinking of buying in the first place.  It’s about getting people to value the value of ‘stuff’ and what role it plays in their lives.  As a result, it’s about consumerism and meaning and what’s important etc etc.  To do this is huge task that’s going to take a lot more communication than a 30′ ad or a poster.  So, how long does it take to think like this?

Not 30′, more like a year, I reckon.  This is because that’s how long it’s taken me.  To change the way I think about shopping and eating meat – such that I’ve reduced both by a considerable amount.  And I’ve been thinking about this a lot and talking to people about it a lot.  Now, it might be possible to get people to do it quicker than me – I hope so and I guess that’s the challenge – but the recognition of the time frame it’s taken me has helped me frame the scale of the task that faces us all.  It’s a big task.

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“There’s no such thing as a sustainable business”

That’s not me talking but clothing company, Patagonia.

Their mission statement is ‘Build the best product and cause no unnecessary harm’.  ‘Unnecessary harm’ is an interesting choice of words because they understand that their actions will inescapably damage the environment, because they are a business.  It’s just that the harm that they cause is as limited as possible.   However, it is still harm.

With a mission statement like that, it’s clear that they care about the environment.  However, if they REALLY cared about the environment and to take it to it’s logical conclusion, then they would shut down as a business as this would cause no harm at all.

This taps into what seems to be a fundamental question in this whole sustainability debate.  If Patagonia happen to be right and there is no such thing as a sustainable business (are they right?) and we need to be living on the planet in a sustainable way, then can you have businesses?  Or rather, what form should a business take?

Okay, you can revert back to subsistence farming and living in villages, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.  This is because that’s literally ‘living in the past’ and doesn’t take into consideration any positive progress that happened in the 20th Century.

So, how can you can you create businesses, en masse, that are sustainable?  For example, in the future we could all be driving about in electric cars, where the electricity is produced by renewable sources.  That all sounds fairly sustainable, but what about making the cars?  What about the material extraction, manufacture of parts and assembly?  Can that ever be sustainable?

If not, does that mean that we shouldn’t have cars?  Is that possible?  This, very quickly, makes my head hurt.

Without getting too deep into that rather huge debate, back to Patagonia.  The good news is that they do appear to be taking things seriously when they consider the impact that the production of their clothing has on the world.  With this in mind and in the name of transparency they’ve launched the footprint chronicles which show you the journey that different items of clothing take from design to delivery.

However and perhaps most interestingly (thanks David for this), is when you go into a Patagonia store, choose something and go to pay for it.  When you do this the sales assistant will ask you ‘Do you really need this item?’.  This, to me, is verging on the revolutionary as it strikes at the heart of consumerism.  The thought that a business, any business, would actively discourage a customer from buying something when they have their money out to pay seems remarkable.  On the one hand it’s very confrontational as you’re directly questioning the consumers ability to make the right decision.  Yet, on the other hand, it’s really naive in that it’s a really simple question that would hopefully get the consumer to think about the answer.  Now, how many people want to stand corrected and will put it back is an interesting question, but the sheer principle of asking the question is great.

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The Bigger Picture

So far, the majority of the posts have been focussed on Consumer Behaviour and thoughts on how to change it.  However, of course, Consumer Demand for goods is only one link in a longer chain related to consumption.

The video is from this site, the story of stuff and it gives a great, simple summary of the process, from Extraction to Disposal, via Production, Distribution and Consumption.  Annie Leonard knows her stuff and she dishes out the scary interesting stats as she makes it clear how central the Consumption element is.  However, she also suggests that this is perhaps the most variable area, because the drive to shop only came into being post-WW2.

Good stuff.


Can you live on 100 items?

Here’s another interesting article, via Donald.  It’s from the New York Times and is about a movement in the States whereby people are cutting down what they own to 100 items.  So, out go the juicer and the toastie maker and in comes endless debates as to what constitutes ‘1 item’?  A pair of socks?  Cutlery?  Book collection?

Either way, it would be an interesting exercise to undertake.  Presumably, you’d start by keeping everything that you’d use every day?  Every week?  Then what?  But, by going through the process, you’re going to realise how much stuff you really need and more importantly, how much you don’t. 

In this way, it would be a little like camping as you quickly understand you can only take what you can carry and you try and extend the number of uses for the same thing.

Further, what this does is that it frames the debate about consumerism as a personal challenge you can discuss and compare with others undergoing the same task.  You can see what your 100 items are and compare them to others and debate the relative merits of different items, and the process of ‘One in, one out’ when you want to buy something new.

Perhaps most importantly, it turns the dry, negative ”Buy less stuff’ message into a game which you pit yourself against yourself and against others.  It makes you value what you’ve got more rather than feeling guilty about buying anything at all.  Good stuff indeed.

(as an addition to this post, there’s this site, the cult of less, whereby some American guy is trying to live with as little as possible – 2 boxes and 2 suitcases.  There’s an article about it here.)

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This is interesting.  This was in Selfridges in London.  It was the in-store work to promote their Sale.  It’s telling consumers about the pointlessness of the purchases they are about to make.  It’s irony gone mad.  In a good way.

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