Thursday, June 12, 2008

Green Branding vs. The Gospel of Consumption

We don't get a whole lot of comments on this blog; hopefully some of you are willing to throw in some pennies worth of your thoughts on this one.

A friend forwarded this Treehugger article without comment to a collection of designers and eco-minded thinkers today. It addresses the problem of lazy green branding (as in papyrus font and images of cupped hands cradling a seedling, among others) and is worth a read:

It reminded me of this recent Orion article about how we've become so consumption minded. Slightly longer, but definitely worth the time:

I also dashed off this email, which I hope can start a conversation here about the apparent divide between the two sets of ideas:

Hey All,

This seems like an excellent opening for a conversation about "marketing green," and I hope y'all will forgive the mass email response.

The article is certainly spot on as far as it goes with marketing advice. One of the things that strikes me and bothers me about the article, though (and about treehugger in general), is this idea that marketing CAN save the world; that we can either convert businesses to be ecologically friendly or we can produce new greener product lines that will replace the old. There's no doubt that there's a worthy goal in there, and that anyone who is starting a new greener business or greening their old business should be lauded.


There's an important article in the most recent Orion (May/June) titled The Gospel of Consuption, found here:

Here's the gist of it:

In a 1927 interview with the magazine Nation’s Business, Secretary of Labor James J. Davis provided some numbers to illustrate a problem that the New York Times called “need saturation.” Davis noted that “the textile mills of this country can produce all the cloth needed in six months’ operation each year” and that 14 percent of the American shoe factories could produce a year’s supply of footwear. The magazine went on to suggest, “It may be that the world’s needs ultimately will be produced by three days’ work a week.”

By the late 1920s, America’s business and political elite had found a way to defuse the dual threat of stagnating economic growth and a radicalized working class in what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption”—the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough.

I don't know how to deprogram the now world-wide desire for the new. I'm not even sure we can. It does strike me, though, that building a LEED house is less green than building no house at all, and that buying well marketed green fashion is less green than the thrift store or making do with what we've got. I'm not saying anything new here, but I did want to use the opportunity of this article to ask the question - how do we sell the idea of not wanting anything new? How do we build an economy and make our livings around the idea of not buying stuff?
So... what do you all think? Comments please!


turtlewoman said...

Basically the entire "treehugger" site leaves me with a bad taste. It smacks of consumerism - IMHO. People definitely do need to make a living and many of us are now trying to do it in a more environmentally friendly way. I am also very aware that no matter how good we get at being "environmentally friendly" we will always (always as long as there are human beings on this planet)be consumers. Therefore trying to help businesses authentically "green" themselves is a good thing. There is just something about this site that does not seem very authentic to me. I may be totally off the mark - the treehugger site just might be as honest and authentic as they get. They did make some good points like suggesting that one needs to be passionate and committed to their business. However, I suspect that the CEO of Monsanto is about as passionate and committed as anyone can possibly be and we all (most of us anyway who read this blog) know what Monsanto is all about.

The Orion article laid bare the facts and some history of consumerism that I was not aware of. Namely, the propaganda that began in the early 20th century that is now so entrenched within our beings that far too many of us do not recognize that we have been brainwashed. I haven't the slightest idea how to stop the population masses from wanting more. I was not raised that way (although I do have a terribly difficult time trying to stop myself from wanting and buying more books)and neither were my 2 sons. However, my youngest son (an adult) totally believes in "more is mandatory and bigger is better". If I can't change his thinking what hope do I have to change the thinking of others of his generation (I think he is in the "X" generation)? My other son did not fall victim to this thinking.

The bottom line of marketing green means that we will continue to produce, buy, consume, and throw away even if that which is produced is authentically as green as it can be. Our collective goal at this point seems to be to try and consume less, buy products that are truly sustainable, and follow one of the major ideas of permaculture and that is to stack functions - make the product do more than one thing.

ISLAND mentioned "a world-wide desire for new". This brings to mind an advertisement for Goodwill which begins with the 2 women feeling embarrassed about shopping at a second hand store and ends with it being a good thing as long as no one else knows they are shopping there. There are two (maybe more) huge second-hand stores in TC - Goodwill and Salvation Army). There are always people in these stores when I have the opportunity to go in (I live 2000 miles away for the time being). Having these outlets is a good thing. On the other hand when I take a good look at the "stuff" that people are discarding it makes me think about what it took to produce that stuff in the first place - much of it junk. Catch-22! Still, buying 2nd hand is a good thing overall. ISLAND also mentioned building a new structure that qualifies for LEED certification. This is good and everyone does needs shelter. However, if there is a house or other building already built that could be remodeled "greenly" using recycled materials would this possibly not be even better? This is a question currently weighing heavily on my mind as we prepare to move to land in the Grand Traverse region. Should we build a new strawbale/cob home or find land with an existing home (very small house) that could be remodeled in a manner consistent with permaculture/sustainable methods?

Then there are computers - highly none-green but most of us have at least one and we seem to want to upgrade to newer, better computers every few years. The good thing - we are forming networks around the world that would be impossible without these machines.

On that note I will leave you. I do sincerely look forward to some dialogue on this blog.

Lindy Barnes, currently in AZ

ChelsBay said...

I wanted to recognize your concerns about consuming our way to sustainability. I think that's a valid concern -- and it's definitely UNDER-represented on Treehugger, whose posts lean heavy on the check-out-this-new-product genre. We at The Change discuss this a lot. The clients we're most excited about represent alternative models where the core value proposition is about supporting and contributing as opposed to acquiring and consuming.

We just started working with a company that brokers between organic NC farms and stores and restaurants so that a local, small-scale foods can enter the marketplace (and people can exit the 1500-mile diet mindset!). And we're also working with a similar start-up that will do the same thing for local meat farms. As well, we've been working with Self-Help, a credit union that works to create opportunity for minorities, urban populations, and poorer rural populations that are under-served by banks. The brand identity work we do is even more important for such clients -- whose messages are more challenging precisely because they come from outside the mainstream. Adbusters daily forges new ground in its fight against consumerism -- yet does so using the same provocative design techniques pioneered in the graphic design field. In essence, we work to make people notice, understand, and be influenced by ideas -- whether those ideas are incarnated in the form of a purchase decision, a decision not to purchase, or a decision to plant your own damn garden and opt out of the consumption pool.

SO...if you ever have any work along those lines, feel free to give us a shout....