Taboo Talk in Green Business: Buy Less Stuff

Talking to consumers about buying less stuff just might be the third rail of green marketing. Reducing or limiting consumption is antithetical to marketing, or at least it has been so far. Practically no one seems to want to go there. I'll accept my portion of responsibility. In the late 1980s, when I penned The Green Consumer, I helped advance the notion of solving our planet's environmental ills by making good purchasing choices -- that we could, in other words, shop our way to environmental health. "By choosing carefully, you can have a positive impact on the environment without significantly compromising your way of life," I wrote. "That's what being a green consumer is all about." I didn't stop there:

It wasn't very long ago that being a green consumer was a contradiction in terms. To truly care for the environment, it was said, you had to drastically reduce your purchases of everything -- food, clothing, appliances, and other "lifestyle" items -- to a bare minimum. That approach simply doesn't work in our increasingly convenience- and consumption-oriented society. No one wants to go back to a less-comfortable, less-convenient way of life.

This is still true, of course -- no one wants to be less well off. And, for the large part, few people seem willing to change or be inconvenienced in the name of Mother Earth. Sure, people are making small changes -- turning off computers, swapping out light bulbs, using cloth bags instead of disposable ones, buying hybrid cars, and recycling stuff. All necessary, but hardly sufficient.

Sustainable consumption is decidedly more complex and more global than just environmental concerns. It has to do with satisfying basic human needs and with spiritual, moral, and ethical matters. It has to do with the growing appetite in China, India, and other developing countries for cars, appliances, fashions, fast food, and many of the other things accessible to the consumption class. According to Norman Myers, a professor of environmental science at Oxford University, more than a billion people in 20 developing and transitional nations have recently become wealthy enough to begin consuming like Americans. Sustainable consumption also has to do with the underconsumption that characterizes roughly a third of the world's populace.

So how on Earth do companies acknowledge the elephant in the living room -- sustainable levels of consumption? Should they?

It won't be easy. For better or worse, we live in a commercial world and consumer society. You can see it at work in the cacophony of advertisements and commercial messages that intrude on our daily lives, in the companies and webs of commerce whose existence depends on consumers' endless appetite for more, and in the political leaders who work to promote unsustainable levels of economic growth, often at the expense of ecological and human needs. You can see it at work in our culture of debt and our need for keeping up with the Joneses.

Yet the environmental impacts of our consumption are virtually hidden. Most of us don't see firsthand the roughly 120 pounds of natural resources extracted from farms, forests, rangelands, oceans, rivers, and mines that go into the products that are consumed each day. For example, experts have estimated that the sum of all substances required to support one American for a year, including water used that is no longer available for reuse, totals nearly 1 million pounds -- or roughly 109 truckloads for a family of four. And do we recycle those 1 million pounds of resources? Not likely -- in the United States alone, individuals discard nearly three million plastic bottles every hour and enough steel and iron to continuously supply all the country's automakers.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that average human consumption of water, forests, land, energy, and other natural resources exceeds the capacity of the biologic systems that support our planet by 20 percent. This means that we must change the way we produce goods and services lest we risk "overdrafting" our "ecological account," as ecologists put it, with devastating effects on economies and the environment.

Of course, we suffer in other ways from this buying binge. For several decades now, psychologists, sociologists, and other observers of the human condition have discussed and deconstructed the disparity -- or perhaps it's a gulf -- between consumption and happiness. More, it seems, is not necessarily better in terms of engendering security, self-esteem, meaning, personal fulfillment, or any of the other Maslowian traits that make for individuals, communities, and societies that are healthy, in every sense of the word. Americans, for one, consume more per capita than anyone else, yet we're chronically unhappy.

It would be one thing if all the stuff we buy somehow made us better people, but this doesn't seem to be the case. There is an extensive literature on materialism demonstrating a negative relationship between materialism and well being. For example, in a 1985 study by Russell Belk, now a marketing professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University, materialistic people were found to be possessive, in that they preferred to own and keep things rather than borrow, rent, or throw things out. They were seen as non-generous, or unwilling to share their possessions with others. And they tended to covet their neighbors' stuff, feeling displeasure when others had things they themselves desired. This is no victimless crime. Materialistic lifestyles can infect marriages (by devaluing non-materialistic bonds that keep relationships together during tough times) and parenting (since our children's value systems tend to imitate our own).

The reason we often seem powerless to resist this maelstrom of marketing messages is that we've been conditioned to buy, buy, buy from nearly the moment we emerge from the womb. Journalist Thomas Hine, in his fine book, I Want That, explores the history of acquisition -- finding, choosing, spending -- from our amber-coveting Neolithic forebears to twenty-first-century bargain hunters on eBay. Three of four American babies visit a store, usually a supermarket, by the age of six months, although some start "virtually at birth," he says. "They soon begin to realize that the store is the source of some of the good things that they had previously associated solely with their parents." It's not long before they're pointing at and choosing, often insistently, their breakfast cereals, toys, entertainment, and fashions.

For toddlers, teens, and grown-ups alike, exercising the power of choice in the marketplace is exactly that -- a form of power. Shopping enables us to take control and wield authority in our often-powerless lives. Indeed, as Hine deftly points out, the mere act of going shopping itself can be more important than anything that ends up in one's shopping cart as a result. Shopping, Hine argues, "is an exercise of both profound responsibility and profound freedom."

Not that we manage to exercise the former or achieve the latter. When it comes to navigating the marketplace, rational thinking often gets short shrift. Hine cites a study in which 36 percent of women and 18 percent of men admitted buying things they didn't need. Roughly one woman in four says she "can't resist a sale," and one in three says she shops to celebrate. Hine notes that shoppers "conspire in their own seduction," allowing themselves to be manipulated by marketers.

Given all this, the idea of consuming less rings hollow. We are looking to be seduced, it seems, and the marketing world is ready, willing, and able to beguile us with its respective psychological pheromones.

What is the business opportunity in confronting consumption? Few companies have likely asked this question, and fewer still have made it part of their strategy. Patagonia, for one, raised the issue with an essay in its fall 1993 catalog. After the company had undergone an environmental product audit, the company's founder, Yvon Chouinard, came to the conclusion that "Everything we make pollutes." As a result, the company "decided to make a radical change: We are limiting Patagonia's growth in the United States with the eventual goal of halting growth altogether." The company dropped 30 percent of its clothing line in its most recent catalog. "What does this mean to you?" Chouinard asked his customers. "Well, last fall you had a choice of five ski pants, now you may choose between two. This is, of course, un-American, but two styles of ski pants are all that anyone needs. They contain all that we have learned about design and the best available coatings for weather protection."

Kia, the Korean car maker, promoting its Sedona model in the United Kingdom, attempted to differentiate itself from competitors by encouraging walking instead of driving for short trips, not your typical car company tactic. Kia promoted the notion of a "Walking Bus," in which "a group, or 'bus,' of children walks from home to school each morning quickly and safely under the guidance of trained adult supervisors."

There are opportunities here. "We've all talked about sustainability, but suddenly having to sell less product is what frightens most companies," says Sarah Severn, director of corporate responsibility horizons at Nike. "Selling less isn't necessarily what's called for. Consumption is not the problem. It's the nature of consumption." The problem with most products -- Nike's and others' -- is that their materials have a relatively short life span before becoming unusable waste. Severn believes that companies able to improve on this model may be well positioned to succeed in a society geared toward sustainable consumption. So, for example, if Nike or anyone else could make shoes from materials that can be taken back and remanufactured into new shoes, all done with renewable energy and closed-loop manufacturing systems, "You have a regenerative model," says Severn. "The key is to maximize the use of resources that are already in play, radically reducing virgin materials input, but still meeting the consumer's requirement for innovation and freshness."

As Severn makes clear, this is no bah-humbug movement. The idea of sustainable consumption increasingly is being discussed well beyond the back-to-nature crowd. The Geneva-based World Business Council on Sustainable Development, a global alliance of mostly large companies, convened a summit several years ago to talk about how to respond to a world in which the notion of sustainable consumption gains currency. The meeting -- attended by 3M, British Telecom, Coors, Dow, DuPont, Fiat, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, and others -- was designed to stimulate corporations into considering the subject.

The public already is starting to think about sustainable consumption. For instance, there's the voluntary simplicity movement, which in recent years has grown beyond the Birkenstock crowd to include burned-out yuppies and others wishing to escape the fast-track treadmill. Voluntary simplicity courses now are being taught in schools, even inside companies. And there's the growing attention paid each year to "Buy Nothing Day" (or, in some countries, "No Shop Day"), a small but increasingly global annual Earth Day-like event aimed at promoting reduced consumption, celebrated on the last Friday of November. Few companies' bottom lines have suffered from this day-long rash of anti-consumerism, but that's not necessarily the point. It's all about education, raising consciousness, and a metaphysical smack upside the head just as the holiday shopping season commences. It's an all-too-brief reminder: Think before you shop.

How will your company fare should sustainable consumption, by whatever name, become part of the public conversation? What is the story you will be able to tell? Will anyone believe it?

To a large extent, this is the ultimate green-economy strategy -- enabling customers to reduce their impacts by doing business with your company. What is the opportunity to create products or services that become the green default -- the no-brainer option that is better and greener? What is the opportunity to be disruptive -- changing the economics, the business model, the market perception in a way that renders such barriers as the unaffordability and inconvenience of "going green" moot? What is the opportunity to create products that solve customers' problems -- enabling them to fulfill their needs in a way that makes them genuinely part of the solution?

No responsibility can be taken for the content of external Internet sites.

print this article

Return to green news headlines
View Green News Archive

Share with: