Making it easier to consume more sustainably is far from easy but changing why we consume requires us to unpick and then serve human motivation in new, more sustainable ways.
So why do we buy?
Obviously, sometimes we buy because we need something; food, energy, clothing, healthcare, transport...but many of us already have everything we need. We therefore spend a significant proportion of our income on things we simply want.
Often these things make us feel good in one way or another, and for most of the Western world what we consume and the volume of stuff we have, has come to signify success.
What makes us want some things more than others?
According to the French social theorist René Girard; desire is a social process. It is mimetic.
Mimetic desires are the desires that we mimic from the people and culture around us. “If I perceive some career or lifestyle or vacation as good, it’s because someone else has modelled it in such a way that it appears good to me.”
Brands can help create a better future by taking advantage of this drive and changing what is desirable, in three ways:
- STORIES - CREATE NEW ONES: Brands can visualise and aspire to a future where humans and nature thrive, society is equitable, and we live in a way that respects each other and the planet we live on.
- SYMBOLS - POPULARISE BETTER ONES: Brands can create new symbols of success and meaning, disconnecting ‘stuff’ and productivity from success.
- CITIZENS - NOT CONSUMERS: Consuming is just one of the things we do as humans. To better connect with people brands need to see us as citizens of the same society they operate in, not just consumers to sell to.
Critically, the above needs to be set in a context where the government plays an active role and uses its power responsibly to change what is possible and legal.
Would we have cut smoking by as much as we did, as quickly as we did, if governments had not forced us to buy our cigarettes from behind a screen, at an increasingly expensive price point, which we can only smoke in certain crappy areas, whilst looking at disgusting images on the packs?
As a species, we are frankly just not very good at making decisions that benefit a wide group of people, over a long period of time.
We need constraints to force behaviour change at scale, and at pace. Any changes we make in culture must be made within a new setting where what is possible is restricted by legislation and government policy.
"After a quarter century of experimentation with the voluntary, market-based win-win approach to fashion sustainability, it is time to shift. Asking consumers to match their intention with action and to purchase sustainable, more expensive fashion is not working. Were consumers really willing to spend more, sifting through claims, labels and complexity is too much to ask." Source: Ken Pucker.
Changing what's possible could involve carbon taxes, carbon budgets on individuals, business and government, investment in infrastructure to make certain behaviours the default, or limits on lobbying from those with vested interest in maintaining the status quo. There's huge potential in all these areas, and they don't necessarily mean a decrease in quality of life.
CREATING BETTER STORIES AROUND OUR COLLECTIVE FUTURE
“The narratives we have are the soil from which the regulation, the technology, the policy, everything grows so we need to be working at that level to affect change”. Ella Saltmarsh, The Longtime Project.
Western culture is one of over-indulgence. We consume way more than we need to and we need cultural change to alter this. We need to visualise new ways of belonging, new ways to communicate who you are, new ways to be successful (maybe we need to retire the word ‘success’ altogether?) and in doing so create desire for different types of products, services and ways of living.
Brands are good at this, building desire through stories. P&G made the very first soap operas to make people familiar with their products and put them in a setting they could see themselves in, and those vehicles continue to filter into culture today.
RedBulls’ commitment to the world of extreme sports has introduced an audience of millions to new sports cultures, while Doves' creative work around real beauty kicked off an 18-year long conversation about female confidence and self-esteem.
Recognising the power of stories as a driver of positive cultural change is also why GroupM’s Motion Content Group has announced the launch of Positive Impact production funding. The brand and agency funded initiative will support stories, from blue-chip documentaries to high-end TV dramas, landmark series and films that inspire positive change in diversity, equity, inclusion and sustainability.
We are excellent at creating stories that inspire new ways of thinking and ways of living - we now need to point this skill at more sustainable behaviours.
MAKING NEW SYMBOLS DESIRABLE
For many in the Western world, having the right stuff symbolises success - whether that's the new car that tells the neighbours you're doing well, the trainers that show your mates you're cool or the organic baby food that you feel makes you a better parent. Symbols are important. They define who we are and communicate who we want to be.
It's worth noting here that for the most part I'm referring to well-off people in the West - the richest amongst us are the most responsible for living, promoting and maintaining the ‘stuff equals success’ story, and for the resulting carbon and ecological crisis we now face. We will need to work the hardest to rewrite that story through our behaviours and how we live
We need to make new, more sustainable symbols desirable. Those symbols could be new, sustainable-by-design brands such as Veja, WhoGivesACrap or Fairphone. They could also be people and behaviours that align with a lifestyle that is good for the planet. We need to make these new symbols famous.
We also must include everyone when we’re creating these new symbols. When it comes to who we should be looking up to in particular, it is vital that we bring a wider range of diverse voices into this work, as at present the sustainability movement in the west is very much one of privilege and whiteness.
We also need to bring in experts. Much of the knowledge we need to live in harmony with nature is already held by indigenous communities around the world within their work, their generational understanding and their way of living, all of which is vital to a future where all of society thrives.
Finally, we need to redefine success and measure it differently - moving away from GDP to something more like a Better Life Index, for example or looking at what people really value in life and then measuring the ability of governments and businesses to deliver that - the Good Life report from the Purpose Disruptors is a good example of what those values might be.
All of this leans heavily into our skillset as marketers and creators, we know how to make new things famous. Reach, frequency, distinctive assets, emotional over rational reasons to believe...we are experts in making the new and different both famous, and desirable.
WINNING OVER CITIZENS RATHER THAN CONSUMERS
Brands need to think about how they align with us as citizens, not just consumers, because that’s what we are. Consumption is just one part of our lives, and with dreams, aspirations, family to take care of, the climate and cost of living crisis, and war all over the world taking place, it is arguably not the most important part of our lives either.
The change we need to create in the world is much too big for any one group of stakeholders to take on alone. We need government, business and people to all work together. But if we want people to take this on and work with business, they must be treated respectfully, and treated as creative, interdependent participants in a new future, not simply passive consumers who are there to be sold to.
Our society currently helps people answer individual questions - will this look good on me, what shall we have for tea; does this car match my status? We need to be answering collective questions, collaboratively e.g., how can I contribute to a better future? What does a better future look like?
We created consumerism post-World War 2 because we needed it to solve the problems faced as a society back then. Now we have new problems facing us so we need new answers - treating people as citizens may help us find them.
So, what do brands need to think about?
Well first off, all the recommendations below need to sit within an inclusive mindset, we have no chance of winning if we don't have diverse voices, lived experience and all citizens included.
PRODUCTS: When creating new products, they should be developed as though laws to protect people and the planet already exist. This will help brands get ahead of regulation and increase positive perceptions around innovation and leadership.
STORIES: We need to create stories that make a different future visible. One that places nature, connection, and experiences at the centre of what it means to have a desirable life. Much more thought needs to go into who brands work with to tell their stories as well, we cannot build the future we need with reality TV stars, fast fashion influencers and abusive celebs front and centre.
SYMBOLS: Brands need to embed symbols that represent a sustainable and regenerative future into communications. The Change the Brief platform is an excellent place to start if you work in advertising and want to understand what these symbols might look like for different sectors.
CITIZENS: Brands need to think about how their interactions with people would change if they saw citizens rather than consumers. How might citizens work with brands to identify their real values and bring them to life in the brand offering? How might brands work with citizens to answer questions that would benefit the collective as well as the individual?
Shifting culture is an enormous job that will take effort from all of society
Hopefully by breaking this shift down into smaller chunks we can see that it is possible however, and that it is important for brands to have a role in supporting the shift we need. We’ve changed culture and society before, and we can do it again. We don’t really have any choice.
By Helen Brian, Head of Sustainability at MediaCom