Living the No Impact lifestyle is impossible; a carbon footprint by definition equals damage to the earth. Yet some people try. This article assesses what individuals are meaningfully doing to contribute to the environment and how corporations are playing into the trend by conducting experience based marketing.
There are many crazy shops around, but FLOWmarket beats it all. Its racks are jam packed with bottles, boxes and bags, yet the shop sells nothing a human being doesn’t need. Its formula is designed so it achieves 100% on this philosophy.
FLOWmarket is a Danish anti-shop that travels the globe. Labels on the ‘scarcety goods’ on offer in its permanent retail outlet in Copenhagen are humoristic but the products are all void of actual content. Shop assistents seriously stack the shelves with the empty products, which are seriously selling like hot cakes. Commercial-free space, pollution dissolver and spam killers are priced at anything between 2 and 20 Euros. Customers come away thinking, that’s for sure. This October it will be open for one month in Seoul, South Korea. It has already hit New York, Shanghai (China), Taipei (Taiwan) and Zurich (Switzerland).
Global ethical consumerism is getting big. Less outrageous formulas than FLOWmarket aim to achieve on tangible goals, which they derive from an equally tangible surge in interest from consumers with a genuine passion for green. In the US, an initiative called Alonovo.com offers an online value based/new economy shopping mall that is pioneering a green buying concept that could be the most comprehensive to date. It is a startup platform where shoppers can purchase virtually any product and link their purchase directly with a green cause. The site’s producer behavior measuring makes shopping into an educational experience. Shoppers start out by setting their ‘value standards’, and then search lists of the product. The ultimate aim is to provide corporate behavioral information about all products. Shoppers can decide what they prefer best before proceding to the Amazon powered checkout. A total of 50% of the purchase goes to the cause a buyer supports.
American initiatives like Alonovo lead the way in global green buying trends. European ethical consumption is also beginning to pick up. Hitwell, a UK internet research analysis firm recently reported that traffic to environmental sites increased by 25% over the past two years. ‘This has been very popular in the US for years but has only just started to take off here’ says internet analyst Heather Hopkins.
Projects outlining individual actions are gaining significant traction. "What would it be like to try to live a no impact lifestyle? Is it possible? Could it catch on? Is living this way more fun or less fun? More satisfying or less satisfying? Harder or easier? Is it worthwhile or senseless? Are we all doomed or is there hope?" These are all questions Colin Beavan asks on his Noimpactman blog. He’s a New Yorker who threw his family in at the deep end by embarking on a documented one-year attempt at living the no impact life. The fact that answers to his questions are not common knowledge combined with people’s increased interest in green lifestyle is indicative of where individuals are in their thinking. Beavan writes from a feeling of impatience with ‘senators and the CEOs to change the way we treat the world’. It’s taking too long, Beavan says, adding that the project is a protest against his ‘highly-principled, lowly-actioned former self’.
It is bizarre, but consumerism itself provides much needed pointers. "Shopping, that traditionally most narcissistic of consumer actions, may actually lead us to civically reengage", says Alex Steffen, executive director at WorldChanging.com, a Seattle-based organization that ‘works from the simple premise that the tools, models and ideas for building a better future only need to be connected’. "We’ve got to lobby for better regulatory policies, investment in responsible companies, boycott bad players, destroy or reinforce companies’ brands and influence the media," Steffen believes. On a global scale, this message appears to be best understood by US shoppers. Elsewhere in the world, individuals are beginning to group together too. New consumer based peer buying initiatives are sprouting up around the globe.
Analyzing the prerequisites of the consumer intention economy Trendwatching, a Dutch consultancy in Amsterdam, says that "it all comes down to letting consumers make their buying intentions known and inviting one or multiple suppliers to bid for their business." It’s as simple as that. Yet the implications of consumers’ changed buying patterns are huge. Doc Searls, an Intention Economy specialist at Linux Magazine says "the Intention Economy is built around truly open markets, not a collection of silos. In the Intention Economy, customers don’t have to fly from silo to silo, collecting deal info (and unavoidable hype). In the Intention Economy, the buyer notifies the market of the intent to buy, and sellers compete for the buyer’s purchase."
Trendwatching spotted a ‘growing number of intermediaries helping individual consumers to get a quote or offer based on their intentions’. But most initiatives that are intermediated by so called ‘information brokers’ focus on only one product/category such as airline tickets, real estate or banking services, the consultancy says. To find the appropriate site individual buying of series of ordinary products is still virtually uncharted territory.
Just how prepared established companies are to cave in to consumer demands to change polluting production methods isn’t clear as yet. There might be no ‘logic’ in companies’ meeting consumer demand to create for instance a no impact lifestyle, but if alternative models are successful, they might have no choice.
For the time being, commercial ventures combining experience marketing with green initiatives do best to understand what they are getting themselves into. Marketing Green, a specialist organization, says "Marketers may find that they also have to invest in consumer education if they want to target anyone today but the most committed green consumers."
One big consideration is that experience marketing is so incredibly, uuuh, personal. But what makes personal consumption strategic? Steffen at WorldChanging says the short answer is ‘multiplied leverage’. But he points out that the philosophy behind it is akin to the illogic relationship of consumerism and being ideal. The most sustainable consumption/invention/design is of course the one that is not made. But that is no excuse for doing nothing.
The real power of the individual is that personal taste generally isn’t branded yet generally desirable. In that sense, the power that small has over big has magic connotations. Almost to religious proportion, if you go by the credo of Kunkelfruit, a wiki project investigating how products are made, consumed and disposed of. It from Benjamin Kunkel’s novel Indecision. ‘When you eat from this fruit then whenever you put your hand on a product, a commodity, an article, then, at the moment of your touch how the product came into your hands becomes plainly evident to you. Now there is no more mystification of labor, no more of a world in which the object arrives as if by magic – scrubbed clean, no past, all of its history washed away’.
"Our growth-system now covers the whole planet, there is no more outside", says Michel Bauwens of the European Centre for the Experience Economy. That message is beginning to sink in at producer level too. Some big companies have begun to undertake efforts to zero in on human consciousness and capitalize on hypercorrect information flows. One initiative that takes the market research concept right to the very point of a company’s inception is Fluid Innovation. The company launched Virtual Ventures, a fantasy game that allows ordinary people to act as wannabe venture capitalists in a fantasy game. People are invited to bet on the viability of real life technical innovation ideas. The game applies crowd sourcing with prediction markets, say reviewers at ZDnet. Players determine the viability of technologies that are not fantasy. Each week, Virtual Ventures enlists the ideas of five wannabe companies for research by players. The data generated, unwittingly, by players of the fantasy game is sold for hard cash to real-world buyers.
A project at the other end of the spectrum is Little Brown Dress. It is as simple as it sounds. Its inventor, Alex Martin is a Seattle artist, choreographer, performer, dancer and designer. Introducing the project, she says "I made this dress and I wore it every day for a year. I made one small, personal attempt to confront consumerism by refusing to change my dress for 365 days." What followed this statement had an impact that a marketer would give their little pinky for without a consideration. Alex wrote updates about the project and her experience of wearing the same dress all year long on her blog, nay, Journal. Various media interviewed her, including the Today show. People’s reactions to the dress were overwhelming. Even though the Little Brown Dress, was not directly viral (nobody decided to join Alex Martin by also wearing a dress for 365 days), Alex Martin made a large number of people think about their consumption.
People’s written reactions on the Journal provide an interesting snapshot into more deeply rooted personal likes and dislikes. Responses to The Little Brown Dress are hugely unusual, because they’re written by people who feel confronted from an angle they hadn’t expected. It appears that some ethical consumerism thrives on a double whammy of guilt. Not only it is easy to feel guilty about impoverishing your wallet, but it’s doubly horrific if buying into the fashion ideology turns out to have an effect that is really nasty. These are some reactions;
‘ […] I secretly wished that I too could have a "little brown dress". I can only imagine how there was a certain amount of stress that was immediately taken out of the pictures due to the fact that everyday you knew exactly what you were going to get up and put on. Obviously we can’t all have one piece of clothing to carry us through the year, but I think you may have uncovered a jewel of wisdom in that, we can certainly make it with a lot less than we think!’
‘Your ugly brown dress makes me actually remember why I liked consumerism, you make wasters say, see, hippies are dirty and think their so cool. LAME. But thats not the point of making a spectacle and parody of yourself is it? True sacrifice is to learn to connect to those who are far away from your mission, find your commonalities, bring them closer to the truth, let the middle ground be found a foot closer to you than it was before, and it is soon just commonality. That is true sacrifice. To compromise with the enemy, to let yourself remember what it is like to be lost in ignorance, to be without a light spirit because of the crap like consumerism and waste that hangs around your neck like a dead cat! stinky and sad. [ . . ] The brown dress is so transparently ego based/ holier than thou, even in its awful design and blatant rebellion against the staus quo. You wont sway them, you will solidify their course.’
‘I graduated from the apparel program at the Rhode Island School of design [..]. My thesis project involved a transforming wardrobe that could get me through a year of travel around the world. After graduating I embarked on my trip to live and travel in Australia and New Zealand for a year by myself. Unfortunately I completely chickened out and scrapped my custom wardrobe for some more conventional back-packer clothes. But you’ve done it! You’ve made it look so simple! Congratulations! Thank you for inspiring me again…. […]I think I may give my old project another go now that I’ve seen how smashingly yours has turned out!’
Kunkelfruit’s attraction is of a similar order to LittleBrownDress. All the entries are exciting because they reveal information about the things that surround you every day but that you have little knowledge about other than through glossed up advertising messages. The products that are descibed include Nintendo Wii, toilet paper, pringles potato chips. Kunkelfruit not only follows the entire life history of the product from raw material extraction, to sale, and in some cases, disposal but also shows a breakdown of costs as percentages of sales price. To know just how the ingredients to the chips you’re eating were grown, harvested, belabored, packaged, and marketed might make them taste like they’re home made. Isn’t that the ideal that, deep down, everybody dreams of?
The editors are about to launch a series of anthologies about string theory. The project complements Kunkelfruit perfectly because it fills a gap that exists for both consumers and marketers. String theory is described as "a relatively new [..] branch of theoretical physics that attempts to unify the realm of the very large, described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, with the realm of the very small, as defined by quantum theory".
Despite the new developments that put the consumer center stage, the gap between marketers and consumers might be widening, not narrowing. The reason? Michel Bauwens of Experience Economy believes there’s a "growing discrepancy between the direct creation of use value through social relationships and collective intelligence". Experience Economy developed a tool to measure the impact of meaningful experiences which shows that only a fraction of experience ‘value’ can actually be captured by business and money. In an article entitled ‘Why Experience Economy Cannot Be Capitalist’, Bauwens describes that ‘Innovation is becoming social and diffuse, an emergent property of the networks rather than an internal R & D affair within corporations’.
Companies venturing out into the immaterial consumer experience are attempting to reach out to consumers by offering precisely that; immaterial goods. They’re referred to as ‘promotional benefits’. There are many examples throughout all established industries, but virtually no information about their effectiveness. "Using Green promotional benefits, [ie] incentives that have environmental benefit, to drive acquisition is uncharted territory as there are few benchmarks to validate their use or their effectiveness", MarketingGreen believes.
What is clear so far is that consumer-dominated ethical consumption is setting the stage for other than capitalist formulas. Companies are opening themselves up for this by swapping expensive production facilities for free open source tools, eliminating middlemen and replacing money with goods. Doc Searls points out that the attention economy as just another way ‘for advertisers to skewer eyeballs’ is pretty much on its way out. "Why build an economy around attention, when intention is where the money comes from?", he asks. Consumers have been putting up with commercialism only because they do not have the resources and strategic talent of the commercial gurus. But this landscape is changing rapidly.
Call it attention, intention, experience economy, what’s beyond doubt is that the power-of-the-individual is irreversible. Individual projects and not just smart marketers’ viral exploits are all but barred from entering into the ‘mainstream’. What’s more, those individual initiatives that stand out from the crowd, are memorable for reasons that are all their own. Replicating them isn’t necessarily a workable formula.
Marketers can decide to play on consumers’ guilt, but it’s dangerous territory. Consumer sentiment on the topic is edgy to the point that a real voracious hate of the superficial could develop into the deathblow every marketer fears. Materialistically rich consumers want immaterial values. Sustainability is the buzzword, and everybody knows that it can’t be negotiated any further. Consumers don’t only want to have the feeling but they want to be sure that when they buy they are sending signals right to the company bosses that tell them to make systemic changes. "Strictly speaking, these may not be rational", says Alex Steffen at WorldChanging, but there’s a "whole different level of committed consumption [that] comes into play".
It will take time for the new initiatives to materialize into recogniseable forms that can compete with the cornershop. It’s a slow process "as both buyers and suppliers need time to get used to something they literally didn’t grow up with", say Trendwatchers. They warn that those ideas that threaten existing power structures might be subjected to opposition, which might slow development. Other factors that slow the progress are companies’ misinterpreting creativity for spending, and reckless expansion.
Personal carbon footprint calculators are increasingly popular. These are multiple choice questionnaires that gather data about your age, location, food choices, travel habits, housing and household arrangements. Calculations take into account much productive land and water is needed to support your consumption and waste. BeGreenNow offers a good calculator, as well as ideas for offsetting your individual carbon footprint. Wired.com provides an integrated calculator of energy and food consumption.