The Environmental Dilemma

How does an environmentally responsible innovator reconcile with the truth that branding is all about amplifying the consumption cycle?

As a somewhat loyal user of Apple products for the last decade, I was understandably excited by the recent launch of the iPhone 4. Reception issues notwithstanding, I am a big fan of the slightly more geometric, less bar-of-soap like design, as well as the thick aluminum band around the outside. But I was struck, in a moment of reflection, about how easily I divorce the problems we as a global community face, from the repercussions of my own personal desires. I see the great Pacific garbage patch as an indictment of our wasteful consumerist culture, and the BP oil spill as a horrifying reminder of the crude, dirty underpinnings of a system which fights every step forward with reassurance that 3 steps back are necessary and normal. Yet when I see a beautifully designed new product, I can’t help but be overcome with a desire for it.

As the owner of a branding company, it can be difficult to reconcile the fact that we strive to be environmentally responsible, socially progressive innovators, with the fact that our industry is often seen as a tool for amplifying the consumption cycle. Our goal is to create just the type of desire in others that the new iPhone created in me. And it can be a struggle to support and encourage such a wasteful system on a daily basis.

This article is not meant to be soapbox from which to preach about environmental activism, but the fact remains that we simply cannot continue to discard old goods in favor of new ones when the old ones wind up in piles in a landfill. The environmental, and social damage caused by such behavior must be curtailed if we want any chance of continuing to produce life-changing products and services.

I, personally, am only able to sleep at night knowing that those of us in the branding world have the ability to affect real changes in culture from the inside out. We must be acknowledge that we are a large part of the landfill mentality, and use our position as consultants to change the way companies think about products and their lifecycles. We must advocate a change of corporate mindset as necessary to maintaining a competitive edge within a market.

Historically, humans have developed ways in every social hierarchy to display their level of influence to both their competition and potential partners, and most often it was the consumption of resources that acted as what Geoffrey Miller calls a ‘fitness indicator’ to others. To obtain and dispose of wealth, whether it be food, clothing, fuel, or any other consumable item was a pure indicator of a person’s status, and power. Miller cites that ‘conspicuous consumption’ was the means by which people in power differentiated themselves from those around them.

This cultural mindset, which has existed since apes first picked up rocks and started using them as tools, has finally started to shift in a way that is quickly reversing the trend. No longer is the blind utilization of resources seen as a luxurious and enviable practice. The cool-factor of Humvees has given way to that of the Mini. Sustainable cork and cotton shoes hold higher social values than those made of alligator skin. Companies that produce goods that take a high environmental toll no longer command the luxury prices they once did, while herbal tea bars, sustainable goods, and eco friendly packaging have become the new luxury standard. In time, we may achieve a society where those who consume the least enjoy a level of status once reserved for those who displayed their wealth through the quantities they could afford to waste.

Of course society is not always quick to make polar shifts of this magnitude, and there are certainly those that cling to the ideas of wealth and status on which they were raised, but the upside of this particular movement is that it is difficult to find fault with. Even global warming dissenters still have trouble espousing the benefits of clear cutting forests, or filling landfills with acres of toxic plastic, and those who have held on to things like once-popular gas-guzzling daily drivers for their style and entertainment value are finding that the envy they once felt from those around them is being replaced with disgust. The societal pressure to reduce ones environmental impact is not absolute, but it is increasing more rapidly than anyone expected.

Which brings us once again to the opportunities this presents as branding professionals to both develop new and innovative ways to capture public attention and make a positive environmental change at the same time. The truth of the matter is that eco-friendly business practices are not a trend, they are an opportunity. Trends can live or die by the whims of the public, and the green movement has proven to be more of a fundamental change in our purchasing behavior. We are presented with what has the potential to be the most dramatic shift in the perception of goods in centuries, and we are just now figuring out how to capitalize on it.

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