When Having More means Using Less

How cultural change is slowly subverting millions of years of evolution.

You may have noticed that that bright yellow Hummer H2 you bought 5 years ago is no longer the envy of the neighborhood. ‘Ahh well’, you think. ‘C’est la vie. On to bigger and better things…’. But wait, your buddy and his brand new Cadillac Escalade aren’t fairing so well either, and neither is his brother’s Yukon Denali. In fact, your next-door neighbor seems to get much more attention in his Mini Cooper than anyone you know, and your daughter keeps asking you to drop her off around the corner until you trade your ‘monster truck’ in for a Prius… What on earth is going on here, and what happened to bigger and better?!

To figure it out, it helps to have a little bit of context, and I’ll establish it with a quasi book review. Evolutionary Social Psychologist Geoffrey Miller writes in his book, “Spent”, that since the dawn of time, animals, including humans, have striven to overtly display what he calls ‘fitness indicators’ to pretty much anyone or anything who will pay attention. For the vast majority of species, these fitness indicators are physical traits and actions meant to attract a mate, intimidate competition, assert one’s dominance, or ward off predators.

Geoffrey Miller's 'Fitness Indicators' expressed across the animal kingdom.

What is unique to humans, however, is that as we as a species have progressed intellectually, the methods through which we display these characteristics have progressed as well. Sure, going to the gym day after day to sculpt rock-hard abs is certainly going to give you a better chance at meeting a member of the opposite sex at the bar or on the beach than someone who sits around all day eating potato chips, but the pervading logic says that driving around in a sports car, wearing the right clothing, or even simply being in the right places can assist you in accomplishing this same task with little or no physical effort. It is Miller’s assertion that the human brain is wired to play an evolutionary-based game of “if, then” when forming opinions about those around us. In a very basic and instinctual example, if a woman sees a man who drives a nice car, then she assumes he must be powerful and have a very good job. If he has a very good job, then he must be very smart. If he is very smart then he will be a good provider, and if he is a good provider, then he will be able to pass all of those desirable traits on to his offspring.

It’s not surprising that Miller is sometimes criticized for being sexist, out of touch, and marginally elitist, but it’s hard to deny that he has a point in its most basic form. The driving forces behind the social behavior of gorillas in Mali and the social behavior of girls at the mall really aren’t all that different, and can be traced back to the desire to either impress or be impressed. Yet while the end results are largely the same across the animal kingdom, the behaviors that achieve them vary wildly, and continue to evolve over time. The quest to find and attract people (friends, business partners, mates, etc.) whose combination of traits aligns with our interpretation of the ideal while warding off those who we prefer not to associate with is an unending one, and humans are constantly seeking to mesh basic evolutionary desires with much more variable cultural preferences. Our intellect and ability to change our own societal circumstances have somewhat reduced our reliance on physical size and power as ‘fitness indicators’, however we have largely replaced (or at least augmented) that criteria with a desire for cultural size and power instead.

If you rewind human existence to the time of the Cro-Magnon and watch it happen all over again on fast-forward, you will notice that throughout history, and with very few notable exceptions, those who owned and consumed the most resources wielded the most influence over others. We may fawn over Hollywood bodies today, but not so long ago, girth was a sign of intellect and power, and ironically, was a ‘fitness’ indicator, as one had to be of supreme intelligence and importance in order to have access to enough food to get fat off of. At various times throughout the evolution of our culture, society has coveted physicality, fires, animal pelts, horses, spears, farms, castles, kingdoms, corporations, politics, Ferraris, and Coach handbags, but the underlying current has always been that the conspicuous consumption of resources and expenditure of wealth has equated to power. Hence why an expensive car with low fuel economy, an absurdly expensive pair of sunglasses, or a big, mostly empty house is traditionally seen as an item of great status today. This, however, and against all odds, is beginning to change, and it is also where the book review ends.

What we are seeing for the first time in recorded history is a reversal of this behavior, where suddenly it is the ability to preserve resources, rather than consume them, that is an indicator of an individual’s social standing. While not yet considered a standard practice, and still often times poorly executed, there is no doubting that it is a very real change in behavior. In the 1970’s and 80’s, small, efficient, foreign cars exploded in popularity due to a dramatic rise in gas prices, but the shift to lower consumption levels was unique to the auto industry (and to a degree, home energy practices), and was reactive, rather than proactive. Once fuel costs stabilized, buying habits corrected and both cars and houses resumed growing in size while largely ignoring efficiency until they reached their current levels.

Cars waiting in line at the gas pump in 1979.

Today, however, what we are seeing is a fundamental, and largely voluntary shift in consumer behavior that is, for the most part, independent of any external influences. Of course it is easy to draw a correlation between volatile gas prices in the mid-2000’s and the rise in popularity of hybrids and smaller, more fuel efficient cars, but that does little to explain why they stuck around as oil prices rode a roller coaster of highs and lows. Or why people are switching to fabric grocery bags, paying extra for organic, sustainable foods, fabrics, and furniture, putting solar panels on the roofs of their houses, and supporting companies that are pursuing environmentally friendly practices like packaging reduction, transportation efficiencies, and cleaner materials and manufacturing processes.

While it is fairly easy to see daily examples of this movement, understanding it is not as easy, as its roots can be difficult to trace. Some contend that decades of dedicated environmental activism are finally getting through to consumers, while others say that global connectivity has simply helped to push the message out to the right people. Some claim that it is a fundamental reaction to the environmental changes (melting ice caps, violent weather, etc.) we are already starting to see as a result of our irresponsible global lifestyle, while still others say that it is realization of the impact we have on the environment brought on by watching developing countries like China and India industrialize at an unbelievable pace and scale with frightening results. I would argue that it’s probably a little of all of those things, but more than anything else, it stems from a perpetual effort by consumers to keep up with the Joneses.

Without trying to come across as too ethnocentric, much of the world’s behavior is defined by that of the United States. Whether due to emulation or simply as a reaction to changes in the world’s largest economy, the preferences of American consumers dramatically influence goods made all over the world. The 1980’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s were a very good time for the US economically, and with more and more people able to live the “American dream”, one-upmanship, or the desire to display one’s fitness at a greater capacity and assert dominance over one’s competition, flourished. Houses grew, cars grew, clothing got more expensive, food got more impressive, the number of gadgets doubled, then doubled again, and leisure time was spent at the mall acquiring newer and better things in an effort to climb toward the top of the social ladder. Everyone bought a ride-on mower, a 3rd car, and a speedboat as they tried to showcase to their friends and neighbors how successful they were, and all of this resulted in the compression of the gap between the middle class and the upper class.

This may not seem like the type of behavior that would naturally lead to more environmentally sustainable consumerism, but one should not underestimate the impact of an executive noticing that all of his or her employees are living a lifestyle that appears to be comparable to his or her own. Between 1965 and 2000, the ratio of a CEO’s pay to that of an average employee rose from 23 : 1 to over 300 : 1, yet they also began to run out of ways to show it. Due largely to population density in high-value real estate zones, houses got about as big as they physically could, even for the wealthy, and they were still filled to bursting point. Of course a more affluent individual could build their home out of better materials, potentially in a marginally better location, and fill it with better stuff, but the fact remained that that CEO and their subordinates were all still living in 6,000 sq ft homes that looked largely similar.

The same went for cars. With middle management taking out leases on big BMWs, Mercedes, Audis, Jaguars, Cadillacs, Hummers, and Lexuses, it left very little room within the marketplace for their bosses to leapfrog them. There are only so many ultra-luxury vehicles like Ferraris, Bentleys, and Rolls Royces available in a given year, and even if one becomes available, the cost difference between it and a BMW 7 Series is fairly significant, pricing out all but the high-end of the upper class. And so it went; clothing, shoes, food, computers, phones; all of it had reached a point where there simply was not enough of a distinct difference between what was within reach of the common man and what was exclusive to the wealthy. In other words, consumption simply got so high across the board that those looking to assert their power and status as leaders had nowhere to go but to the opposite end of the scale.

We now understand that in reality, a great deal of this growth was completely artificial, and that a substantial percentage of those making purchase after purchase could not really afford to do so, but within this context it doesn’t matter. Essentially, we peaked. The trend-setters, movers, and shakers of our society simply were not able to visibly out-consume those beneath them on the social ladder and were forced to find a new way of asserting their dominance. Now we see prominent celebrities, trend makers, and executives spending lavishly to live in LEED Certified homes, buy premium electric vehicles, and shop exclusively at organic grocery stores in an effort to display their authority by way of a lifestyle that is not as easy for the average consumer to replicate en masse.

If this all seems like a deviously calculated effort by the wealthy to stay on top of some sort of feudal caste hierarchy, keep in mind that this is more-or-less the natural order of capitalism, a system that most in this country believes in above all else. The decision to change what we value as a culture was not the result of some shady back-room meeting amongst the world’s elite, but rather was the natural progression of high-powered individuals looking to differentiate themselves, and having to shift course to make it happen. Our economy runs on the notion that people want whatever it is they don’t have, and despite what might seem like sinister motivations, the shift to more sustainability is almost universally a positive development.

Leonardo DiCaprio and his Toyota Prius Hybrid

Leonardo DiCaprio owned one of the first Toyota Prius hybrids in the US. At the time he was a rising movie star and could have driven around town in just about anything he wanted. But Bentleys and Aston Martins are a dime-a-dozen amongst the Hollywood set, and the young DiCaprio chose to drive something that was extremely exclusive for an entirely different reason. Whether or not he was concerned about the environmental benefits at the time is something we may never know, but the results of his actions were profound. The car became a Hollywood staple, and its prominence likely gave traction to the hybrid movement that has since captured the attention of so many. Now, with Priuses and other hybrids so accessible across the world, these stars have moved on to Hydrogen powered cars, solar panels, wind turbines, sustainable clothing, and really anything else they can do to lower their eco-footprint that the common man cannot yet emulate.

Of course, the adoption of this type of behavior is not universal; Donald Trump continues to gold-plate everything he can get his hands on, the Real Housewives of Who-Cares compete on TV to see who has the priciest shoes and the most marble in their kitchens, politicians insist upon placating their constituents by assuring them that every American is Constitutionally entitled to as much as they can afford of whatever it is they want, and the Average Joe continues to buy plastic cups, SUVs, and toss out their laptops every 2 years. After all, the behaviors learned over 2.5 Million years of ‘out-consuming’ one another can’t be unlearned overnight. But we are starting to see subtle shifts that are a direct result of ‘Less’ being the new ‘More’.

Some skeptics believe that the ‘green movement’, as it has come to be called, is nothing more than a fad, and is likely to disappear as fast as it has risen in prominence, but I believe they are wrong. Without wishing to make the same mistake as Charles Duell, the 1900 Commissioner of the Patent Office who famously suggested it be closed as “everything had already been invented”, I hesitantly suggest that we have reached the glass ceiling of irresponsible excess.

Roman Abramovich's 550ft long Yacht, Eclipse; 1 of 5 in his personal 'navy'.

Private yachts have long been the domain of the ultra-rich, but apparently there are limits even within those circles. Since the early 20’s and arguably since the time of the Greeks and Romans, extremely affluent individuals have engaged in competition to see who could own the largest boat, but with Roman Abramovich’s most recent commission clocking in at over 550ft long, even his fraternity of magnates are balking at going bigger. So what is the next executive or monarch to do? If there is no reason to build a bigger boat, you have to build a smarter one; maybe one that can cruise around the world without refueling, or one that runs off of salt water electrolysis. You have to do something new if you want to establish yourself as the alpha dog.

The Porsche 918 Spyder Hybrid Supercar

Porsche’s next supercar is not a 1000 horsepower 12-cylinder behemoth meant to compete with the Bugatti Veyron, but rather is the 918 Spyder; an $845,000 hybrid capable of 78 miles to the gallon. Why? Because it was crazy enough to build a 1000 horsepower car that costs $1.5M but it’s even crazier to build a bigger, more expensive one. Instead, a car that does not sacrifice luxury or performance while working to minimize its environmental impact is on track to become the new status symbol.

Of course, while the intention is good, the execution is far from perfect. The real eco-friendly choice would be to save the materials and the energy put into manufacturing, and not buy a new supercar at all, or take a cruise instead of having a yacht built, but I for one am glad to see a shift in luxury goods toward more sustainability, even if only in spirit. Barring a complete change in American (and for that matter, global) ideology, we simply cannot stop the consumption cycle. But if the goal of those who have the power to make change is to eliminate their environmental impact, even if only for social reasons, the effect can be immeasurable. Game changing ideas often trickle down to the masses from the top end of the market, and as more and more consumers covet the green lifestyles of the rich and powerful, more innovative companies will have to find ways of producing eco-friendly commodities at far more accessible prices.

So what can your company do to embrace sustainability and help make it more available to the masses? Remember that this is not a trend. ‘Going green’ can’t be capitalized on by shifting color schemes, adding leaf logos, or starting up in-office recycling programs, rather it requires a holistic shift to more eco-friendly practices. Can your packaging be more efficient than it is right now? Can you fit more products in each container than you are currently? Can your production line utilize alternative materials or renewable sources of energy? Can your office go paper free?

I am the first to admit that transforming a business into a more sustainable entity is not really a ‘branding’ practice, but becoming known as a more caring, responsible company can give you the credibility to actively participate in a very topical conversation. A great deal of businesses have made it clear that they intend to wait until new laws and regulations force them to adopt new energy or material standards, but we are already seeing a shift in consumer preference to favor those who have voluntarily made changes on their own. Don’t be afraid to do a little research into ways to reduce your environmental impact; the ease of implementation and potential for consumer recognition may surprise you. And the best part is, it just may increase your profitability at the same time.

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