Conspicuous Consumerism

Consumerism has been engineered over several centuries, internalised by many societies and shifted cultural norms, values, symbols and traditions across the globe.  In fact consumerism has become such a natural part of our daily lives, that in the words of senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute Erik Assadourian, ‘expecting people to suddenly curb consumption is akin to asking them to stop breathing – they can do it for a moment, but then gasping, they will inhale again’. Consumerism by the wealthy is also at the expense of the poor around the world and has enormous ramifications. According to a Princeton University study in 2010, the world’s richest 500 million people were responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 3 billion were responsible for just 6 percent.

Global research has proved again and again that increased wealth does not necessarily lead to more content and satisfaction, so what drives this insatiable need of ours to buy more stuff? The reality is that as we get wealthier there is often a tendency to compare more with others, which contributes to more anxiety – the “keeping up with the Jones’” syndrome. But the quest for happiness becomes secondary if we consider that consumerism could result in the collapse of human civilization.

If the way to create a sustainable planet is to transform the cultural pattern of consumerism, then a good starting point would be to understand how various sub cultures are affected by consumerism and where the opportunities for change may lie.

The greener sex

The reality is that in the quest to go green not all consumers are created equal. A survey conducted by Synovate, involving 22000 metropolitan consumers in 28 countries including South Africa, suggests that women are generally more environmentally conscious than others. Another significant finding is that how women and men approach their environmentalism is as different as how they approach their relationships. Generally speaking, men like to focus on “big-picture” issues, while women are more interested in smaller eco-friendly changes.

According to the report, State of World Population, women respond more positively to environmentally friendly advertising and are more likely to take action to address environmental issues. Women are also more likely to get involved in co-operative and social initiatives on a personal level. Men on the other hand like the impersonal technical and business stuff better.

Knowing that women control 65 percent of global spending and it is the woman in a household who makes the decisions in the majority of purchases including food, cars, vacations and healthcare then surely an opportunity exists to target women as the initiators of the rejection of consumerism. So how do we do this?

Large corporates such as Wal-Mart provide their customers with carbon ratings for the electronics products that they sell and UK based Tesco provides eco-ratings on every product within their stores.  The hope is that green labels, intended to provide consumers with transparency about a product’s carbon footprint, will effectively introduce sustainability as a considered attribute in every consumer purchase decision. The problem however is that words like green, eco-friendly and sustainability seem to have lost their salience and power which is  perhaps the consequence of greenwashing – brands making skin deep claims about the environmental attributes of their company, product or service. The challenge lies in the fact that without the proper legislation to guide the labeling of green products consumers remain confused. Companies therefore need to recognise the importance of authenticity in their messaging, and need to be honest about what has been accomplished and what challenges lie ahead.

But as environmentally conscious and eager women might be to save our planet for their children and grandchildren, the need remains for the appropriate education when it comes to their personal carbon footprint. How many women have you witnessed proudly carrying their reusable shopping bags only to fill them with plastic mineral water bottles and imported products. How many women conscientiously recycle their garbage and buy organic products but drive their only child around in a SUV. The fact is that it is through our actions that we will educate the generation who within the next 10 years can start influencing a buying force that will make sensible decisions.

So how does the next generation feel about climate change?

A 2011 survey conducted by Michigan University indicates that Generation Xers with children actually pay less attention to climate change news than other members of their generation. Somewhere between their job and commuting back and forth and getting the kids to soccer and ballet and swimming and whatever else they are doing with them, they have little time left to read about what’s happening in the world, let alone the complexities of climate change. So if they are confused where does that leave their children?

Despite that fact that Generation Y are the most educated in history, they are also the most entertained and materially endowed generation ever. The opinions of Generation Y when it comes to climate change are rather diverse. An international team at Monash University explored the environmental opinions of Generation Y and discovered that even though over 50% claimed to understand the term ‘carbon footprint’ and wanted to make a difference to climate change, few found the need to conserve energy and were dismissive of the impact they can and do have on the environment. Multiple aspects of Gen Y’s lives involve and rely on online technologies and with social media playing an ever-present role in creating their reliance on electricity the challenge to create a generation of green champions becomes a mammoth task.

From grey to green

If we agree that the role of women as agents of change in their homes, and communities is critical in the attempt to save our planet then empowering them to shape the behaviour of the next generation should be a priority. If consumer behaviourists tell us that 80% of product decisions are made at the point of purchase then what can companies do to influence the choice of sustainable products? Extensive international research amongst 2 800 people (80% female) conducted by Continuum revealed that consumers want to feel like they are making the responsible, or the “right” choice but the grey areas around which choice is “right” remains confusing. People think about environmental impact when they throw things away, not when they are consuming. They are disconnected from the environment and more abstract environmental problems like greenhouse gases, and gravitate towards environmental issues that they can see or they can experience first-hand.

By allowing consumers to see and be a part of how brands can go beyond products alone, companies open the door for pairing passion with dual utility. When brands meet shoppers at the purchasing point of consumption they have the opportunity to make consumers aware of how their choices can positively creative tangible environmental impacts.