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Making skinny consumption sexy

People need to be sold a new future that doesn’t repeat the follies of the present
plastic bottles

Chris Jordan, Plastic Bottles (2007). The entire piece (shown here with detail inset) is three metres wide, and depicts two million plastic beverage bottles—the number used in the US every five minutes

A story that ran in the New Zealand Herald in December (‘Be green: keep away from men in fast cars’) got me thinking about the values we share that are at the root of climate change concerns.

The story reported Professor Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientist, urging women to stop admiring men who drive fast cars if they want to join the fight against climate change. King, who managed to persuade the UK government to start using Priuses, stated, “What I was saying is that you have got to admire people who are conserving energy, not willfully using it.” Of course his comments were pilloried by Britain’s sports car drivers, and in truth should have been directed at V8 and SUV drivers, but the message remains that when something is defined as ‘sexy’, it will increase its appeal.

Maybe King is right, as it may be that women’s preferences may hold the key to guiding the kinds of social change necessary to avert a gathering climate change crisis. Of course, this may be placing an onerous burden on the women of the world—charged with the responsibility of directing global behaviour change—but as they have traditionally been the defenders of morals and standards on the planet anyway, as well as influential consumer decision makers, maybe it’s a natural place to go when looking for solutions to a highly entrenched problem.

If we look at our government to fill that role, we may be sadly disappointed. True leadership in our compromised, short-term election system is rare, as few bold moves have an instant payoff. After all the rhetoric about Labour’s commitment to sustainability, its decision to back out of introducing fuel into the ET scheme had all the hallmarks of a loss of bottle in the face of some stiff business lobbying. Ironically, it was supported by incomplete and unflattering economic modelling that never factored in the value of reputation and brand premium at either a national or sector level.

The assumption that reputation or brand value is worthless fails to give credit to the impact a reputation has on business viability. For better or worse, New Zealand has staked its future on the ‘clean green’ image. Somehow it’s come to define us. It gives our products a competitive advantage. We’re all familiar with the ‘100% Pure’ marketing campaign that sells New Zealand as a destination. What price that reputation?

As far as the tourist industry goes—and that means 30 percent of foreign earnings and climbing—further damage to our environmental integrity would be catastrophic. We’re already struggling to live up to the image. Take it away and what’s left? A struggling, low-income exporter of a few basic commodities, with a steeply contracting manufacturing sector and a shortage of skilled labour, a long way from market.

So we need to decide what price we are prepared to pay to defend our reputation. Are we prepared to sacrifice the mining of coal at places like Happy Valley for the sake of preserving what’s left of our landscape, in the knowledge that it’s the family jewels that we’re defending? Have we got the nerve to push for a low-carbon future? Are we prepared to mine the West Coast seabed for ironsand to sell to those who would build apartment buildings or coal power stations in China? Is the damage to our long-term integrity and reputation worth selling these things for?

A good reputation has a value that is calculable. It is expressed commercially as customer preference and reflected in price premiums. Our nation is well positioned to sell premium-priced primary sector goods. Improving an already good reputation would undoubtedly assist us to sell less for more. Currently, that reputation is going backwards.

In May, the European Commission signalled it will impose mandatory carbon labelling some time in the near future. This is as an opportunity or a threat, depending which side of the fence you sit on. I know which side I would be sitting on, and it’s the side with the money. There’s a road map for the future emerging from initiatives like this, and it’s all only going one way.

There are plenty of good ideas in the market right now for transforming our businesses and lifestyles in unique ways to make them more sustainable, and therefore valuable, in every way. But getting people to want and desire those lifestyle choices is a lot more complex than just selling them things they already know about, or think they know about.

Maybe it’s up to the creative media to lead us out of the blind alleys we’ve been following. In times of upheaval it’s common to find the clearest truths expressed in art, constructed and communicated by those with no vested interests in propogating the status quo just because it’s there. Artists understand cultural (r)evolution. Hats off to George Monbiot, Al Gore and other visionaries, but the art of Chris Jordan speaks more clearly to me about consumption than any standard reportage I have ever seen. Using a marriage of numbers, words and images, the truth behind the written messages about how wasteful we are becomes apparent in a gently pleasing and yet deeply disturbing way.

But so much of the contemporary dialogue seems to focus on what’s going wrong, and so little on how refreshing and stimulating the process of change can be and how satisfying a low-carbon life could be. People need to be sold a new future that doesn’t repeat the follies of the present. For that to happen, we need to start visualising new ways of doing things in a society that’s finding it difficult to envisage anything that’s particularly bright right now.

Just as John Kennedy’s words inspired a generation, and contemporary music has so completely affected modern culture, so maybe now the communication media can inspire people to see the future in a different way and want to buy into it.