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The rising scoby: How wellness culture gained a foothold across the world and in New Zealand

This month, Idealog has chosen to spotlight the growing number of businesses and organisations who reside in the caverns of Aotearoa’s wellness industry – or the new culture of self-love that has brewed into the broths of business. It poses as a potential cure to mental health, the guide to a purposeful life, a lover to nature, yet is undeniably a lucrative money-making machine. The Global Wellness Institute reported that the wellness market grew from $3.7 trillion in 2015 to $4.2 trillion in 2017 — growing at nearly twice the rate of the global economy (3.6 percent annually). It also generates 5.3 percent of global economic output. Previously not considered a legible term, Wellness is now a culturally shared phenomenon, canvassed across the media and advertising world, while Global Wellness Day is now celebrated in more than 100 countries at 5000 different locations. So, where did this movement come from, and what are the opportunities, and the pitfalls for New Zealand?

The history of wellness

The term itself has continually evolved over time, initially conceptualised by the growth in health and fitness, its definition today encompasses wider philosophies of spirituality and sustainability. TRA’s senior social cultural strategist, Antonia Mann, gives her take on the renaissance of wellness culture.

“We were quite holistic and natural until pharmaceuticals came along, then there was a diversion into pharmaceuticals, but we are coming back to that holistic view now,” says Mann.

These shifts started in the 1950s, where cities expanded and the environment became more urbanised, more people used cars as their main mode of transport, television became popularised, food was industrialised, and increasingly people worked in sedentary jobs.

Mann says these factors, alongside other industrial developments, have caused a variety of health affects. Two examples being the rise in obesity and depression, where obesity has tripled globally since 1975, while depression is the leading cause of disability and a major contributor to disease worldwide, according to The World Health Organisation.

Subsequently, according to Mann, there has been an entire re-evaluation of what makes people happy.

Mann adds, “People felt western medicine wasn’t working for people, so they started looking for different treatments, holistic therapies and natural alternatives. Yoga, mindfulness, and eastern Chinese medicine practices among others, which have grown over the last ten years.”

Furthermore, U.S Global Wellness Institute senior researchers, Katherine Johnston and Ophelia Yeung, examined the key causes of recent growth in Wellness culture as, "an increasing consumer interest in all things related to maintaining and improving health driven by aging, a rising global epidemic of chronic disease and stress, the negative health impacts of environmental degradation, and the failure of the 'sick-care' medical model to improve quality of life."

The opportunities

In turn, business has boomed. The weight loss industry was born and quickly grew into a global obsession, the fitness industry is now worth $60 billion a year globally (the New Zealand fitness industry grew three percent last year to $567 million),  and alternative medical practices such as acupuncture, meditation, and naturopathy, have seen renewed interest.

It’s also marketable, says Mann.  “It is also very cool to be healthy. There is a lot of status associated with going to yoga, where they say today that ‘health is wealth’. It used to be about being glamorous to be sexy, but now its about being strong and natural, or having a zen, that’s what sexy is about.”

The result has seen a deluge of new products, from organic varieties of kombucha and alkaline water, to natural cannabinoid oils and hemp infused products, along with Shakti mats and keep cups, the list goes on. But wellness has also touched and twisted industries from food and clothing to beauty and travel.

In a separate report conducted by GWI, called the Global Wellness Tourism Economy Monitor, it highlights that ‘wellness tourism grew from a $563 billion market in 2015 to $639 billion in 2017, or 6.5 percent annually, more than twice as fast as tourism overall (3.2 percent).’

New Zealand holds a unique position in the global wellness market, where both our cultural origins and coastal geography provides a vantage point for business. This is layered by the presence of our Māori and Pacific world view, and the spiritual connection between land and people.

“On the whole, we take part in wellness culture much like the rest of the world does, we go to the gym, go to yoga, and are conscious about what we eat. But if you want to look at wellbeing from a New Zealand specific view, simply because of our land and being so close to our ocean, we feel this innate connection to nature, when we think of nature as a means of detoxing, getting away from the city, and  being in a place for mindfulness, it comes naturally to New Zealanders."

Perhaps, the need to connect with the environment has contributed to the success of familiar New Zealand businesses, like Allbirds and Ecostore, among others, who have designed from nature in a way that threads our identity into the products themselves.

This touches on another driver in the global wellness market, the seismic degradation of our environment, the diminishment of our plants, animals, and biodiversity (reports suggest one million species are at risk of extinction), as well as what Mann describes as an ‘anti-industrialisation movement’.

“If you look at Nike and the sweatshop debacle, that was the start of people looking at corporations, the ethics of their practice, and whether that aligned with their values. This has then extended into what we are eating and coincides with a global environmental movement. Not only are corporations coming under scrutiny, climate change, urbanisation, and technology is also driving people to care more about the environment.”

This could be seen in New Zealand’s growing army of vegans, the rise of plant-based meats, or in our freshly combative attitudes towards plastics. As well as this, according to Nielsen data, the sustainability imperative is becoming increasingly prevalent as 66 percent of global respondents are willing to pay more, and over 50 percent of consumers are influenced by key sustainability factors.


The challenges

The Wellness Report indicates that is a growing subset of the global population (who are generally educated and affluent) who believe their consumer behaviour ignites meaning, impact, and purpose.

Therefore, a key challenge for the wellness industry is inequality. People who have access to expensive yoga retreats, organic food, and artisan water, can afford to curate personalised dietary plans and earthly Instagrams, while others are still unable to source essential amenities.

Mann argues this is also true to New Zealand, “There are also issues for New Zealand within wellness, we have inequity, obesity, and poor housing, so not everybody can go and buy fancy yoga pants and have access to this culture. As New Zealanders we don’t like the fact that some people can access something, that not everybody can access, in terms of the same quality of life.”

It’s not just expensive, but the medical research behind these products, apps, services, and workshops is often unclear. As The Atlantic  rightly points out, the industry's relationship with evidence is interesting. The movement draws upon scientific claims when it suits, yet defines itself as subversion to the scientific establishment.

So, it’s not simply that economically deprived communities can’t access wellness culture, but also, for those who can it’s unclear of the return, as they are often hard-pressed to find conclusive medical evidence that these wellness programmes will improve their mental health. In short, because the industry is filled with new products and services, it’s hard to separate the shit from the shaman.

To help overcome these challenges, Mann says, “It’s about innovation, to make sure that those who are making these products and services provides access for everybody. It is also about looking at it systemically, it’s not just about creating a product or app, it’s about looking around that and understanding the culture effects.”

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