Learning from Sustainable Consumerism

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This is a transcript of a presentation delivered at the Metropolis Design Conference in San Francisco, February 2001. The article was first published in 2001 in Emigre 59. It was most recently included in Steven Heller’s and Véronique Vienne’s second edition of Citizen Designer: Perspective on Design Responsibility under the title “The Culture Influence of Brands–In Defense of Advertising.”


Sustainable Consumerism

Chris Riley

I’m an advertising guy.

I wanted to make that clear as we engage in this conversation about sustainability. Advertising is intrinsic to consumerism and, as you all know, consumerism is about creating desire.

Now, I am very happy in this environment. I like advertising. I enjoy helping create it and I enjoy being associated with strong businesses that are growing. Strong businesses are important. I grew up in Manchester, England in the 70s. Let me tell you: You learn a lot about the importance of strong businesses when they are in short supply. So I come at this question of “sustainability” from that place. I am not an “environmentalist” in the classic sense. I have not dedicated my life to protecting our environment, though I have huge respect for those who have.

One of the big inventions of consumerism is the “brand.” You all intuitively know what I mean when I talk about brand. Yet there are as many different perspectives on what brands are as there are brand owners. It may help if I share with you the way I think about brands. I think of brands as business ideas that have achieved cultural influence. Big brands influence culture in a big way, small brands in a small way.

What interests me about this perspective is that it hinges on two huge ideas. The first is that a brand is a “business idea” and the second is the notion of cultural influence.

Let’s talk first about a business idea. There has been a lot of work done on this subject. On the one hand, you can focus on the business “model.” The business model is all about the way a business creates wealth. For the last few years, many young technology entrepreneurs have been presenting their business models to venture capitalists for investment. The VC looks at their presentation and asks two questions: Is this a good business model that will generate a return on my investment? And is this person likely to do it for me? The business model is about capitalism. It is about Return on Investment (ROI). It is about the commodity. In one of its most refined forms, the business model’s effectiveness hinges on the financial value ascribed to relationships. This is the way capitalism renders everything as a commodity to be bought and sold. For example, the value of AOL exists within the relationships created by the service. These relationships are then exploited to create wealth.

The problem with this way of thinking about business is that it under-represents the social and cultural role of business. When Time Warner merged with AOL, what kind of business did this promise to create as a consequence? Is AOL’s commodity its relationships with people, like my daughter at her iMac in her bedroom? Are these relationships commodities to be traded just like, well, any other stuff? The contents of an oil field, for example, are an easy commodity to understand, or the value of owning land, or the ability to make a fine automobile, or… but wait. Things are looking harder as I go through that list.

In the film Wall Street, we are introduced to Gordon Gecko—remember “lunch is for wimps”? The film reveals the way business commodifies everything within a capitalist system. The futures of the workers’ lives are in the hands of traders who care little and understand less about them. The young adventurer ends up in a limo with a beautiful woman who informs him that he has earned a reward from Gecko—her. The film uncovers the ugly truth of pure capitalism: The human experience is simply another commodity to be traded for financial gain.

It need not be so. In fact, other work in the field of business analysis suggests that a pure focus on the capitalistic aspects of business is a deeply flawed way of thinking about how business works and how businesses can succeed in the long run. Some early pioneers of consumer businesses seemed to understand this: Ford, Kohler, Cadbury, and Lever, to name a few. In their world, business was an integral part of society. The role of the business was not only to generate wealth for the business owner but also to create opportunity for all who engaged in the business transaction, from the entry-level employee to the most distant customer. Business is a process, not an entity. It is entirely the product of relationships. As capital became more and more powerful, primarily as technology enabled businesses to scale to the global level, so the human relationship factors that underpin business were eroded. This is where we find ourselves today.

The emergence of corporatism as the dominant ethic of business analysis is recent and will be transient. As Kees van der Heijden has pointed out in his book Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation, “We define structural profit potential as an attribute of a system capable of creating value for customers in a unique way that others find difficult to emulate.” In other words, profit is an outcome of business but not a sole reason for it. Many who have started small businesses or are part of family enterprises understand this deeply. Those who have lived through harsh times in Flint, Michigan, or Liverpool, England, are also aware of this simple human truth.

What seems to be happening as we enter the next phase of our economic evolution is that many of these chickens are coming home to roost. Businesses that focused solely on maximizing financial ROI seem to have become disconnected from their customers, their employees, and their shareholders. This powerful alliance—with many individuals participating in all three experiences—can be credited with driving a fundamental change in the 21st century business environment.

I wonder why?

Information technology has stimulated the creation of a culture of knowledge, and it is sweeping the world. In the culture of knowledge, everything seems knowable. But it’s also true that everyone wants to know. From the vicarious experience of survival to a basic understanding of the capitalist system and its attendant marketing habits, people feel smart and informed. And guess what? They are.

The world of marketing and the world of brands have been rocked by these changes. Nothing seems to work quite as it did. Which brings me to that idea of “cultural influence.” It turns out that the degree to which businesses engaged with their public—creating relationships that either sustained, evolved, or eroded value—was linked less to their ability to create powerful business models and more to their ability to create valuable relationships. This is news to many in the MBA-riddled world of U.S. consumer marketing but is an unquestioned fact of life in Asia and Europe.


Here’s what happened. As marketing mechanized the process of relationship management, the consumer got less emotional value out of the relationship. If money is a symbol of the value of a relationship, consumers simply reduced the amount of money they were willing to pay to have relationships with amoral marketing companies. These companies were not necessarily bad, but they behaved like spoiled children, who use any form of manipulation necessary to get what they want. By remaining unable to engage with consumers as human beings with rich cultural lives and complex social environments, businesses were unable to communicate. Thus, the more they craved and needed consumer attention, the more they tended to scream and become abusive. We see the results of this spoiled-brat behavior on our screens every day: Persistently aggravating advertising sending manifestly corrupt messages into our homes.

But, in the culture of knowledge, the consumer knows. And is rebelling. Recent research that I have been involved in at Wieden+Kennedy has begun to highlight this. We were interested in the evolving relationship between the consumer and big business. We had already come to the view that the brand was a surrogate for the business idea, and that if we were to evolve and grow the brands we worked on, we needed to understand more deeply what they symbolized and how people were relating to them.

As part of one study, I was in Tokyo, talking to a producer of Japanese hip-hop records about the idea of being “modern.” I mention this because, in some ways, the transcendent themes of the modern experience were there to be witnessed within that conversation. He was twenty-six. I was forty-two. He was from Tokyo. I was from Manchester. Yet we were both intimately aware of, and engaged with, the work of Ian Anderson and The Designers Republic. When I asked him (through our excellent translator, who herself had lived in Kensington, London, only three blocks from my old home) how he perceived the idea of “modern” and where he saw culture evolving, he said, “To a more mental place.” He went on to discuss in depth the fact that products have narratives as well as benefits. We know everything about these products. The whole story. From the vantage point of someone born in 1975, business had to engage with the whole truth of consumerism. That involved two important and related realities: Firstly, that non-sustainable consumption would destroy everything we have and could have, and secondly, that the consumer experience was deeper and richer than is ever acknowledged by mainstream marketing.

As we at Wieden+Kennedy travel the world and talk to people for all types of reasons, these themes emerge. Big Business is not perceived to be a de facto problem; it is the lack of imagination, creativity, and responsibility within the idea of corporate business that sucks. Brands are seen as manifestations, as surrogates, for the business people who create them. The consumer wants—no, demands—a relationship with those people.

From Brazil, a young media entrepreneur asks, “I just have one question: Who are you?”

And who can answer that simple question? The emergence of a culture of knowledge that is global in scale, due to the attendant networking that now defines communication and social interaction, has brought the real issues facing our Post-Industrial-Age culture to the fore. Brands can no longer survive on a diet of artificial benefit creation (remember the “Tense, Nervous Headache”?) or the assumption that somehow we are dysfunctional and need to be “fixed.” We—the individuals who consume, whose money oils the wheels of corporate capitalism—are not broken. We don’t need to be fixed. We, to paraphrase an old Subaru ad I was involved in, don’t need to use what we consume to increase our standing with our neighbors. We can relate to the size and shape of our bodies in a way that helps us enjoy the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness promised in our Constitution. We do not need products to be symbols of empowerment; we have power. We do not aspire to manufactured dreams that reduce our capacity to feel like individuals. In short, nearly every branding tactic of the past will fail in the future. Because the nature of transaction between consumers and businesses has moved on.

The cultural role of brands is to respond to the spirit of the times. In the early 1930s, when Coke employed Norman Rockwell, the company transcended its role as a purveyor of refreshment and became deeply embedded in the emerging identity of American consumerism. These values were expected to sweep the world: optimism, faith in the possibility of harmonious diversity, and egalitarianism. In an era when students were being shot at Kent State and carpet bombing was destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of people on the Southeast Asian peninsula, Coke tried to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Like it or hate it, this campaign was an attempt to project more than the benefit of refreshment. Its power lay in the confidence with which it voiced a perspective.

If we were to respond today, we would respond to the culture of corporate repulsion. By which I mean this: The transcendent themes of new consumers emerge from their experience as the progeny of the Consumer Age. These consumers have known little else. They have engaged with and then experienced the emotional hollowness of the consumer promise, that what you buy dictates how well you feel. They have learned through experience that they still felt bad when things didn’t go right, that promises are shallow, and that there must be an ulterior motive for everything. Some would say that they are cynical. But I do not believe that they are. I believe that they are aware.

As they view the world, they are aware of how it is all linked. They did media studies in elementary school; they watched Sesame Street, and they learned about ecology from FernGully. It seems to be the case that they have a different narrative than previous generations of consumers. Their narrative embraces their position within a complex and interlinked world. As millions of the young swap banalities yet create networks of relationships on AOL Instant Messenger, they understand only too well the power of causality: What you do has an effect, somewhere.

Young people are translating that experience to their life as consumers. In fact, they are rethinking the way they consume. Rather than becoming trapped within the manufactured aspirations of the mass market, they are seeking to create experiences that connect them in a meaningful way to the ideas and ideals they find worthwhile. They take control over their futures by taking control over their expectations. And, talking of futures, they are very concerned about the legacy of wanton, excessive consumerism as practiced by the previous generation. In their view, they have inherited the consequences of consumption for consumption’s sake, as practiced by people showing scant regard for the long-term future of either themselves or their children. Or, to put it another way, people showing scant regard for meaningful human relationships and responsibilities.

Surveys such as those of the Yankelovich Research Company have directed our attention for years to the evolution of a fresh perspective on consumption among the young. Well, it seems to be here. If you are in any doubt, you need only look at the fortunes of the Fortune 500 and the near-total collapse of the great marketing brands as they surrendered to the ultimate commodifies business: Walmart. What happened to Kellogg, McDonald’s, P&G, Coke, Oldsmobile, and a host of others is that they ceased to maintain and develop a dynamic business idea that intersected with the values of their customers. The brand is the manifestation of that relationship, its surrogate, as I have said. Van der Heijden would refer to this as a squandering of two things: distinctive competencies and a dynamic relationship with customers. Over time, the values of our consumers evolve, and competitors emulate our core competencies, delivering them for less cost and reducing distinctiveness.

There are two distinct developments—one in the realm of competencies and one in the realm of consumer evolution—that threaten established brand owners who fail to create a dynamic model for brand and business development.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the single-pointed pursuit of capital growth has thwarted attempts at creating a sustainable model of consumerism. Technology has been evolving at a hair-raising rate, but business models have not. Detroit and the oil industry remain locked in a death grip grounded in the idea of exploitation for enrichment. The consequences are a pathetic response to increasing anxiety regarding all forms of pollution, and near indifference to the issue of gradually disappearing resources. The automobile industry has been the bellwether of all consumerism, but it now seems intent on donating that leadership to other types of business that more effectively respond to the spirit of this age.

At a time when technology is delivering the means to reduce the impact of the car on our environment, Detroit is marketing machines that speak to the command-and-control exploitation culture of the past. The Lincoln Navigator, the Chevrolet Suburban. This is 1970s technology, but more importantly, this is 1970s culture. It is about dominance, power, and exploitation, and it is deeply masculine. Or rather, it relies on a kind of warped version of masculinity that finds an echo in the corruption of sport at the hands of capitalism: the NFL, the NBA. This is how the new consumer sees the old brands.

Secondly, we need to accept that things are different now. The world in which our children have developed has taught them much. We have taught them much. They are individuals existing in complex cultural systems. They have transcended vague notions of monocultural national values and the politics of supremacy. They do not trust us. Their version of leadership is not command and control. It is not JFK, LBJ, Churchill, Thatcher, or Reagan. If the Clinton presidency taught us anything, it was surely this: Leadership is about acknowledging uncertainty rather than manufacturing certainty. We are all flawed, and it is how we respond to that fact that defines our future. This sensibility is endemic among new consumers. The Cluetrain Manifesto reflected this, as its authors indicated a way forward: Markets are conversations. Absolutely, and so are brands. The question is: What do we want to discuss?

The answer is: kind of everything.

At the top of the list of what we want to discuss is the identity question and the question of the values consumers wish to be associated with as they engage in transactions with companies. Deeply embedded in this question lies another: How can consumers have a relationship with a world they feel increasingly connected to and in a small way responsible for? They no longer accept the spoiled-brat behavior of corporate brands. They want a conversation about where we are together, what we are doing, and how we can do it better. They want to enjoy the benefits of a healthy economy (don’t we all?) without the guilt of screwing it up for everyone else. How can you enjoy your smart new shoes if you know there are unhappy people living in dangerous conditions so that you can have them? This was never part of the promise, but it was always part of the reality. Now that reality is visible and the new consumer is aware and engaged. This means we have to be, also.

The sustainability question is intrinsic to the identity question. Sustainability has huge cultural value in a culture that has rejected exploitation, has confronted inequity, and is striving for a utopian ideal of life, liberty, and happiness. Within the semantics of the word is the resolution of a paradox: It is about keeping what we love, not losing it. This means everything.

When you talk to new consumers, the idea of sustainable impact is right at the front of their minds. Sustainability is in lock-step with a variety of other humanitarian issues. It may be part of a mystical or spiritual value system. It may be part of a reality check and related to their immediate urban environment. It may simply be a part of their general awareness of the world in which they live. Whatever the reason, it is there. It is part of their response to the disappointment of mass consumerism, particularly the mass consumerism created and fueled by the growth of television.

“While our cars may be shiny, and our stocks may be booming, there is another story to be told. There is an emptiness inside, a void in the soul of America. The TV functions as a conduit for the lowest common denominator of public dialogue. Whether it be Regis Philbin or Beverly Hills 90210, the world learns about America by the cotton candy that we call Must See TV. And it works. Only 25% of teenagers between the ages of 13-17 can name the city where the US Constitution was written, but a full 75% know that you can find the zip code 90210 in Beverly Hills, California.”
—Adam Werbach, The Thin Green Line

I quote Adam Werbach because he is a particularly eloquent representative of the new consumer generation. Passionately committed to the environmental movement, he was the youngest-ever president of the Sierra Club (at age 26) and now propels his agenda through a video production company and website called The Thin Green Line. As a media sophisticate, he understands the relationship between the issue of environmentalism and what he would consider to be the insidious actions of mass marketers in concealing the truth of consumption from the consumer. Of equal importance is the connection he draws between the feeling of loss that exists within our mass consumer culture and the explosion of environmental concerns. This connection is the critical link between the history and the future of brands.

Consumerism’s great contribution to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is desire. In many cases, branded goods are promoted as a means of self-actualization. The notion is that, fully empowered by access to the “right stuff,” an individual can get a grip on his or her own reality and project a kind of instant individuation, a personality that is unique and yet belongs to a larger group. The trick is always, as we know, for the brand to influence people’s ideas about which group they aspire to belong to. And people seem to like this.

It turns out that buying stuff because it satisfies desire is OK. In fact, it is rather pleasing. There are many people in the world today who would love the opportunity to get stuff because they want it, rather than being restricted to only satisfying their needs. And before we run off in an apoplectic rage about the sinfulness of desire, I am afraid to tell you that it is a basic human truth. We want as well as need. The experience of desire is nice! We love it! In my view, the crisis of consumerism is not that it creates desire but that it fails to satiate. Most critiques of consumerism and the advertising industry it created seem to focus on how bad creating desire is rather than asking if we can create desire for, well, something else.

This turns out to be on the mind of the new consumer: I want to want, but I want to want what will actually satisfy me.

So imagine if we, as the creative fuel of an evolving consumerism, were to shift the focus of desire from something we can never satiate to something we can. To me, that is the essence of the new consumerism. It has all the thrill of the old, but this time it actually delivers.

This is where we can begin a serious conversation about sustainable consumerism. This is when we can look brand owners in the eye and talk honestly and openly about the challenges they face. The ability to create great stuff is not necessarily correlated to the ability to create great relationships. Within relationships that thrive, all parties are able to enjoy the experience. The brand owner who ignores the consumer values part of the equation fails to acknowledge the human dimension to the relationship. As we proceed into a consumer world in which many different versions of the same stuff offer marginal differentiation for the consumer, we will become ever more reliant on the quality of the relationships we create. While the internet utopians of rationality argue that information technology will reduce everything to price-value-based comparisons, the consumer is mourning the loss of human contact and the loss of valuable relationships. Just look at the mourning ritual of the recently bereaved Oldsmobile franchise.

In a recent speech to a conference hosted by Metropolis magazine, I put up a slide which stated that: “The modern consumer adds environmental impact to the perceived cost of consumption and is attracted to companies who acknowledge their responsibility by embracing incremental improvements in environmental impact.”

This observation was grounded in our conversations with consumers during the research I have been involved in at Wieden+Kennedy. Here is what seems to be going on: The sustainability question has become a flash point for the anxiety that permeates the relationship people feel they have with business. The continuing lack of interest in sustainability expressed by businesses through their brands is seen as symptomatic of the corporatization of the consumer experience. The profit motive is seen to have trumped basic human decency. Carl Pope, of the Sierra Club, once told me that the environment was the issue that almost guaranteed a young voter turnout. It has become a focus of their fear that they will lead meaningless lives in servitude to massive businesses whose sole concern is shareholder value. The threat to the environment is connected to the feeling that they have little control over their lives and that business cannot be trusted.

The upshot of this is that “sustainability” has become their issue. The new consumer owns the new consumption, and their values will dictate which brands succeed and how. The consumer is putting up no barriers to the idea of sustainable consumption.

I was discussing these issues with the designer Alex Gajowskyj, who had designed the “world shoe” for Nike. The idea was to create a product with minimal waste, designed for manufacture, and usable by the people who made it. In a deep way, the project reflects the response a good company like Nike has when confronted by this issue. Nike has started to move towards sustainable consumption as it acknowledges the feelings of both its consumers and its employees. Alex’s experiment was a central part of this evolution. In his words, this is what they learned: “Tradition, natural opposition to change, and a reliance upon ‘tried and trusted’ business practice represent the biggest obstacles for any business seeking global growth.”

In other words, if the consumer is not the barrier, then the business is. Part of the dynamic evolution of distinctive competencies, to use Kees van der Heijden’s idea, is to evolve away from the traditions and practices that hinder the ability of the business to engage fully with the consumer.

Evolving consumer values demand that modern brands rethink the transactions they rely on for consumer attention. This is why brand owners need to care about the sustainability question. Sustainability is a cultural phenomenon as well as a real issue. If brands are to respond to the spirit of the times, they need to respond to this most crucial element of contemporary culture. Furthermore, they need to acknowledge that it also symbolizes a deeper dysfunctionality between the consumer and brands in general. The relationship between the consumer and mass brands has decayed to such a point that the days of premium-priced, high-margin-branded products seem to exist only in our fantasy world. We need to change that; people want more! But now they want more from us as people rather than wanting more of our stuff.

Clive Whitcher, who oversees Strategic Planning for Saatchi & Saatchi on their Toyota business said: “Prius buyers are ecstatic about the car and what it says about Toyota. Toyota’s their hero for finally doing something tangible about the environment—one guy came to a group with a collage featuring evergreen sprigs and a rose stuck to (recycled) paper! The love is akin to what people felt in the 70s when Toyota was their savior—saving them from bad gas mileage when prices went up and there were lines at the gas station, and of course from bad domestic quality and ridiculous domestic ‘downsized’ compacts.”

The movement has started. There are companies, like Nike and Toyota, responding to their consumers’ deeply felt issues. But on a broader scale, my question is: Where are the designers? Where are the ad guys? How can we develop skills and practices that respond to this evolution? How will we determine the effectiveness of what we do when the entire industry is trapped in an unevolved capitalist paradigm? How can clients trust that the advice they are being given responds to the reality of consumer culture, when that advice remains locked in process-based thinking from the 1970s? It is time to challenge these traditions, as Gajowskyj has stated. We have in our midst the most well-informed talent in the history of our young industry, coupled with mind-expanding technology that helps us learn and execute ideas better and faster than ever before. We have no excuse if we fail the people we create our work for, both clients and consumers.

Sustainability is just that: It is about sustaining, providing nourishment, keeping going. Brand owners who nourish their consumers with meaningful ideas and representation, as well as designers and advertising people who take a similar approach and help their clients keep going, will recognize that consumerism is, like everything else in our world, about evolution. In this case, evolution away from the self-destructive impulse of mass commodification and towards a sustainable consumerism that satiates our desires for strong relationships grounded in our common humanity.


Chris Riley was chief strategic officer with Wieden + Kennedy at the time of this presentation.