The old cliche “money doesn’t buy happiness” still rings true; yet in this economy, apparently it can buy sustainable consumption. The growing interest in sustainable consumption is prescient, especially for the millions of Americans still feeling the effects of the 2008 economic meltdown, and at a pragmatic level the concept can teach many of us how to cope with lingering economic uncertainty. The resonance of such lessons, however, is highly dependent on the messenger.
Sustainable consumption must become the reality if our society is to cope with the world’s decreasing natural resources, hotter climate and rising energy costs. The increasing calls to live with less and become eco-conscious ring true, but only if those preaching such virtues are credible. Unfortunately among those who preach the loudest are celebrities and overnight millionaires.
Take, for example, Graham Hill, who recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times espousing the virtues of minimalism and downsizing while living in a New York apartment in what many would consider a swanky neighborhood. Many of us are motivated to live more sustainably, like he does now, but Mr. Hill learned he could live with less after gallivanting around the world with a beauty from the Pyrenees Mountains. He also spent a pretty penny retrofitting his apartment to transform it into a model of minimalist urban living.
Our current lifestyles differ greatly from how many of our parents and grandparents lived. Just a few generations ago, most people’s wardrobes were limited to a few outfits at most, and the average cost of an item of clothing took more disposable income but lasted a longer time because previous generations took meticulous care of their items. If a sock got a hole, it was darned; a pair of pants with holes in the knees got patched. Furniture and appliances were repaired. But as more factories here in the U.S. shuttered and moved overseas to capitalize on cheap labor, retailers sold clothing and household goods at lower prices and at a much greater scale.
One challenge of living with less is that our economy is centered on buying cheap and buying often. When a big-box store sells t-shirts for only a few dollars, we are tempted to purchase one of every color. Ditto for household goods. Mass production and the subsequent marketing messages have given us the illusion that we can live comfortably with many belongings and without any inconveniences. It will take a massive sea change in consumer behavior, with the buy-in of the companies who have become multi-billion dollar enterprises selling cheap goods, to start a conscious shift toward more sustainable consumption.
But how can the companies that have fueled this manic consumer behavior — from the clothing manufacturers and retailers to the banks that doled out cheap credit — going to teach us to live more “sustainably"? While more and more consumers are bemoaning the proliferation of cheaply produced goods and wish for the days when products were made locally and of higher quality, many of us balk at paying those higher prices. Much-needed change should start with the companies who pushed consumers to spend relentlessly in the first place — better consumer engagement and social media are the tools to push these ideas so they resonate with more consumers.
More companies are realizing the benefit of persuading consumers to consume less and recycle more. Patagonia, for example, launched a “don’t buy this jacket” campaign for “Black Friday” 2011. That announcement scored plenty of skepticism and cynicism but largely resonated with the company’s customers. That campaign followed on the heels of the company’s Common Threads Initiative that engaged customers to purchase fewer clothing items. Patagonia also has long partnered with eBay to buy and sell unneeded clothing and outdoor gear. Meanwhile Patagonia maintains conversations with customers about its manufacturing processes, building trust and brand reputation without diminishing the bottom line.
British retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) launched its “Shwopping” campaign last year to encourage customers to drop off an item of clothing at one of M&S’ locations when they buy a new one. M&S donates the clothing to Oxfam, which sells it to thrift stores around the world, or recycles the textiles into fibers to make a line of jackets M&S sells within its stores. The initiative is hardly a “buy less” campaign, but it does instill a message about consumption and the company is preventing clothing from ending up in landfill. Meanwhile, Swedish fast fashion giant H&M recently started a global clothing recycling campaign, a sharp change in direction for a company that popularized disposable clothing.
The overwhelming challenge is to convince consumers once again to buy fewer but higher-quality items instead of copious quantities of “stuff,” which ultimately flies in the face of these retailers’ global growth strategies. But brand messages that engage consumers on sustainable consumption and raise awareness around “cost per wear,” the environmental and human rights damages caused by the clothing and textile industries, or the timeless lessons of quality over quantity should therefore be all the more powerful considering the source. Comparatively, the teachings of those who could afford a massive retrofit or endless travel in order to find minimalist nirvana ring hollow.