I've slightly foolishly agreed to participate in the D&AD President's Lecture 'Branding And Environmental Issues Forum'. As is normal with these things they've not given me any clue about what they'd like me to talk about but I thought I'd better start thinking about it.
I signed up for this, not because I'm a huge expert in Branding And Environmental Issues but because I think I should be. I think we all should be. And this seemed to be the kind of kick up the arse I'd need. So I'm going to try and spend some time thinking and writing about these things and hopefully we'll do some thinking about it together.
Given this is such a contentious, highly emotive issue maybe I should lay out some of my starting beliefs, though I'm sure they'll change once I actually learn something.
So. In an ideal world I think a benevolent race of super-beings should arrive from behind the moon and make us do the kinds of stuff we actually need to do to avoid environmental catastrophe - specifically start consuming vastly less energy. But, in the absence of benevolent aliens, we're going to be limited to what we can persuade people to do themselves or to vote for. And given what people are like that's a bit more constrained. Obviously as climate change gets worse people will do more and will need less persuading but, right now, our best chances for mitigating climate change are by substantially re-adjusting the priorities of our consumer economy not by trying to make people revolt against cars and fridges.
That will probably strike some people as horribly cynical and insufficient but it's what seems do-able to me now.
Here are some things that seem like interesting starting points:
John's been thinking about this for a while, and he obviously knows his brand onions, so he's well worth listening to. His speculation that our consumption mania will suddenly just disappear in the way 'Victorian values' disappeared in the 50s and 60s would be nice to believe. It's possible. I can imagine it in bits of Western Europe. There is a sort of logic that we'll all pop out of the top of Maslow's Heirarchy Of Needs and return to simplicity, but I suspect unfettered capitalism is cannier than to allow that. And I'm also reminded that a slice of the affluent middle-class has always longed for a return to a simpler, less materialistic lifestyle. As long as they don't have to go without fine cheese. So if this anything new? I'm not sure we can combat climate change by dragging the whole world up through Maslow in a kind of accelerated lifestyle gentrification, but there might be something in it. And John's much smarter than me so if he says it's happening I'll just capitulate and agree.
There's also a big pile of should-be-read conversation here.
Innocent talk about Fast Moving Sustainable Goods. And I think their combination of ambition and conscience is probably the most effective route for your average consumer brand at the moment. You can't achieve a lot if no-one's heard of you or no-one buys your product. (Assuming all the reality caveats above.) Quite a few brands are doing the same thing - trying to create new products without consuming irresponsible amounts of energy.
But I've been wondering if there's a way of satisfying that nagging consumer impulse merely through the supply of ideas, not through the supply of new stuff.
Our fundamental issue, I guess, is that people are consuming too much. By which we mean too much stuff. Physical stuff. Stuff that requires energy to be made and un-made. So we wouldn't mind people consuming per se, if they consumed less actual stuff and consumed more that was made only of ideas. Which, of course, is what a lot of branding tries to do - and is often criticised for - we try and add value to a product by adding abstract, non-physical stuff; ideas, associations, images, memories. And the transmission of these things involves some energy, but less than creating a lot of physical stuff.
So I'm wondering whether we can persuade people to consume more branded ideas and less branded stuff, in the same way we might sometimes be able to substitute connected technology for cars.
Think about packaging as an example. At the moment we try and sell stuff by wrapping it in an expensive, wasteful but desirable bit of packaging. What if the packaging could be kept to a minimum but the sales imperative could be served through a desirable idea embedded in the product, with a minimum of physical stuff? (And yes I know the ideal solution here is not to encourage the consumption of more products but see reality caveats above.)
Perhaps the next stage is to wonder whether all those base consumer habits can be served just through the exchange of ideas. Can an old product be made to feel new through some kind of brand mechanism - so that no energy is consumed but someone still buys something and someone sells something. Does that make sense?
A t-shirt might be a good example. How do we make this work with a t-shirt? How can a t-shirt company satisfy your consumer need for a new t-shirt without having to actually make a new t-shirt, package a new t-shirt or transport it to you? Can we persuade you to be happy with your old t-shirt or somehow refresh your old t-shirt so it feels new? And can we make money doing so? Can there be some exchange of value?
Can we create a brand world built with more ideas and less stuff? Can we stop using ideas to sell more stuff and use ideas as a substitute for stuff?
I'm probably being hopelessly naive, but it's a thought
(And, while we're at it I should also point at two bits of essential reading; World Changing and Bruce Sterling's Viridian Design Movement which I think is offering the most persuasive thinking in this whole area - 'Creating Irresistible Demand For A Global Atmosphere Upgrade'.
Like I say I'm just thinking outloud, but I'm hoping to learn.