But, first I should say, I'm starting to feel less and less comfortable about talking about this kind of stuff. Because it's clearly not something that's going to be resolved by anything that anyone in advertising, marketing, design, communications or any related trade does, even if they draw or think or imagine really, really hard. Talking about this stuff also means straying into areas that I'm supremely unqualified to talk about; economics, politics, climate science, philosophy, psychology. This is proper, important stuff. Debating the relative merits of electroplankton and tenori-on, I'm your man. Global consciousness raising, not so much. What gets me past that discomfort is remembering I'd rather being doing something than nothing, even if it's not much of a something. Anyway. On with the show...
The most humiliating experience I've ever had on stage (apart from being caught miming once in a West Midlands Battle of the Bands competition) was being asked to debate globalisation with Penny Rimbaud from Crass. I knew I was onto a loser from the start but my boss made me do it and it was horrible. We were so screwed because they were living as far outside capitalism as it's possible to do these days. They'd rejected the whole thing; this gave them unassailable authority and logic - capitalism's the problem, get rid of it. That's really hard to argue with. And, in my heart of hearts, I suspect they might be right, and I suspect that one day conditions will be so obviously severe that that kind of radicalism will be forced on us.
Until then though, the only problem with the outright rejection of consumer capitalism is that no-one will do it. I see no evidence that the world is about to give any of that stuff up, so we're left with the shoddily compromised goal of trying to reinvent it. And that's always, always fraught with contradictions, hypocrisy and compromise. There's nowhere you can stand in this process that's not a full of contradictions. It's not like it was working perfectly for the global population before this latest crisis comes along. So whatever you do someone will accuse you of being naive and incremental and someone else will accuse you of being naive and hysterical. Which is why I applaud anyone who does anything in this field, because it's not a way to get popular.
So, there we are, the lofty goal; reinventing consumer capitalism. By which I guess I mean, that it's the responsibility of the rich countries of the West to create a version of consumption that's both completely sustainable and glamorous and attractive enough that the rest of the world will want to adopt it instead of the excessive 80s version that seems to be in vogue right now. Because, as we've previously noted, unless something drastic happens they're not going to buy any version that doesn't include nice cars and many fridges. And they're certainly not going to take any preaching from us.
OK. I thought I'd try and talk about something from each of these areas.
This is the most abstract and global issue. It's a thought about a way that what branding and marketing has always been good at can be transformed from part of the problem to part of the solution. But it's by no means a finished idea. As New Labour might say it's an aspiration towards an idea.
Let's start here. What branding and marketing has always done is use ideas, images and information to make people want to buy new stuff. (Or encourage them to buy new stuff A rather than new stuff B, depending how Packardian you want to be.) That, of course, is a core contribution to screwing everything up. Generating a constant stream of new stuff turns out to be an unsustainable way to behave.
But I'd also argue that advertising/marketing doesn't create this need to consume. It encourages and directs it, certainly, but we have to accept that people seem to like to consume things. Neither did it create the desire to make stuff, which is equally part of the problem, and equally seems to be hardwired into us.
So the question becomes; can we use our powers for good rather than evil? Can we encourage and direct desire in a way that satisfies people's desire to consume (and therefore allows businesses to charge them money for something and keep the wheels of capitalism turning) without creating endless torrents of new stuff.
The first obvious approach here is to deploy ideas, images and information in such a way that we can get people to re-love the stuff they already have. Or revalue it. The obvious route is to increase the value we put on repairability, on long-life, on the patinas and beauty of age. If this is to make commercial sense it means people have to be willing to pay a premium for things that last, or at least prefer them to things that don't. This isn't new. Reliability and durability have been around for a while (obviously). But we need we to re-present them if we're going to make them interesting and appealing to people.
Dave mentioned something Howies are going to do that brought this to life really well for me. They're going to make a hand-me-down jacket that they'll guarantee will last for ten years. And when they sell it to you they'll put some fabric and buttons aside so if it needs repairing they'll have the stuff they need to do it. This is great because - a. they're taking responsibility for the jacket (they're not just sending you the buttons and expecting you to hang on to them for ten years). And - b. it makes for a more interesting story than 'this is a long-lasting jacket'.
But, as you can tell, I've not really worked out what this idea looks like in advertising and marketing. In technology it looks like a spime (video introduction to spime here). And the Wattson's got something of it (more here). But I've not found the formula I want - some communications thing which can get someone to relove something they've owned for a while - in exchange for cash. I think it might be like a video-game easter egg in the real world - something baked into the product that reveals new delights over time. But that's released by communications somehow, so it doesn't have to be in there when the things made. (??) Oh I dunno. I've been chronicling things that are in the right territory or at least hint at some possibilities here. The connections might seem vague (or completely invisible) but I'll try and draw the threads together sometime. (And credit to Matt who made up / introduced me to the word Unproduct which is a really useful idea.)
And finally, of course, the ideal would be to eliminate the need to produce carbon-producing stuff altogether, so that the gaping maw of consumption is sated entirely through the consumption of ideas, images and information. Obviously that's what a lot of media businesses are doing now. That's what they are. But I wonder if it's possible for more businesses to make themselves virtual/digital. (Not forgetting the Second Life / Average Brazilian dillema.) Maybe that's the essence of the sustainability challenge for many businesses - do they get lighter (digital, light-touch, un-corporeal, virtual) or heavier (longer-lasting, higher-quality, more repairable)?
Anyway, as you can tell, I've not really worked out what I think about all this stuff. You can just about breeze past the inconsistencies in a presentation but writing this has made me realise how much more thought is required. Anyway. On with the music...
Oh. This is just an aside really. Pictured above is a hybrid vehicle. Which reminds me that product designers have got a long way to go if they're going to deliver green products that people want to buy. They seem to have escaped the mud and dirty knitting aesthetic that dogged sustainable design for so long, but now everything green has the kind of smug refinement of something like a Prius. There are more aesthetic territories out there; stuff people like, like sex and death and big wheels. Not everything needs to look like a beautiful leaf. Aside over.
This 'un' thing isn't quite working. It works for unproduct. It's interesting for unproduct, but I don't really mean unbranding here. If anything I mean less branding. And I definitely don't mean 'uncompetitive' in the next section. It's just one of those things that seemed good at the time and helped hang a presentation together.
What I mean is this; advertising and branding is not going to solve this problem. Even if we use Ben better we're not going to solve this problem. It'll get solved by governments, by large organisations and by mass democratic action. I think we should mostly do what we can do as citizens and resist the temptation to go and create new logos. There's enough of them already, and it's a confused enough ideas marketplace already.
I'd really respect a brand organisation that said 'you know what, Marks and Spencer's Plan A stuff makes sense to us, we're just going to do the same as that, we won't bother inventing our own nearly identical programme and logo and launch pack, we'll just use theirs'.
And I'd really, really respect a creative team that said 'you know what, the biggest contribution we can make to easing global warming is if we can help British Gas increase the penetration of their most efficient boilers, so rather than volunteering to make some cool, and potentially award-winning film, about sharing a bath or something, we're going to do pro-bono work helping British Gas with their direct mail'.
Failing all that unlikely surrendering of ego, what about someone who just decided not to invent a new brand or a new programme but simply decided to support something existing and interesting like walkit? Take a little percentage of your 'green budget' and sponsor walkit or something similar. You'd actually achieve something useful then.
Right this is way too long already. This is the last bit, I'll finish it off soon.