Thursday, 28 June 2007

the beginnings of an article

(I thought i'd make a start on the is green concern a fashion fad? article. This is just some words I have poured into the computer and I have to start somewhere. I think the article is actually supposed to be about the cultural dimensions. but I have to store it somewhere, why not on't blog :J)


The most worrying question that keeps coming up when I speak to people about The Green Marketing Manifesto (my forthcoming book, John Wiley, available at all good bookshops) is ‘when will the green bubble burst’? One agency contact told me that his client - in the middle of a project to brand an eco hotel – put it this way: what’s after green? We’ve also all heard about green as a tipping point, as the big trend of 2007. The assumption being that current levels of media attention are unsustainable. And that the media moving onto the next big thing will bring the whole house down.

All of which is rather worrying admittedly, because it suggests that green enthusiasm is a passing fad, that after a while the media, public and political interest will wane. We’ve been there before. There was a green consumer bandwagon in 1989. Corporates tripped over each other to bring out their ‘eco-friendly’ products and ranges. For instance Reckitts brought out a Down to Earth range of eco-friendly cleaning products, rather obviously modelled on Ecover. There were guides published as to what you can do. There were recycled bin bags, light bulbs, green consumer guides. There were big public events like Earth day in 1990. The Henley Centre announced that we were entering a caring sharing 90s and advertisers like Audi reflected this in their advertising. The ‘new man’ (man holding baby) was the cliché of the day. The green party took 15% of the vote in the European elections in 1989. Body Shop was ascendant, exuberant and re-writing the rule book (cause campaigning as capitalism). And then it all just seemed to fall apart. Not burst in a spectacular dotcom fashion. But rather the bandwagon just simply seemed to run out of steam. Ecover lost much of its grocery distribution. Reckitts dropped Down to Earth. It all went back to the healthfood shops, the enclaves like Brighton and Crouch End, the festivals, the dark green underground.

Could that happen again? Of course it could. But before we accept the assumption that it will, it’s worth realising that things really are different this time. 1989 was an ideological green moment. Yes it was linked to worries posed by holes in ozone layer, by natural disasters like floods, droughts and earthquakes. But it seemed primarily emotional in content, built upon millennial anxiety and the loss of the old world order, when the Berlin Wall came down. Today the climate change agenda is a scientific one. All the leading scientists in the world agree that – as James lovelock puts it – the earth is catching a fever. The projections of a 5 degree increase in temperature across the century may not sound dramatic, but consider that the current average world temperature is only 5 degrees above that of the last ice age. And the + 5 degrees equates to one of the hottest periods in earth’s history, the Eocene period. With this average temperature some like Lovelock argue, the Amazon jungle, China, Western Europe and the USA will all be deserts. Again you may think the human beings can survive in desert conditions. But they cannot grow crops. And on top of climate change a related set of issues of water shortages (not just from low rainfall, but because we have seriously depleted the underground aquifers), seas holding only 10% of the edible fish stocks they did 100 years ago, soil erosion, storms, spreading diseases. Add war, economic turmoil and social disintegration and you can see why some call the impending crisis a ‘global Somalia’.

So it’d hardly a fashion issue. Any more than the plight of Africa (poverty, AIDS, war, famine and now climate change) is a fashion issue, even if it has also become a fashionable issue. The reason the green bandwagon seemed to go away in the 1990s is for a while that the problems seemed to recede. The ozone CFC problem was tackled. It was also eclipsed while other issues like the end of Apartheid and the war in Kuwait took the international spotlight. The climate change problems right in front of us today are not going away. 2 million homes have been flooded in the UK. There is severe flooding in the North of England as I write. Seasonal temperatures continue to set records. In 2003 over 30,000 people in Europe died of heat related causes. The 4000 dead and millions displaced by Hurricane Katrina made a similar impact on the American consciousness to the 9/11 attacks. The Amazon has had two years of drought and there are substantial fears that a third hot dry summer could push it over the edge, with trees no longer held up by the dry friable soil, with raging forest fires and desertification.

The shift in public consciousness needs to be examined carefully too. Yes there have been periodic swings of mass public concern over the plight of Africa (Make Poverty History and Live 8 being a recent example of another boom and bust in concern). But is that really a fair comparison with such a systematic shift in public attitudes; to recognising the real and present danger of climate change, to mass willingness to act on these fears, to pressure on governments, airlines, retailers, even on NGOs to deliver substantial change? Time will tell. I don’t pretend to know the answer. But it looks like a rising sea level of opinion and belief, not a tide which ebbs and flows. There are permanent directed changes to the way we think and live. The digital revolution has lived up to the promise that ‘the internet changes everything’. Yes there were moments of fashionability and also disappointment. It is a structural shift, a shift in the questions, and not just the answers, it is instrumental it changes the way governments, societies and corporates operate, and so in many ways does sustainability.

Sustainability looks like what someone once called ‘a metaphysical virus’; a new thought which has been let loose like protestantism, modern science, communism and non-violent resistance. These are paradigm shifts, there is no going back because they are too systemic to be unthought, the deeper the shift in underlying mental models, assumptions and metaphors, the more permanent the change. It’s the difference between ‘sale now on’ (passing ephemeral information) and the emergence of ecommerce.

For all of which there is no denying that green is currently fashionable. Wired magazine described it in terms of social identity; the Ecosexual picking up where the Metrosexual left off.


Phil said...

Back in the early 90's Green felt like a new IDEA. Something to get into now that the cold war was over. Marxism Today did a special issue on the subject, REM released an album. It was a new debate in town, something to rally around and a focus for a potential political movement, a rainbow alliance of different issues.

Now green is a reality. Arguing that it is a fad is like arguing recession is a fad. You can't wish it away. Well people can try but there will still be recycling bins in their garden and evidence of global warming on the news.

Asking what comes next is like asking what's after the internet or railways. These things don't go away, they appear, they evolve but the fundamental design remains as a fact of life.

A client from a charity recently asked me whether I thought that the current interest in green issues would affect charitable giving and volunteering: did people have a quota for doing good and would non-green causes be squeezed out?

We had a good chat about it and reckoned such thinking was based upon a nodular notion of behaviour: we have certain roles to fufill like Good Citizen; Parent; Employee etc and we have limited time and energy. However when you look at green behaviour you find, as I think you have argued, that it is not a new nodule people have added into their lives, people are not so much adopting new behaviours as modifying existing ones - putting rubbish in several different bins instead of one bin, using low energy lightbulbs instead of normal, driving a Prius instead of... you get it. Green has become part of normal life. Aren't fads all about deviations from normality - the new thing we are doing to relieve boredom?

Do you remember a book about chasms in the adoption curve of new technology (by Geoffrey someone I think)? Rather than new technology uptake growing smoothly in a normal early adopter to mass market way, there is often a lag, maybe driven by the high cost of the original prototype or lack content or poor performance, before the thing takes off. Maybe the rise and fall of green in the early 90's wasn't faddishness but a time lag before everyone got their head around the reality of the problem.

chris pearce said...

John, Did you see the "How Green is Your High St?" programme last night? It was, I think, quite a good attempt to air the issues in a very mainstream way, and make green activity seem not just "normal" but also simply good business (from the corporates perspective). Some good debates about food miles from imports v the energy consumed in the UK to grow, for example, tomatoes year round (with one great exception in Suffolk using recycled heat from the sugar beet factory next door). Also highlighted the "education gap" with regards to Carbon labelling etc. I'm sure you've seen it already, but worth a look if not!

John Dumbrille said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Dumbrille said...

Here in North America, there is a chance that Green becomes nothing more than a type of (annoying, self-defeating) consumerism. As an ideology it is also vulnerable - its exponents simply cant live up to "it" (by association, somehow, it seems Al Gore the Senator was involving in smashing up a hybrid car while stoned).

Because of these issues, Green may not become the new black over here, but, as Seth Godin said a little while ago - quite possibly, something called Zero might become the new black. Whatever that means.

Great blog BTW