Sunday, 8 July 2007

Is Green a Fad? (Draft 2)


Green is very ‘in’. You can hardly pick up a fashion magazine, visit a supermarket, watch a car or travel programme, open the business pages without finding it in there. Many corporations are described as 'jumping on the bandwagon'; GE, HSBC, M&S, Toyota, AOL, NewsCorp. And smaller greener businesses such as Howies, Able & Cole, People Tree, Treehugger and Yeo Valley are booming. People are talking about a tipping point in public awareness. Yet there is also a darker side to this new found fashionability; what if it is just a fad? What if green is ‘in’ this year and out the next? It happened before in the early 1990s. Can such hype be sustained?

Of course nobody knows. But we need to recognize that it’s not just a media obsession. Nor limited to the middle classes. Landor recently found “universal support for green thinking” in a large-scale survey of US and UK general public; and compared with an identical survey the year before which found green thinking to be marginal, they discovered one of the most “complete and speedy revolutions in consumer attitudes ever seen”. That already distances it from passing media fads, which prove to have no basis in the real world. 3G was hugely hyped by media and mobile phone industry, and cost the operators billions for the licenses but there just wasn’t the demand. Contrast that with solar panels, which are the one of the fastest growing industries in the world, reaching $20B last year and forecast to hit $90B in 2010. But the point I want to make is the fact that it is fashionable at the moment gives us no indication as to its prospects, either way. As the following little model will demonstrate, whether it is a passing fad or a lasting paradigm shift (or any number of types of culture change inbetween) you would always see a first few years of hype and fashionability. It doesn’t mean it’s a bubble. It’s just in the news:

Each of the horizontal arrows describes a different sort of culture change. All of these are based upon contagion incidentally; an idea spreading and catching on (or not) over time. But the depth of the response and its potential longevity vary dramatically, from a year or two, to geological aeons (I say ‘potential’ because circumstances can change and social changes can fail). We don’t know which of these levels are most descriptive of how things are playing out. It’s probably a combination of all of them, but fashionability doesn’t tell us anything, it certainly doesn’t say it’s a fad.


Fads are things that catch on purely because they are catching on; they are like glitches that result from our contagious human culture. They are quite arbitrary; for instance a fashion for tribal braiding on the playground. They soon blow out because they only appeal because they are new/catching.


Phases are cultural markers of time. Yellow is ‘in’ this summer. It will therefore look dated next summer because it is literally last year’s colour. Phases can last longer than fads, but they are by definition time limited.


This is a public mission (like New Britain) or countdown (Y2K bug). Cults are often founded on projects. These can attract and retain converts for as long as the mission is either viable or not yet achieved. But they require a state of special effort and ultimately they never last; either they fizzle out as failures or indeed (as with CFC bans) they actually succeed.


Each new generation looks for things, which define them. And by definition the next generation looks for something new. Of course things can come around again, but in the medium term generations for instance in youth culture, fashion and music are superceded.


An example the emancipation of women.
In the 1920s this was a fringe movement (the suffragettes) and a fashion (women like Chanel dressing like men). But in the longer term it’s a new fact of life.


Some new technologies create permanent change of an emergent sort. The internet, the steam engine, the printing press, the Roman road… They are Pandora’s boxes, there is no turning back. Again at the outset they appear to be fashions; the internet was (and it was ushered in by Al Gore too). In ancient Greek times, logical syllogisms were originally a craze too.


Every now and then a new type of culture, religion, society emerges. It’s a paradigm shift, a complete break with what went before. It can be stimulated by a crisis in the old system brought about by some of these other changes. But it’s more holistic than that; a revitalization of our total ways of life. Some think that sustainability is an idea like this.


We are painfully aware today that culture is a function of environment. That there are natural limits and forces well out of our control. The 5 degree increase in temperature forecast would move us into a climate last seen in the Eocene period, when there were tropical rainforests at the poles. There could also be a 20m rise in sea levels, super hurricanes, drought, famine and a widespread social and economic collapse.

When you read the mounting scientific evidence about climate change (and the only disagreement is how long it may take) you realize that the current fashionability of green issues is only a very initial phase anyway. But it is important, because the cost of tackling this issue vigorously now is has been estimated as only 1% of GDP (by the Stern report), whereas (on current trends) in natural disaster insurance claims alone, climate change would bankrupt the entire global economy by 2060. Sobering stuff.

Yes the last green bandwagon of 1989 did crash. But in 1989 this was a political cause, filling the vacuum of the peace movements after the cold war, driven by (very real) concerns about social justice, toxic waste, labour rights, deforestation, the effects of globalisation and so on. In human terms, the last green bandwagon was a mid life crisis – a soul searching over whether we had the right sort of society and economy. Whereas this green bandwagon is more like a medical diagnosis of a potentially fatal illness. Of course many given such a diagnosis go into denial. There is still no certainty that sustainability will prove sustainable. But it is different.

My guess is that the current situation is that some people have ‘got’ the emergency we face and what needs to change (everything, beyond recognition, very fast). And that many are still at the early stages of getting caught up in a movement but not a profound realization. So that the population distribution would look like another triangle, inverted:

That might still be okay. The Russian revolution was achieved by a few loyal Bolsheviks and a lot of peasants who signed up for ‘Land, Peace and Bread’. The big stories of today, for instance the big corporate conversions, are often the work of surprisingly few converts in key positions. And a few activists can mount an effective challenge, even in less liberal cultures. We don’t necessarily need the whole world to sign up to little changes that add up, we could just shut the airports, outlaw waste and inefficiency, and ration the carbon. And when catastrophes strike that will happen. But it might be a much happier world, and we might just avoid or at least moderate those disasters, if it does become an enduring popular cause?

1 comment:

Nick Burcher said...

I think comparing the current Green movement with the Green movement of the late 1980's is interesting. There are some interesting parallels but also some significant differences.

In 1989, against the backdrop of discovery of the ozone hole, green issues came crashing onto the political scene and resulted in some visible successes (notably preventing further use of CFC's). The Green party then went on to achieve massive success (2 million votes, 15% of the vote) in the UK in the European Parliamentary elections. However, against rising interest rates and the housing crash, green issues fell off the agenda almost as quickly as they had arrived.

So will the same thing happen now? Interest rates are going up and people are predicting another property crash. Won't the green agenda be just another passing cause? (like Making Poverty History in 2005)

My view is that this time it will be different.

The share of vote achieved by the Green party in 1989 is one of the largest / most successful protest votes ever. At the time though this was the only way that the public could voice their opinion. Everything else was one way traffic, government, media and business telling the public what to think - this was the only way that the public could show that they did care about the issues.

Today Web 2.0 offers the public the chance to voice their opinion in many different ways. Blogs, green movements on Facebook, Downing Street e-petitions, David de Rothschild flooding Second Life etc. This has helped 'being green' move from just being a political label to something that has penetrated a much wider range of everyday activities and applies to everyone. Brands and businesses are now responding to this public opinion and 'turning to 30', 'organic' products, 'hybrid synergy' cars etc are all helping to create a positive brand image for the companies that embrace the green agenda. Equally the propagation of green marketing is helping to entrench the message and the cause.

So my view is that this time it is here to stay. There is still a danger that it could disappear again, but I feel that there is a consensus amongst the scientists, the public are more educated about the issues, and governments and business are more willing to embrace the necessary changes.

I think (and hope) that this time the green agenda will be a long term manifesto rather than a passing fad!