We may like to gloat about once-in-a-lifetime experiences, the long vacations to exotic locales and unrepeatable dinners at the restaurant that closed long ago, but more often than not, we discuss the things that we share in common.
Television shows. Products that can obtained anywhere, always taste the same, and are sold for the same price (or less, if it's on sale) no matter where you find them. Starbucks, Target, and Jamba Juice, repeated endlessly on an ever-repeating suburban filmstrip.
At least we have something in common, right? Something to chat about on the long ride home, on Twitter, at the cocktail party where you don't know anyone around you and don't know where to begin.
Well, let's begin at the beginning: People share relatable experiences. That's been going on since we invented language. Then advertising came along, and talked about all these products and services that sewed us even closer together in a cultural microcosm, shaped by shared products that reflected our lifestyles. At least, that was the intent.
Advertising is most effectively applied in differentiating parity products, and the very idea of nurturing a parity product runs completely counter to sustainable business practices.
The idea that a mass produced product, which supports a shared experience, ties us together as brethren in an otherwise undifferentiated American horde. It's pointing to a fundamental hypocrisy about mass-produced products and the efficiencies that corporations engineer to keep their prices low.
If you're running a sustainable business, your only competition should be yourself. The energy and ethos behind your products or services should be as crystal clear as a plate glass window.
This is why corporations are scared witless about the complete reinvention that's necessary to be a responsible corporate citizen. It's infinitely easier for a corporation to react to its corporate peers. It's nigh difficult to turn yourself inside out, change everything from how you product your products to whether you should even be selling those products anymore. Organic Rice Krispies, anyone?
No wonder so many companies are pouring salt on the wound: marketing cars like the Chevy Volt in the hopes that some green will rub off on their other products; starting up crafty arguments about why we can't give up on oil just yet; calling foods natural in the grocery store when they aren't organic, sustainably grown, or local. Let's focus on the battle and lose the long-term war, one hypocrisy at a time. You're still selling me cars, gasoline, and produce shipped overnight from Chile. (More on the latter later.)
Change doesn't happen overnight, but without real incentive to change, then nothing will happen. Fast. Watch the land rush towards and away from biodiesel. Sustainability is the antithesis of the next big thing. It's a bunch of small, unique things that come from around the corner.
We need to encourage people to make choices that use fewer resources, more equitably and intelligently, and in the process, provide a more unique result.
As designers, we need to shy away from the mass experience and think about how we foster small, local, exclusive experiences. Desirable experiences made from things that will peacefully fade away with little to no impact on the world.
Here's some ways we can help usher in this new kind of thinking about business.
Focus marketing on fostering unique individual experiences -- micro-products that extend off brands for a limited time. Encourage clients to build businesses out of them, clustering them together meaningfully.
Stop thinking about consistency. Focus on the evanescence of your product in the face of time, its exclusivity, and how that can be a powerful motivator if you have something truly unique.
This business model is familiar to vinters, brewers, and other fermented products, but has yet to heavily impact mass-produced goods at supermarkets, which are controlled by multinational corporations.
When touring the Scharffen-Berger chocolate factory in Berkeley, California, the guide told us about how they would purchase and blend cacao from multiple sources every few months to try and keep the flavor profile across the product consistent. This required great care and attention from their cacao buyers to get the highest-quality beans that had overlapping taste characteristics, often paying up to five times the market rate and often ensuring that their beans were organic in nature from cacao farms that were vetted for fair labor practices.
At the same time, their cacao buyer would ensure that if a great batch came through with a very strident and unique flavor, they would buy up all of those beans and make a unique line of single-origin chocolate bars that would vary season to season. These single-origin bars, to my palate, completely trump their main products in terms of quality and taste. And when those bars are sold out, they're gone for good. Can you imagine a straight-up single varietal Hershey's bar? That's not American. (Don't get me started about chocolate. I'm as passionate about chocolate as I am about design, and that's scary.)
Practically any mass-market product can be produced on a small scale, in a clustering model, in a truly sustainable way. It just requires playing by your own rules, going against the grain of large-scale business ventures.
One of my friends, Melissa, is the first florist in Seattle to exclusively offer local, organic, and sustainably grown flowers. She's creating this kind of dream, customer by customer, and even planning a co-op to wholesale those flowers to other florists, breaking a chain built up by the big dogs like Teleflora and 1-800-FLOWERS. She's one of my inspirations and role models for how it's possible to take a given about an industry controlled by corporate giants, completely reinvent the rules, and offer an experience supported by exclusively local, handmade, and mostly organic merchandise in her store as well. Her store sticks out because there are so few people in a socially conscious city that are actually walking the walk.
Every time I think a thought such as, "Hmm... I bet that plastic factory can't find a replacement for those plastic spoons," I see something like Taterware and am continually reminded that corporations rarely are motivated to change their behavior. Individuals are making the difference in the sustainability game.
Be aware of the nuance of your decisions. It's not always easy to know you're doing the right thing, and you'll need due diligence at every turn.
The Eat Local movement, among other current trends in sustainable agriculture, is promoting that we eat what's in season and available in our local region, ideally within 100 miles. The logic dictates that you'll reduce the use of fossil fuels in transporting, say, grapes from Chile to your supermarket.
There's been some recent, very fascinating talk in the New York Times Magazine that has dug into this premise very deeply, what I find most important from this dialogue is that whenever a critical mass of people gloms onto a purchasing trend, what usually happens is that people make the easiest choice to fulfill that new desire. In the example from the above article, the Catch-22 is buying locally-grown produce spawned in a greenhouse during the winter. It's local: check. Compare this to buying tomatoes grown in a warm climate by the sun (free energy), and then shipped to you. Less energy use... but in both cases, not sustainable.
Often, when making a case for sustainability, it's the lesser of two evils, unless you can control every single decision through the food chain, like my friend Melissa above. In the winter, she needs to ship in organic flowers, while in the summer, she can get them grown locally. It has to balance out in the end.
If you're passionate about being a thought partner with your client, you should engage them regarding sustainability in not only their marketing, but in anything that you consider an environmental factor.
I don't think it's unfair to bring up to a client that you see opportunities for them to improve their business practices, brush up their PR, and less their impact on the environment. And if you're being hired to obscure or gloss over the facts at hand, you should be prepared to mosey along.
The measure of success for a marketer is their ability to understand the essential truth about what their audience needs from them, not imposing what they believe the client wants at a merely abstract level. Bringing sustainability into play as a fundamental attribute of your business forces you to come to terms with not only what your audience desires from you, but also what the audience desires for the future of our society. This kind of scrutiny is massive for any slow-moving corporate beast, but I do hope that the wheel will continue to turn, ever slowly, to get this cruise ship into dock, where it can be recycled for scrap.