The thoughts below are part 3 of a very interesting exchange between myself and Laurence Green, one of the founders of both Fallon (the agency I used to work for) and 101 London, who recently launched the new Innocent drinks ‘Chain of Good’ advertising campaign.  You can find my initial piece here and Laurence’s response here.  Thoughts and continuations of the debate welcome as ever!

I want to start this post by stating one thing very clearly. We all consume, and we always will. That is not for question. I breathe, I eat, I drink, I go shopping like anyone else. To such an extent, I am a consumer, you are a consumer, we are all consumers.

But with the work of Daniel Kahnemann and others in recent years, we must recognise that the language we use is not merely an innocent bystander in the way we exist in the world. The words we use do not just describe our actions; they also shape them. They are the metaphors by which we understand our world, and they frame and describe what is possible, deciding – like the chair of a meeting – what is even available for discussion.

In this context, I believe the current debate around sustainability marketing lacks a subtle but vital distinction, and that lack leads to some seriously undesirable consequences. This is the distinction between consumption as an act that we all perform, and Consumerism as the social system that emerges when that act becomes the primary means of participation in the system. At an individual level, this is the difference between consuming as an act, and being a Consumer.

I am moved to draw this distinction by the debate in which Laurence Green and I are currently engaged on these pages. Laurence makes important points. I respect that advertisers cannot in the current mood of society appeal explicitly to moral motivation without falling to the hairshirt; and I actually agree wholeheartedly that brands should be congratulated for stepping into this space. With my tone in my previous piece, I perhaps got a little ahead of myself. For this I sincerely apologise, and thank him for calling me out.

On two points, though, I must offer some qualification.

Firstly, I think his notion of the “citizen consumer” as the proposed endpoint of our journey must be carefully qualified by reference to the above distinction. If by this we mean “Citizens who consume as one act of participation among many, and bring their civic values to bear on this act as well as those others”, he may be right. But this is a long way from “Consumers who satisfy their civic nature by supporting good brands”. In the former, consumption is one act of participation and identity creation in a society; in the latter it is the primary means.

There are two problems with the latter world, which seems to the best that we have on the table at the moment. First, it will arguably not be enough to deal with the problems we face. This is a debate in itself, but I would take the view that we need to play a more active role in our society than simply shopping every day and voting every five years (itself increasingly a Consumer act), then leaving government and business to do the rest for us.

The second, more definitive problem is that the idea of “Consumers who satisfy their civic nature by supporting good brands” is a paradox. This is what we see from the social psychology experiments that show people prompted as Consumers are more self-interested and less motivated by environmental or social concerns. It is also what we see from both experience and common sense: it makes intuitive sense that when told I am a Consumer I see my primary responsibility as being to myself; and indeed this is what we see born out not just by the extremes of the experience of Holly Austin Smith and the London Riots, by our mass disengagement from politics, or by the rise of childhood materialism, but also by surveys that seem to show people willing to spend more on products that do good, but failing to fulfil that willing in practice. The priming as Consumers to which we are so often subject in our daily lives heads off our better nature at the pass.

This is where my second significant disagreement with Laurence comes in. While I do agree that brands who step into this space ought to be congratulated, I do not also agree that they should not be criticised. The two actions are not opposites. We can coherently congratulate organisations like Innocent, Unilever, and Tesco without doing so unreservedly and seeking also that they do more. Indeed, I believe this is the only responsible stance for us to take.

I offer my sincere congratulations to those companies who validate consumption choices based on more than self-interest. But I also ask them to do more, and offer them a way to do so. By offering us opportunities to participate and interact with them in ways that go beyond merely consuming their products, these brands and their agencies can provide the oxygen for us to breathe in society as something more than Consumers.

This approach represents an enormous creative opportunity for brands like Innocent, and for leaders of our creative industries like Laurence Green. I hope they take it, and will cheer them on loudly if they do.

8 thoughts on “The problem is not consumption, it’s Consumerism

  1. Dear Jon,

    Thank you to both you and Lawrence for conducting this discussion. As one of the people behind commissioning the Follow the Frog video you mentioned in your Guardian piece I have been watching this discussion closely. Indeed it is something I am interested in more broadly. Many NGOs and brands talk of the need to encourage sustainable consumption. But I am not sure what it is we mean by that. It cannot and is not as simple as switching from one brand or product to one that is, or appears to be doing that little bit more. For businesses and brands it isn’t simply about a supply chain intervention here or a risk mitigation strategy there. It has to be more.

    I too think we are heading into dangerous waters if we begin to see consumption as more than one expression of our values, and begin to see it as THE expression of our values. As you have argued, this begins to belittle us as citizens, and that coupled with the growing power of brands and corporates, set against many governments withdrawing responsibility for the functioning of large areas or society, is beginning to give rise to something that is fundamentally undemocratic and worrisome.

    This brings to me one point in your post that I feel needs to be discussed further. You commented, “I respect that advertisers cannot in the current mood of society appeal explicitly to moral motivation without falling to the hairshirt”. I often find this kind of sentiment to be hugely frustrating. It seems to me to expose an underlying cop out by advertisers and the marketing industry. Too often I am told that consumers are a problem and that they need to change their behaviour and the way they consumer. But when asked what leadership the brand is going to offer to do this, marketing folks are then quick to respond that they are powerless in the face of consumer choice who in turn don’t like such information and messages. A profession that is built on influencing choice, style, taste, the mood of society and yes values suddenly appears unable to do so. Or is that unwilling to do so? Perhaps because in doing so they know the fundamental proposition of; more, more, more suddenly looks wrong and even irresponsible.

  2. Thanks very much for this Stuart. I totally agree with you from top to bottom. You call out a very important point – someone is going to have to lead this. I suppose what I was trying to suggest was that there might be a more interesting approach that brands like innocent could explore by seeking means to involve their customers rather than simply selling to them – which might allow them to normalise and validate caring without necessarily tackling the current mode head on. But you have a point – we wouldn’t have the problem at all if we didn’t keep validating selfishness.

  3. I think the underlying issue is that the average person does not care as much you do about worthy causes, such as helping the third world, protecting the environment, reducing carbon emissions, supporting the arts. You look for complex causes and solutions rather than accepting that, given their freedom, people will often make choices you do not agree with. In my experience, most people are very generous and altruistic, but they may not display in it supporting the Mrs Jellyby-ish politically correct causes considered de rigeur in educated circles.

  4. This is what came to my mind (from Wiki) …’Tuberculosis… in the past also called… consumption, is a widespread, and in many cases fatal, infectious disease ‘

    • I think you’re missing the point a little. People say this in research surveys, but in practice the framing of the Consumer overrides this positive intention. The bigger question is, what are we doing to ourselves when we tell ourselves we’re Consumers 3000-odd times a day?

  5. Pingback: If no one votes, is democracy dead? | The New Citizenship Project Blog

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