Friday, March 7, 2008

Conspicuous Sustainability

...or how I learned to stop worrying and love the hype.

Note: I've redone this article for a school publication. The new article utilizes the correct definition of "greenwashing". I will post the new article at a later time.

I had this topic in mind ever since Boxing Day. I was shopping with my girlfriend in Off the Wall at Metrotown when I noticed a bag hanging off a wall rack. It was one of those grocery shopping/library bags, you know the kind that is ugly-durable and can be reused until the end of time. My mom and grandma had a bunch of them way back when, as a demonstration of their uncoolness, before the bags were popularized for their reusable/sustainable ways.

Anyways, what made this bag stand out to me (aside from its gaudier than gaudy quality that considerably made it worse than any of the other gaudy things in the store) was the line that was printed (in a gaudy fashion, no less) on the face of the bag. It read "This bag is made with 100% recycled cotton"

It came across to me that it was not enough to simply popularize the bag as reusable and better than plastic. Instead, all the exemplary qualities of the bag must be thrust into the face of all passing by. It was, in fact, an exceptional example of what I call conspicuous sustainability.

Conspicuous sustainability is related to greenwashing, but is also category unto itself. Greenwashing refers to how companies and corporations try to cover every facet of their business with sustainable practices and then market the hell out of it. Well, without my negative connotation. The fact that the practices are sustainable are usually a side benefit for these businesses. More often than not, these practices are adopted because they are cost effective. That is, it's cheaper to produce more waste or to use less energy. That way you don't have to pay for trash removal or shipping energy from elsewhere. However, since it is sustainable, businesses also like to advertise the fact in order to gain even more benefit from their new policy and actions, drawing in more conscious minded customers.

Greenwashing is a play on the word whitewashing, but instead of covering things or cleaning up things so that they're white and spotless, greenwashing ensures that a company is entirely green and environmentally friendly. Conspicuous sustainability, on the other hand, refers to the term conspicuous consumption, which was first coined by Veblen in 1899. Veblen, in regarding to the leisure class, noted how people tended to purchase things for the sole purpose of showing it off. Often, these products or services would help to denote their social class and worth. In the modern day, almost everything can be considered conspicuous as the postmodern person often purchase products and services for the hedonic, or pleasurable, experience. What this means is that the function and practicality of the product is often put off to the sideline or ignored completely.

However, conspicuous consumption is not entirely a bad thing. While appealing to a more sinister side of human behaviour, that is pride and egotism, conspicuous consumption has allowed for tremendous boosts in the economy. If it weren't for the upper classes spending their cash on frivolous things, there would be little cash flow in the economy. That is, if all people did was save save save, then a lot of people would be out of a job.

These people tended to be the early adopters of new technology and tastes/styles and were not afraid to spend the money to get it. You may have heard of the 20/80 rule, where 20 percent of one's customers provide 80 percent of one's revenue. Since these early adopters demanded innovation and were providing the bulk of profit, businesses were motivated to provide newer and better things, resulting in the lifestyle and consumer/producer model we enjoy today.

Similarly, I believe greenwashing and conspicuous sustainability to have long lasting positive outcome, wherein people are more aware and more proactive in preserving the environment. This is regardless of their intention. They could be doing it because it is trendy (or it may become a faux pas to not be green, similar to how fur coats are now looked down upon) or they could be doing it because they genuinely care. In either case, there will be a general motion towards green activity and this will become mainstay and the norm, which is a great thing. So, though other may be cynical of greenwashing and sneer at those practicing conspicuous sustainability (such as celebrities or Off the Wall customers), in the end it all goes towards something positive and that outcome will be reached, with or without intent.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Murray!
    Thanks! I really apprciated this article. As a matter of fact, I am currently involved in u of T's environment week planning - and this makes me very enthused about the weeks of fun that hints towards environmental consciousness! So thanks!