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Posts Tagged ‘john naish’

capitalismproblem

If charity shops (or thrift stores, as they are known over here) were to stock words as well as clothes, you might expect to find ‘sustainable development’ slumped alongside all the plaid shirts and Levi’s jeans. After all, words are like clothes: they can become tired and lose shape with over-use.

Indeed, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir Geoffrey Palmer has pointed out the economic oxymoron contained within ‘sustainable development’, one that we do not usually address in everyday use. In the recent Economist debate ‘This house believes sustainable development is unsustainable’, the fact that the phrase itself has lost its precision was central to the argument of David Victor, the proposer: ‘Sustainable development is a beautiful-sounding idea that has become intellectually bankrupt and should be abandoned’. In any event, while the debate itself was lively and the points were well made, you never got the impression the two sides were talking about the same thing.

It strikes me that, while ‘sustainable development’ is a concept we are becoming increasingly used to hearing, it is one that can be difficult to communicate effectively. Fortunately, the moderator of the debate, Geoff Carr, managed to look beyond this vagary in his closing remarks, getting to what he thought was the heart of the matter: ‘This argument is the one between those who think that development is an indefinite process in which people are constantly striving to get ahead, but which can, indeed, be sustained indefinitely, and those who see an end to it all, a nirvana of happiness in which people will perceive that they have enough, have had enough of striving and will be content with their lots. We shall see.’

Yet to my mind this raises another problem with ‘sustainable development’ as a masthead: it is too easily dismissed as the mantra of the dippy and the idealistic. Even Carr can’t resist a dig when he talks of ‘a nirvana of happiness’.

I think though, that in his book Enough, John Naish hits upon a more powerful and potentially unifying frame for the whole thing. His central argument is that our modern lives are being stretched in too many directions, that we would all do well to break free, to shout ‘Enough!’, ‘Basta!’, ‘Ca Suffit!’

Of course there is nothing new about any of this. Way back in 1848, J.S.Mill wroteI confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.’ And John Maynard Keynes, the economist du jour, predicted that such an escape was possible within three generations in his 1932 essay ‘On the economic possibilities for our grandchildren’: ‘We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who teach us to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well.’

I think it is fair to say that on this occasion, optimism got the better of Keynes. Intuition tells us that Naish is right: our predicament has only got worse. In fact, I suspect that most people today would subscribe to the general sentiment of his book, if not all the detail. Perhaps ‘breaking out’ is a more engaging way to talk about the pursuit of sustainability?

It certainly seems to be an idea that is generating its own momentum. For example, the economist Umair Haque believes there is a generational aspect to it all – that the maturing ‘generation M’ are set to reject many existing aspirations. He recently addressed ‘The Old People Who Run the World’ with a manifesto: ‘You wanted growth — faster. We want to slow down — so we can become better…  … You wanted to biggie size life: McMansions, Hummers, and McFood. We want to humanize life.’ Now this is all hyperbolic (and very, well, American), but it is a sign that such ‘enoughist’ ideas may be infiltrating new areas of society and popping up in unexpected places. Like cereals.

If one goal of sustainable development is to encourage people to ‘live within their means’, then I think the message might benefit from a shift in emphasis. Despite the fact that the house voted that ‘sustainable development’ was not unsustainable, I suspect most people would struggle to relate the term to their daily lives. ‘Enough’ on the other hand, well, that feels richer to me.

After all, when I pop into the neighbourhood thrift store, I think it is less about embracing sustainability and more about being intimidated and bored by the ‘traditional’ high street. It is more about opting-out than opting-in.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from Princess Valium on Flickr. These posters hung on most street corners when I arrived in New York two weeks ago.

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magpie

In his book Enough, John Naish begins the chapter on ‘stuff’ by quoting Oscar Wilde: ‘There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.’

The passage refers to hedonic adaptation: the process by which we constantly strive for the next shiny object, only to be immediately disappointed when we acquire it. Naish attempts to trace this reflex back, past Josiah Wedgwood and the advent of ‘instant obsolescence’, to Neolithic hand-axes. We have long been a ‘species that is uniquely wired, compelled, hormonally drugged and scared into wanting things’, he tells us, but in recent times our society has become much better at giving us what we want.

On this subject, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provides the meatiest snippets: ‘Our ancestors lived with far greater external constraints and had far fewer opportunities. The paramount importance of self-restraint has only now arisen in its pressing entirety before mankind.’ And so on the cover of Enough, Naish goes on to cry, somewhat less eloquently, ‘It’s time to evolve again: for our sake and the Earth’s.’ To his credit though, Naish does not put all his eggs in the evolution of a greater, nu-puritan consciousness (it is a slow process, I heard), but acknowledges that there are other levers to pull. I will focus on two which are relevant to marketing.

Things that last

In the self-help, five-step-style section of his book, Naish urges us ‘to be more materialistic’, to ‘care for our material things, rather than just using and discarding them,’ to appreciate their value. In fact, it is quite common advice these days: ‘if you must buy something, buy something slightly more expensive than you are comfortable with, and cherish it for longer’, we are told.

In marketing terms, while this message used to always come with a dollop of smug exclusivity (‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.’), it is now the domain of humble, almost-highstreet Howies.  If such promises are ever going to win over the Primani army though, it is important that they are able to continue to provide and justify their worth. Perhaps this is what Rory Sutherland meant when he said ‘intangible value is probably the most sustainable form you can create’.

Things we use, but don’t own

When you stretch this concept further though, it is clear that you need a completely different form of transaction in order to break the old hedonic cycle of ‘want, buy, be disappointed’. One possible solution is a shift towards a rental, or membership based model. Think Lovefilm rather than Zavvi, and Zipcar rather than a dealership. Generally speaking, the advantage of these models is twofold: firstly, goods can be shared, so fewer have to be made in the first place (each Zipcar takes 15-20 household cars off the road); and secondly,  it becomes in the interest of the manufacturer to make stuff that doesn’t need to be replaced (no more ‘built-in obsolescence’, Arthur).

These ideas are very much in vogue, but they are not new: in 1999 Electolux piloted a pay-per-use rental scheme for washing machines in Sweden, but it failed due to lack of interest. According to Worldchanging ‘The program was met with a decisive yawn by consumers, who apparently didn’t want to change the way they paid for doing the laundry. The company… hopes to reintroduce it someday with better success.’ It seems that there is a need to familiarise people with these ideas and to stimulate demand, to beat a path to their door.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from *_*_*_*_*_* on flickr.

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