Green Conspicuous Consumption Gets Pinched

June 9, 2008 | By Rebecca Swift | Creative

Chris Stein/Getty Images

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Environmental issues have been dominating both the editorial and commercial space for the last 2 years. There are very few people who have access to the media who are not fully aware of the fact that the environment is suffering because of our activities. If it isn’t the news telling us the latest ominous statistic, it is a commercial brand telling us that if we buy any product other than theirs the planet is doomed.

As we found when we conducted our MAP research last year, the world of commercial imagery has been green washed. Trees abound while cute and cuddly polar bears and penguins remind us of their plight.

Emerging out of this and, no doubt as a result of consuming large amounts of the more intelligent media, we are seeing the middle classes adopting attitudes and behaviors previously attributed to hippies and activists. The greatest difference being that these people are not dropping out of society and abandoning consumerism, on the contrary they are using consumption as the very mechanism that defines their “greenness”.

Thorstein Veblen wrote about “The Theory of the Leisure Class” over 100 years ago. He identified the rise of the middle classes who had disposable income to spend and used it in a bid to promote themselves to the outside world. He was the one who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” as the pursuit of products that gave one status amongst one’s peers.

So to now, we see a green conspicuous consumption amongst those consumers that have disposable income and wish to maintain a certain status and they most likely come from the middle classes.

The great news for brands is that this social group is the one who is willing to spend that little extra for their products if they think they are for a worthwhile cause. Hence the explosion of “green” products ranging from toothpastes to corporate jets!

NOW…..and here is the twist in the tale. This has all been going swimmingly for green advertising in the last year or so, however, something has now come along (that some…like Nassem Nicholas Taleb predicted but were derided) that was not expected and will no doubt throw a spanner in the works of the green marketing machine – that is the “credit crunch”.

The credit crunch will affect the middle classes the most, they are the one who dabble in the buy-to-let schemes, use credit cards for nights out and weekend breaks, they are also the ones who fund “daily luxury” brands like Starbucks. So what is going to happen now these consumers have less money to play with each month? The daily lattes may go, as will the taxi rides but will there be an impact on the burgeoning “green” market? Organic food for instance is more expensive than regular fare so will it be dropped in favor of something more economical? Will we care less about environmental issues as we spend more time caring about our financial future?

As with all crises large or small, we always retract back to what is closest to us and what can be easily influenced by us. Worrying about the polar ice caps may seem low on the priority list when we are worrying about whether we will get a summer holiday this year. OR – will the uncertainty spur us to think more about what is important beyond our own selfish needs and to concentrate on issues that really matter? (The environment potentially being one of those issues.)

From a commercial imagery point of view, it has thrown another element in the mix. Only last month, I was talking at a conference declaring the fact that environment was going to impact visual communication for years to come; both in terms of subject matter and aesthetic. Last week, I was also talking and had to admit that the future is not so certain. It will be interesting to watch whether the credit crunch becomes an issue that impacts the way brands communicate, maybe the green message will have less impact as a visual sales tool. Maybe the idea of “efficiencies” will be more attractive? Look out for those 3 for 2 offers at a supermarket coming to you soon!

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