The language of sustainability represents the biggest barrier to mainstream consumer behaviour change and a more inspirational, consumer-friendly lexicon is essential if we are going to turn the tide.
In a nutshell, this was the premise behind the launch of the UK Dream at the Science Museum, London last week [7th March]. The event brought together a group of sustainability thinkers and do-ers to kickstart the mammoth task set by the initiative: to reframe the sustainability discourse and embed it into the fabric of our system: politics, media, brand, consumers.The UK Dream is being led by Best Foot Forward consultant, Vicky Grinnell-Wright and, in its own words, “is working to create a populist agenda for a more sustainable way of living, at transformative scale… [To] find an energetic way beyond the current rhetoric and impenetrable language of sustainability in order to build a Dream that is highly actionable, by brands, business and policy makers.”
The project is based on its Chinese counterpart (the China Dream), launched by the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) to correct the trajectory of the emerging Chinese consumer culture. Specifically, to reorient it away from the unsustainable, conspicuous traits that the ‘American Dream’ has come to represent (hence the name) towards a more indigenous version, reflective of Chinese culture and heritage.
The extent to which the model can be imported remains to be seen. If China’s consumer culture is relatively young and malleable, the UK’s is mature and set in its ways. Furthermore, given the cultural distance between China and the US, the American Dream provides a clear disincentive to unsustainable growth—a perverse target to avoid, a backdrop to contrast alternatives against. In the UK, on the other hand, consumer culture is inextricably linked to its US counterpart.
Facilitated by Julian Borra of Saatchi & Saatchi S, the event involved attendees in a series of tasks to unpack the concepts that our current sustainability lexicon is built on and consider how we can elevate them to a more inspirational, humanistic paradigm.
Julian’s failed attempts to explain ‘collaborative consumption’ to his Gran inspired his ‘Grannipedia’ concept—an alternative lens through which to view the sustainability problem that encourages us to delve into the past for inspiration. Similar to Sainsbury’s ‘New Fashioned Values’ concept, the language of previous eras of resource scarcity—make do and mend, waste not want not, etc.—might be the key to putting a more human face on the sustainability debate.
This sense that we could do worse than look back to the future for our sustainability solutions emerged as one of the defining themes of the day. Not a nostalgic harking-back to the ‘gold old days’, but a pragmatic attempt to reframe and revive previous language and concepts for a new type of consumer and a modern context.
The role of emotion in human motivation emerged as a second major strand. The limitation of rational appeals in advertising, branding and behaviour change generally is becoming mainstream knowledge, thanks to the popularisation of behavioural science principles—behavioural economics, cognitive neuroscience, network theory, etc.
When it comes to sustainability, this new thinking has specific resonance, given the technical, data-based, ultra-rational messaging that has driven most of the language thus far. If we are to close the intention-action gap in any meaningful way, carbon emissions and energy outputs need to be replaced by happiness, wellbeing and an intuitive sense of ‘fit’ between consumer behaviour, society and nature.
Some of the imagery and concepts evoked through the exercises did border on ‘ageing-hippy’ (the word ‘groovy’ appeared a number of times), but there was definitely a shared sense of the need to re-emphasise the spiritual dimension of the human condition as a driver for more sustainable behaviours. There is already some indication of the success of this approach with the rise of the modern Mindfulness movement, although the danger will always be the flower-power connotations that are difficult to cleanse from the vernacular.
The ambitions for the UK Dream are huge and admirable, but two things need to happen if it is going to stand a chance of success. Firstly, we need to de-couple it from its parent model. As mentioned above, the China context is so radically different from the British that a wholesale import would certainly fail. How do we achieve the same size, reach and penetration as the China Dream when our consumer culture is so relatively long in the tooth?
Secondly, if the UK Dream is to be a success, it must be co-created with society-at-large—real people, families and communities living real lives ‘out there’—not a coterie of advertising and sustainability professionals. I’m sure this is firmly on the agenda for the UK Dream, but if we can quickly orient our gaze away from the naval and begin to understand how the concepts of sustainability feed in and out of the values and lives of real people, the dream just might become the reality.
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