Advanced industrial countries like the US and UK are moving toward a post-consumer era – less materialist and more spiritual, reports Alex Benady.
The idea that people will stop buying stuff was once the preserve of gloomy anti-globalists. Now a top advertising boss is saying it, you can be sure the party’s over.
In a series of extraordinary and unreported speeches at seminars this year, Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and CEO of WPP, the world’ No 2 advertising group after Omnicom, representing trillions of dollars of consumer spending worldwide, has been announcing what sounds suspiciously like the imminent death of the consumer society in its current form. And other ad execs are joining the chorus.
“All our instincts as clients, agencies and media owners are to encourage people to consume more – super consumption,” he told one conference. People have become used to: “the aspiration that you should consume more; the aspiration that you should have a bigger car; the aspiration that you should have a number of holidays, bigger houses and multiple houses. “
Then in a ‘Turkey voting for Christmas’ moment he concludes: “Our view, which is counter to what you expect our industry to argue, is that conspicuous consumption is not productive, and should be discouraged.”
He accuses companies like Apple of being the cause of this ‘super consumption’. “The continual manufacture and disposal of electronic items like the iPod, sometimes used for little more than a year, is placing a burden on the environment that it is not able to bear. It is fostering a mindset of super-consumption, where expensive items made at vast cost to the earth’s resources quickly become unfashionable and are not expected to last. This is no doubt profitable in the short term, but it is not sustainable and it is not responsible.”
Sorrell also accuses companies of fraudulently reporting their environmental efforts. “It is increasingly common for companies to have targets to reduce their carbon footprint – but look closely, almost all of these are ex-growth,” he told a room full of Harvard Business School alumni.
“In other words they will reduce their impact per unit sales, or on the basis of like for like operations. Businesses that feel they know how to de-couple growth from increased climate impact are few indeed. Absolute targets are rare.”
So Sorrell has not only called into question the idea of unrestrained consumption, he has also questioned another fundamental tenet of our society –unconstrained growth.
This is a seismic shift for the advertising industry which has always argued that advertising doesn’t create demand it is merely a messenger. “There’s little if any evidence that advertising increases category size. It doesn’t create demand, it channels demand from one brand to another. If that’s right, advertising has no influence on total consumption,” says one senior ad agency executive.
Other ad execs join in
But Sorrell’s is not alone in the advertising industry. His argument is supported by a stellar -star cast of planners, predictors, and forecasters–and even the UK Conservative party. For a variety of reasons, not simply the environment, they say we are entering a period of such profound change that to all intents and purposes yes, old-style consumerism is dead -or at least dying.
Futurologist Faith Popcorn for instance talks of a significant consumer trend she calls ‘Lagom’ which apparently means ‘just enough’ in Swedish. “It’s an approach to both design and consumption that explains the essence of brands like Ikea and Volvo. We see notions of “minimalism” and “sustainability” taking on significant currency, as even Americans reject hyper-consumption as not just excessive, but actually damaging to themselves, others and to the planet.”
Over at (WPP owned) marketing consultancy Added Value, talk is of a “consumer tipping point” that will profoundly alter our attitudes to consumption. “It’s already happening on the fringes and in niches. People are sated with consumption,” says cultural insight director Cate Hunt.
She points to phenomena as diverse as the way organic produce has gone mainstream, the rise of vintage and recycled clothing, the growth of urban vegetable growing and the demonisation of 4X4 cars as early evidence of a trend that is still largely restricted to the western middle classes, but will become far more widespread. “People are embracing this change,” she says.
At Henley Headlightvision, another WPP consultancy, director Michelle Harrison agrees that “people are aspiring to a post material society.”
Meanwhile trend spotter Marian Salzman, marketing director of US PR agency Porter Novelli has also noticed a less materialistic bent in society. “The push away from mega consumption is the mega trend of the moment. There are no bragging rights in acquisition anymore. There’s a horrible glut of things and we are moving towards a zero acquisition society.”
All these strands are pulled together in an open source ‘wiki’, ‘Citizen Renaissance,’ published online this month by Jules Peck director of the UK Conservative Party Quality Of life Policy Group and Robert Phillips, CEO of the London office of PR agency Edelman UK.
It deals with precisely these issues of social change, attitudes to consumerism and the role of business, especially the marketing services industry, in what they say must be a new world order.
If it were only an altruistic concern for the environment at work, the move away from what they call “relative consumerism” or “keeping up with the Joneses” might not be quite so profound they argue. But it is the result of what Peck and Phillips call “a perfect storm” that makes a period of rapid and radical social change inevitable.
Three seismic shocks are combining to completely reshape our world, they say. “ Firstly, climate change has profoundly affected all our lives. We have awoken to the fact that we are over-consuming the resources of our planet and threatening ourselves in the process.” Problems like ‘peak oil’ -the expiry of global oil reserves, plug into this.
Age of Wellbeing
“Secondly we are entering a Wellbeing Age, matched by a more selfless and non relative-materialist and non growth-obsessed ecological economics. Individualism is out, individuation and community is in. Finally, the digital revolution means we are undergoing a metamorphosis towards a new age of Democracy and resurgent citizenship which could threaten the nature of corporate consumer-capitalism itself.”
All this needs to be distinguished from the current cyclical problems of the world economy, they argue. Says Peck “The financial crisis and commodity price inflation are sharpening the current feeling that doomsday is imminent although they are not in themselves the cause of change.”
But combine all these factors and they say: “a reordering of the current model of mass marketing and consumption is inevitable”. Tune-in to this or risk all they warn.
Marketing consultant John Grant, former planning director of UK advertising collective St Lukes and author of ‘The Green Marketing Manifesto’ suggests that two more forces will come into play making consumer change a certainty: Government and price. “In the near future there will be all sorts of legislation that will directly affect consumption. For instance a rule that all cars have to meet very stringent fuel efficiency standards will mean that sports cars disappear, almost over night. Similarly, if the price of raw materials such as cotton reflects their environmental impact, the idea that you can wear a shirt once and throw it away becomes untenable.”
Consumption vs energy consumption
The real issue however is not consumption, but energy consumption he says.
Although counter-intuitive, it may just be that brands, being purely intellectual constructs with low carbon footprints, fit in perfectly with this ethos of energy austerity. The ability to conjure value out of nothing at all could be ideal for this green new world.
Perhaps. But not only will consumers shift their spending to more low–energy goods, (local foods, training, education and courses are just some examples), new forms of consumption will probably arise. “We are looking at a complete redesign of modern life,” says Grant. So the trend to ‘fractional ownership, where products are pooled and shared will explode. Another consumer strategy will ‘treasuring’ where people buy high quality artefacts and look after them and repair them when they wear out rather than throwing them away.”
His best guess is that some time in the next five to ten years we will move into a long period of austerity in which the factors already mentioned conspire to make conspicuous consumption not only unfashionable but almost impossible. “Culture is moving into a time of restraint and simplicity. It will mean the advertising industry –(including media and marketing) just cannot exist in its current form.”
The end of desire
These trends won’t affect all advertising –“After all the average message is ‘Bread 75p’, that wont be hit so hard. It’s the high energy products, fashion products, disposable products and products with momentary life cycles and in-built obsolescence that will be affected.”
Marian Salzman has a similar take. “Advertising will not be able to continue as an industry dedicated to inventing desire,” she says. In the new era of almost puritanical austerity ”people will redefine their relationship with brands. They will want to hear about genuine innovation not froth. Advertising will be much more about product,” she predicts.
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