We all know on some level that in order for there to be any true, definitive shift in how humans live more sustainably, we must address consumer decision. Purchase decisions target the issue of desire and production: what people seem to want and the processes used to provide those wants. But focusing on green consumption is appealing for another reason: it is well within our comfort zone. Making and selling products is what we are good at in the developed world; it’s part of the ethos and ideology that makes our market-based society motor along.
Recently, however, we are starting to see a movement – slow, quiet, but there nonetheless – that is arguing for a different, deeper approach than green consumption. This approach, most recently articulated in the WWF-UK report, Weathercocks & Signposts, suggests that instead of focusing on what individuals can do, or more specifically, what products they can buy, that we need to target the underlying values and beliefs that drive our lifestyles. When considered in full, this is a powerful critique against remaining in our comfort zone of the market, and instead asking people to radically rethink who and what we are, or more simply, what makes us happy and satisfied.
This is not a new concept, nor is it naïve. In the first book on green marketing in 1998, Toby M. Smith wrote in The Myth of Green Marketing, “In buying the environmentally safer product one is making sense of the world, because the act domesticates that which is threatening and unfamiliar by attaching it to what is comprehensible” (23). In other words, buying green makes environmentalism a lot more palatable. For Smith, consumer choice is not necessarily conscious, but rather driven by discourses “that structure identity and understanding of our relationship to the world” which are almost always latent (23). In focusing on green consumerism, we are basically smoothing over any potential rupture or radical critique of what we are doing in the first place. That is, what does it mean to be human, and to live on a finite and precious planet?
Identities, values, and beliefs – as with attitudes – are not nearly as fixed or static as we assume. Rather they are fluid, shifting according to contexts and influences. Call it consciousness, call it subjectivity, call it values-based approach. This emphasis is the direction the WWF-UK report is (courageously) moving us toward. In suggesting to the environmental movement at large – and most saliently, environmental communicators – that we shift our focus from attitudes and behaviour to values, beliefs, identities, what is being presented is nothing less than a radical re-conceptualization of how we approach environmental marketing and advocacy. This means working in an interdisciplinary way, alongside psychologists, cultural anthropologists, cultural and social theorists: anyone who may shed some desperately needed insight into what it takes to shape and inform a revolution of values. Thankfully they are not alone: a team at Yale just published a new report to signal this shift. To learn more about WWF-UK’s work and be part of the debate, visit http://www.valuingnature.org.
Posted by Renee Lertzman