The past few weeks I have been wrapped up in some circle of life issues involving my aunt and mother, so writing has taken a back seat. During this time, I have been observing the dissolution and redistribution of my 91-year-old aunts’ household and supported the challenge of deciding which belongings should go temporarily with my 86-year-old mother to assisted living. My current role as a duly appointed member of the ”sandwich generation” is fulfilled too when my teenage daughter asks to go on yet another trip to the mall to view the latest fashions. All these events have brought to mind the material possessions that we accumulate over the course of our lives, the ingrained value we place on “things” and how they somehow give us more pleasure or worth.
Ironically, last week I also had the chance to participate in a number of one on one and group discussions revolving around the role(s) that we as consumers have in managing resources, waste generation and sustainable development. I weighed in on the responsibility that consumers have in the 21st century supply chain (related to conflict minerals), just as I had mentioned in a keynote speech to the European Petrochemical Association this March. Other participants reflected on how individuals bear a high degree of responsibility for the explosive growth in electronic and other consumer product waste.
What is abundantly clear is that we (as consumers) are all accountable for our own individuals actions in deciding what we buy, how much, how long we keep and maintain what we do have, and what we replace it with. From cell phones, to cars, to clothes and home products, Western society has lost the passion for “thrift”. I believe, like my parents generation did, that thrift is one of the key principles that built this great nation, but it has seemed to have gotten shoved aside in the name of consumerism and growth, which by the way is different than prosperity. Of course Keynesian economists will take me to the woodshed about the meaning of thrift in growing an economy. According to an article by the CATO Institute, ” The paradox of thrift refers to how–in the Keynesian model of the economy–an increase in saving reduces production and employment. This supposedly occurs because a decrease in spending leads to a decrease in employment, which leads to a further decrease in spending, which leads to a further decrease in employment, which leads to a yet further decrease in spending, and so on. Thus, if people try to increase their saving, there will supposedly be a decrease in spending, and a fall in employment and production.”
Prosperity versus Growth?
“Economic growth is supposed to deliver prosperity. Higher incomes should mean better choices, richer lives, an improved quality of life for us all. That at least is the conventional wisdom. But things haven’t always turned out that way.”
So states Professor Tim Jackson (Director of the Research group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment (RESOLVE) at the University of Surrey) in a very important and compelling work, Prosperity without Growth. The research was commissioned in 2009 by the U.K. Sustainable Development Commission and puts in focus the rather serious nature of what “progress” really is in society and the norms on which its measured.
The economic slump of the last three years has also sharpened this debate over whether more is better, whether growth in consumer goods and spending really supports a sustainable economy and whether the environment and human rights are placed in harm’s way in the name of economic growth. As Jackson notes, “The profit motive stimulates a continual search by producers for newer, better or cheaper products and services. This process of ‘creative destruction’, according to the economist Joseph Schumpeter, is what drives economic growth forwards.” The past several years have prompted a series of key questions that I’ll throw out here for thought:
- Has quantity in life trumped quality in life?
- Does producing more and having more truly lead to a prosperous economy and long-term sustainability?
- Does producing more and having more truly lead to a prosperous economy and long-term sustainability? Can we still flourish?
- Does having more truly make us happier, lead more productive lives and allows us as a society to be the better social animals that we are wired to be?
All tough questions, and way more to ponder in the limits of this one post for sure. But Professor Jackson’s commission report and follow-up book on the subject mirrored what was reflected the conversations that participated in last week. Jackson himself admits that “Prosperity has undeniable material dimensions. It’s perverse to talk about things going well where there is inadequate food and shelter (as is the case for billions in the developing world). But it is also plain to see that the simple equation of quantity with quality, of more with better, is false in general.”
I’ve no doubt that economic growth is vital for stimulating an economy that appears to be headed toward a dreaded “double dip” recession. However, what is critical for policy makers, economists, the financial community and electorate to grapple with is what types of investments are best to lead us out of this morass and into a future that is stable and prosperous. Jackson, among others has argued that “targeting that investment carefully towards energy security, low-carbon infrastructures and ecological protection offers multiple benefits [in other words a more sustainable, green economy]. These benefits include:
• freeing up resources for household spending and productive investment by reducing energy and material costs
• reducing our reliance on imports and our exposure to the fragile geopolitics of energy supply
• providing a much-needed boost to employment in the expanding ‘environmental industries’ sector
• making progress towards demanding global carbon reduction targets
• protecting valuable ecological assets and improving the quality of our living environment for generations to come.”
Producers vs. Consumers- Who Holds the Key?
So am I arguing in favor of a reaching a “steady state economy” with no growth? To be honest, I’m not sure at this point. There have been debates over this concept for generations, and I am no economist. Jackson himself admits that no clear model exists for achieving economic stability without at least some measure of consumptive growth. While goods producers have control over what they make, where they source their goods to make the things we buy, the “making” side of the economy is but one side of the debate that is in play here. There is also the “using” side of the debate that drives deep in the social fabric and psyche of the consuming public. We as consumers can shape the debate around and effects that can have on the products that are made, mass-produced, sold and consumed. This is perhaps the toughest nut to crack, because it’s the consumer that drives the demand that in turn drives production, which then drives consumption of resources, which of course determines the stresses on the environment. You see, we hold the key…as the old Pogo cartoon says, “We have met the enemy and it’s us”.
In a recent article in the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, Tim Jackson again weighs in on the strong psychological attachment that humans by nature have to material things and their feelings about the environment. “People do indeed hold deeply felt motivations to protect the environment. Occasionally they can even save money by doing so. But powerful psychological forces still hold them in thrall. The creeping evolution of social norms and the sheer force of habit conspire to lock us into expanding material aspirations.”
You see, letting go of things that make us feel good is hard. But the instant gratification that comes with these choices has undoubtedly led us all down a slippery slope, which only we can muster the power to crawl back up. But only if we make sound, greener choices that recognize a balance between consumption, thrift and ecological limits.
These questions and issues, among others will be reflected upon to some degree this week at Sustainable Brands ’11 in Monterey CA. I’ll be there also with over 750 other sustainability, corporate social responsibility, consumer marketing/ branding and industry professionals to learn, communicate and exchange ideas. Look for my occasional tweets (@DRMeyer1) and observations as the event rolls along.