If a sourdough loaf was baked during lockdown, but no one sees it on Instagram, did it even really happen?
It’s one of 2020’s less urgent philosophical questions.
For those of us desperate for good news in a year so full of angst and destruction, there’s been one glimmer of hope. That this disruption has been part of a great reset. The pandemic has forced us to go back to basics. COVID-19 has taken cars off the roads and planes out the skies. It’s closed shop doors, and had those lucky enough to own gardens growing their own vegetables. For many, Spring 2020 was a strange mix of idyllic and horrific. Like an episode of The Good Life written by Stephen King.
With heartwarming images like fish swimming in Venice’s usually polluted canals going viral, some went as far as suggesting that humans’ rampant consumption was the real virus, and COVID-19 was Mother Nature’s antibody. A less quixotic version of this narrative is that we’ve been happily living with a false sense of security for a long time. Skipping through a meadow of environmental and social trip-wires, happy to believe they weren’t there. Now that we’ve hit a few, the question is how will we react? Will we slow down? Turnaround? Invest in removing the wires? These are the questions that the purgatory of lockdown has given us time to reflect on.
Then, on the 15th June, non-essential shops reopened in the UK and the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the lockdown flew straight past the allotment and joined the back of the queue at its local Primark.
If COVID-19 was a wake-up call for a complacent society, then those queues were a wake-up call for any idealists who thought the lockdown may have changed our relationship with consumption. The last few months were not a rejection of consumerism, but a holiday from it.
The reality is that every way in which we are set-up as a civilisation is predicated on consumption, and we have a long way to go to change that. It is so inextricably linked to all of our livelihoods that the government is currently painting shopping as a heroic act of national duty. Indeed, one of the biggest threats the pandemic has posed to hopes of a green future is the association between a healthy environment and economic deprivation.
For companies who make claims about wanting to build a more sustainable future, there are some hard truths we need to swallow.
The genie is out of the bottle.
And it’s not going back in. Unrealistic levels of convenience and price are here, and most people don’t want them to go away. Labels promising green, eco or sustainable credentials are everywhere on today’s products, but only because they give us a false sense of permission to keep consuming. Actually, it goes deeper than that. We buy “sustainable” products primarily because we perceive their quality and efficacy to be better for ourselves, not society. That sustainability now equates to superior rather than inferior quality could be seen as one of the victories of the green movement, but it also in no way challenges our model of consumption. The result: products get more sustainable, whilst the planet gets less.
We buy organic food because we perceive it to be better quality, we opt for car-sharing over car-ownership because it’s better value for money, and we wear Patagonia backpacks because we like the esteem the brand gives us. It’s easy to think that those buying “green products” are part of the solution, and those buying more overtly unsustainable products are part of the problem. But ultimately we’re all driven by the same thing, meeting our individual wants and needs.
“Money’s the cheapest thing.” - Bill Cunningham
The second truth we need to swallow is why people queued up outside Primark in the first place: because it gives them self-worth. The need to go and buy stuff - anything - is not rational but instinctive. To go and buy new things is the easiest and most accessible way to give you a sense of agency, power and control. For people who aren’t getting that contentment elsewhere, shopping is their port in a storm. Take it away and you realise that we’ve lost other ways to feel valued and free.
The scale of the reset now needed to avoid planetary-level catastrophes is so radical that it can be paralysing to think about it. In the coming decade we need to both half the amount we consume, and half the impact of what we consume. Maybe, backed into a corner, we can find innovative ways to half the impact of what we consume, but unless we find new ways for people to be content and empowered - to exist happily -without buying things, then all our efforts will have been futile.
For consumer brands hoping to #BuildBackBetter let’s take this disruption as a wake-up call to how entrenched over-consumption really is in our society. Let’s accept that it is our responsibility to ensure we are meeting people’s wants and needs in a way that brings overall consumption down, not consumers’. Let’s ensure that it is not the process of meeting those wants and needs that creates yet more wants and needs. And finally, let’s all admit that what we need to build back better is not greener products but a society where people don’t need to buy things to feel self-worth.