A few posts back I promised to blog on my statement that eco-conciousness is a trend. Herein, I plan to elaborate.
What is a Trend?
The word itself at times has a negative connotation. For example, when one says, “Oh, that shirt is so trendy,” they mean to imply that it has a short shelf life, or lifespan. They are saying that they think in a few months time that shirt will be completely out of fashion, or démodé. Music, Décor styles and Celebrities suffer the same destiny, being coined as trends, and therefore easily dismissed. This is our popular use of the term. The first problem then, is common misuse. Using wikipedia as a reference, a trend is something that somehow becomes popular within mainstream society over a long period of time. A fad, on the other hand, becomes popular in much the same way, however, it tends to be within a smaller group of people, and last a much shorter amount of time. Because my statement said that eco-conciousness is a trend, I am saying then, that mainstream society is accepting it, over an extended period.
There is another side to the phenomenon I refer to as a trend, as there are positive outcomes that can result from trends. Things in our past that were once called trends, that stuck it out for the long haul and are still popular, are now called ‘classics’ or are things we just accept as part of our culture, such as recycling, or women wearing pants. Because eco-conciousness is a trend, it will fall out of popularity at some point – not entirely out of vogue in society, however within mainstream culture. If we think back to the last eco-boom in the mid to late nineties, we can recall that the explosion of interest in events such as earth day, kraft paper products and using reusable containers eventually waned. While some non-mainstream groups stayed the course, Celebrity and media interest diverted, and the outbreak of AIDS became a new talking point. Did the eco movement disappear, or did it simply go underground, or outside of mainstream thinking for a while? It simply ceased being trendy.
How Do Trends Become Popular?
Today trends develop at a rapid pace. Information is shared easily. I can look online and find out what women in Paris wore yesterday night to a trendy event, and I can today model my look after that, if I so choose. A great example is the neck scarf. This fad developed quickly from a look that existed only in street fashion, at most 2 years ago, to a mainstream fashion staple today, creating controversy in Rachel Ray television ads. When did the fad become so mainstream it emerged as a trend? Well, who knows, but it happened. And now the folks who consider their selves to be ‘fashion forward’ need to develop a new fad, so they can differentiate themselves from the mainstream. Information travels quickly for youth today.
Ask yourself this – if the year was 1994 and you were 14, how many hours would it take you to contact 25 of your friends to invite them to your party? It would certainly be many more than a single hour. But a youth of today could, in theory, contact all 25 friends within a few minutes using a social networking site or text messaging. Information is not limited by communication boundaries as in the past. This is truly a new world of information sharing, and this is only one reason why trends are trickling into the mainstream at such a rapid pace.
The Green Movement, as the trend is named, is topical in today's media. It is very easy to spread information on this topic, because it is popular, both with youth and a segment of the boomers, the same segment that were a part of the movement the last go round. Everyone in media seems interested in discussing it, and corporations are getting on board, (to a degree) so it is getting a lot of attention. But is it really as popular as the media would have you believe? Do most people care?
Things Change Over Time, and in Cycles
During the mid nineties there was a lot of attention placed on taking better care of our world. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle became part of our lexicon, and we all began to celebrate earth day. But at some point during the late nineties, no one seemed to care anymore. Celebrities were more interested in the AIDS crisis, and society at large had tired of the granola-kraft paper version of environmentally friendly products. We were sick of looking at brown cardboard. However, a few things stuck that time around. We have blue bin recycling. We have to have our cars emissions checked out. Some things didn’t stick. During that wave, they began selling canvas bags at the liquor and grocery stores. Some people adopted the habit of taking their own bags, but it wore off, and for the past decade most people just take the plastic bags they are handed. (I don't have an internet reference for that fact, but having worked in a large grocery store in two cities between 95-03 makes me think I'm somewhat an expert!) Up until recently, most people still used plastic bags, burned up gas like it was endless, and ate tomatoes from Chile if they were cheaper to their bottom line.
So what happened then, is the trend fell out of popularity, but the things that society, as a collective group, were willing to maintain, stuck with us. So there were greater social benefits to the trend. This time around, we feel a certain sense of urgency in doing something to improve our environment - after all, we know what we can do to change and there is lingering societal guilt about not really doing much about it. What will stick this time? Why do we pick and choose what to do something about first?
The Great Motivator
Money talks. One of the major changes we’ve seen so far, this time around, is the discontinued use of plastic bags at the grocery store. It is the beginning of a long process of change. The store itself is delighted about the change – because each of those bags they at one time provided free, actually cost them about two cents each. I saw a sign recently outside a major Canadian chain stating they would save over a billion bags from going into the trash this year. Now multiply one billion times two cents - twenty million dollars - and I think you’ll see why the grocers are so happy to jump on board and support this trend. This change is positive, but not without motivation.
For consumers, who are unfortunately the only ones who are really forced to make changes, money talks as well. Suddenly everyone wants an efficient car, because gas is so expensive. Big companies who manufacture cars aren’t forced to suddenly change their product. Consumers are not offered solutions by the car company or the government. They must absorb the cost of changing the world that was built around them. While forcing big business to change would really be the quickest solution, they can’t be forced to do it. They have power over consumers and government. So the onus is on the end consumer to change their spending patterns. This handing down of responsibility limits the changes that can be made at once - so humans have to select what is most pressing to their reality -and bottom line.
Greenwashing, Negative Outcomes and the fact that People Don’t Really Care
Media has done an excellent job in convincing us who DO care, that everyone else cares too. In reality, it’s the media who cares, and a very small few in society at large that really care. You’ll have a hard time believing this fact, because you are not a mainstream thinker (as evidenced by the fact that you are reading this blog.) Some people do not care because they don't have the luxury of worrying about their carbon emmissions while they are trying to simply survive, while others are addicted to living large. Some people are just simply disinterested in the issue, others are lazy.
In 2007, US sales of small SUVs totaled 301,625 year-to-date through November, an increase of 22.7% vs the year-ago period, according to AutoData. (source) The rich celebrities who talk about the environment and use hybrid cars, still travel on private jets and live in 5000+ sq ft homes. Truckloads of recycling are still loaded in to landfill. Companies still import cheap plastic goods, and you and I buy them. Since we can’t all make the big change at once, and many of us accept this and choose complacency – the “some one else will do it” attitude. To that end, media over saturation is creating a backlash. Generally, we’ve become somewhat disinterested already, and the trend has not yet come to a head. By this I mean to say, that people who were at one time interested, are becoming less so, because the information is constantly around them. We become fatigued by repetitive and depressing media reports. This is why many of us change the channel, or we’ll look the other way, just for now. Its not to say that we don’t think it’s terrible, it’s just we’d rather worry about it later. I know there is someone out there who refuses to use their own bags at the grocery store, just because they are tired of being told they have to.
And this backlash only applies to those who cared in the first place. As I said above, a large majority of people don’t care, and won’t change any habits, unless they are forced to, and it does not interfere with their lifestyle in any significant way.
Many companies are “greenwashing” their products. Greenwashing is when a company uses the green features of their product to sell it, when the product itself has done nothing to help the environment. It is the creation of a culture where we solve the world’s consumption problem by consuming more. Companies love to take advantage of these trends and exploit them. But they are exploiting those who wish to care but haven’t thought that deeply about what they could do about the problem. I assure you, buying more stuff is not a solution to the world’s problems. Some would say that purchasing with thought to how eco-friendly the product is, is an improvement of not thinking about it at all, and I suppose in essence it is. But it is not our necessities that are being green washed, it’s non-necessities.
When necessities are made ‘green’, such as making laundry soap available in a biodegradable formulation, it is not greenwashing. We needlaundry soap, and buy it anyhow. So making it biodegradable is an improvement to our quality of life and options. This could not be said about making a purse made of scraps of fabrics the factory has lying around. Why not? Well for one, the company is claiming to do this because they care about the environment, when in reality what they are offering the consumer is highly priced garbage, that they have figured out how to remarket to you. You didn’t need it in the first place, and just because it is created using an otherwise useless resource, does not make it earth friendly. You have still fed the oil-driven transportation industry, the inefficient retail giants, and lined the pockets of a large company that pollutes, underpays their workers, manufactures overpackaged and poor quality plastic products, and dumps tons of scrap each year.
What I Think Will Stick...
So, what will stick from this go-round of the green movement? If I had to make a few predictions, one would be that we’ll partake in the phasing out plastic bags at the grocers, and a few other large national chains. Intelligent companies of that size will begin to see that being more efficient could also mean being more eco friendly, because it will enhance their bottom line. Companies will change anything to enhance that bottom line, and if helping the environment impresses customers, and makes them loyal shoppers, companies will bend over backwards to create the impression they are doing something. So I think this will stick. It's logical, and hard to argue with. (Well, except for those pesky plastic association members, they can come up with arguments) Inefficiencies such as open coolers and the overuse of packing materials will be phased out at the retail level of many chains, simply to increase profits. We won’t see the end of plastic bags forever, but having your own set of cloth bags will become a standard we all have.
My second pick will be alternate energy sources. In simple terms, the price of oil is determined on the stock market. Because people trade stocks to make money, the price of oil will forever rise, even if our supply is not short. With a shortening supply, more money is made. It is a simplistic view, certainly, but I think it creates an accurate picture of the complexity of the issue. The end consumer has no option but to pay the high price. And so, we are ready, as a group, to accept that other options aren’t the end of the world and that we should consider them. I don’t predict the electric car will be mainstream in the next few years, (though Nissan is launching a model in 2011) because rich people who don’t care, and the poor who have no choice, will keep paying for gas for decades to come – I do predict that many of us will change our habits, begin to car pool more, consider electric or otherwise non-oil consuming cars, bicycle, walk, and use more public transportation.
Lastly, I think we'll see the early stages of change to our food distribution networks. Food distribution is international business. How come lettuce from California is cheaper than local? It is a matter of the supply chain in California being incredibly efficient, enough to meet the demands of North America. The threat to this supply chain is the cost of oil – simply flying lettuce to Canada will just not be economically viable if the cost of oil rises as rapidly as analysis indicates. We will slowly begin to change how we buy food, because the method that we have perfected over recent decades will become much too expensive.
I do not imagine this as an outright change this go around, but the seeds will be planted. Local gardens will become more popular, and buying local foods will continue to increase in popularity. I believe the initial steps towards changing our international food supply system back to a regional food supply system will be taken during this wave of the trend, and we’ll see a surge of it during the next wave.
What will divert our attention this time? Maybe there will be an outbreak of an airborne virus. Perhaps an earthquake of massive proportions will hit California. Perhaps a violent attack will shake our sense of priority. Who knows? Surely something will divert our attention, as seasons change, as cultures evolve, history tells us this. Something will seem much more important than global warming and saving the planet. Fortunately, things go in cycles, and accelerate, meaning the trend will rise in popularity much more quickly next time. And the time after that, and the time after that.