Let's Make Greed The New Smoking

Ask yourself this question: Do you really believe that our culture of mass consumption threatens the planet? If so, we green marketers need to redirect our attention and energy. Let’s stop trying to sell stuff and turn our collective talents to a much bigger marketing challenge: Greed. To save the planet, we need to make mass consumption and waste socially unacceptable. We need to make greed the new smoking.

Last month, in “Kermit Was Right,” I suggested that green marketing has to change. Instead of promoting specific, siloed choices, or a lifestyle that is “precariously perched on a color,” we should be marketing the evolution of common capacity-building tools that local groups of all types could use to promote smart and sustainable choices.

This remains true. But I’m increasingly convinced that we need to dive deeper as marketers and start talking about how to change social norms and values. Marketing created and sustains our culture of consumption. Can marketing change it to a culture of “enough?”
The irony of this question is that our industry has to turn on itself. Do we seriously want people to buy less stuff? Why would we do this? Isn’t it in our interest to fan the flames of consumerism?

The problem with the fire that marketing stokes is that there is increasing evidence that it is going to consume us. The sense of urgency that once characterized the green movement has been converted to a new kind of business opportunity called green marketing. And it’s increasingly clear that we are not going to save the planet by selling low-phosphate soap.

This hit me as I was reading a newly published essay in Orion Magazine from an upcoming book by influential environmentalist and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council James Gustave Speth. In “America the Possible: A Manifesto,” Speth suggests that nothing short of a dramatic overhaul of society will save us from social, political, economic and environmental calamity. The first half of the essay is sobering: 

“Our politicians are constantly invoking America’s superiority and exceptionalism. True, the data is piling up to confirm that we’re Number One, but in exactly the way we don’t want to be—at the bottom.”

He goes on to point out that on practically every indicator (from social equality, income disparity, poverty, to environmental degradation), our culture of consumption is out of control. What’s most astonishing is that he suggests that the current U.S. political system will be unable to solve these problems. Let’s just say that it may be a long time before “Yes, we can” is deployed as a credible political slogan. 

The second half of Speth’s manifesto is more upbeat, but it poses a challenge to the marketing community that I think we should embrace. 

“Our best hope for real change is a movement created by a fusion of people concerned about environment, social justice, true democracy, and peace into one powerful progressive force. We have to recognize that we are all communities of a shared fate.” 

The main barrier to this kind of positive rebirth is the marketing industry. As long as people seek meaning and distraction in consumption, we’re screwed. Folks won’t show up for a progressive social movement as long as they can salve their social woes with a burger and fries for 99 cents. 

So, what can we do to help? Green marketers can play a role in three key ways. Together we can:

  1. Lend our marketing experience to visionaries like Gus Speth to create practical, on-the-ground opportunities for people of all backgrounds to make simple, accessible, meaningful changes. Doing so can overcome cynicism by creating positive, non-political experiences of action and change that are supported in the community;
  2. Work together to develop and market common tools and infrastructure to connect local leaders and projects of all types. That might mean forcing environmentalists to finally acknowledge that not all marketers are evil;
  3. Rebrand greed. By engaging people directly and moving them gently from being passive or indifferent to active and engaged, we will start to restore non-monetary value to intangible things like local resilience and strengthened social connections. By helping people reconnect with each other, we can weaken the grip that greed currently has on our culture. The void that is currently filled (unsuccessfully -- and at the price of the planet) by mass consumption can be filled by restoring meaning in communities of empowered, active and engaged citizens.

You might think this is idealistic. You might be right. But look at the alternative. 

Do you believe we have a planet to save? I think Gus Speth is right: Only a new, inclusive social movement can help us step back from a social, economic and environmental abyss. But his vision can’t succeed without a kick-ass marketing strategy that creates new social norms and targets greed. Gus needs us. Are we prepared to help?

1 comment about "Let's Make Greed The New Smoking ".
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  1. Nick Cavarra from Quigley Simpson, May 4, 2012 at 6:04 p.m.

    Couldn't agree more. At Incite, we've been working to change social norms to stengthen our communities for 10 years. I belive we are at the earlier adoptor phase of real systemic change in how corporations need to function in our world - not just producing stuff for profit, but truly aligning the mission to better their communities. I just hope it doesn't take too long to get to critical mass - before it's too late.

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