Environmental Crisis or Latent Demand for Good?
Written by Craig Wilson
Published — October, 2016
Nearly a decade ago I was privy to a conversation between Yvon Chouinard, founder of the clothing company Patagonia, and Jane Goodall, the world-renowned primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist, about the state of the environmental crisis. These two leaders of sustainability and conservation shared a forbidding view of our planet’s future. Back then I was an employee at Patagonia, where issues of ecology are part of the everyday work life. While environmental responsibility has come a long way since that conversation, there’s still significant progress that must be made as evident in these two examples: 1) Since 1991 through 2013 the number one reason for deforestation in the Amazon rainforest remains clear cutting to establish pastures for cattle grazing; 2) Generating electricity via the combustion of fossil fuels is still the largest single source of CO2 emissions in the US, accounting for about 37% of total U.S. CO2 emissions (EPA). It doesn’t take a lot of digging to understand that human beings are bad for the planet.
“Man's enemies are not demons, but human beings like himself.” —Lao Tzu
We now—some 2,586 years after Lao Tzu’s birth—have officially entered the sixth extinction, meaning, vertebrate species on earth are disappearing faster than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Not only are humans one of the species soon to be on the brink, but we’ve done it to ourselves. “We are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on.”—Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Biology, Senior Fellow, Stanford University. The challenge for us as a species is we must admit we are the problem. You are the problem. You eat too much meat, drive too much, consume too many products that create too much waste, consume too much food that relies on too many chemicals to grow, and demand too much of everything that travels too far around the world before it arrives at your doorstep. Yep. You’re the problem, the user. Even those of us vegan, carpooling, electric car-driving, organic food-eating, organic clothing-wearing well-to-do recycling hippies use way too much of everything.
But, there is hope beyond Elon Musk’s radical plan for us all to emigrate to Mars.
The deleterious effects of we users are rapidly being mitigated by new world entrepreneurs focused on closed loop production systems, circular product economies, sharing economies, and biomimicry. Sure, brands like Patagonia have been carrying the sustainability practices torch for years, but surprisingly, companies less known for their environmental responsibility such as Unilever (makers of home care, personal care, food and drink products) are joining the cause as well. Unilever’s endeavor to lessen their product’s environmental impact by half no later than 2020 is laudable as are all the efforts to lessen the harm of us users. However laudable these efforts are, it’s not just the providers of our goods and services that need to clean up their act. We users and providers collectively need to do less harm. In fact, we need to do no harm. The reality is there are seven billion of us now and we’ll be a global population of eight billion by 2024. To thrive and not just survive we’ll need a better solution than electric cars and good recycling habits or we are going to need an escape to Mars.
There truly is reason for hope, however, and it resides in the latent demand for good. In my research over the past decade with forty-plus companies I’ve come to understand a remarkable capacity of adaptability among us users. We are constantly evolving our understanding and awareness, and our buying behavior right along with it. In the case of organic foods and farming, significant change is afoot driven by consumers new to the category.
“51% of families are buying more organic products than a year ago. 83% of parents purchase organic products sometimes and 97% of those parents purchase organic fruits and vegetables.” (U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes & Beliefs 2015 Tracking Study, 2015, Organic Trade Association)
“Over 3,000 farms are transitioning to organic across the country.” (2012 Census of Agriculture Organic Special Tabulation, September 2014, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistic Service)
The statistics above reveal that the behavior shift is largely altruistic. People don’t always take up a health regimen for themselves, but they do change habits for the well being of their children and their immediate circle of loved ones. When good is present we respond on behalf of those we care about most.
The problem that persists is that environmental companies like Patagonia appeal to an audience already bought into conscious consumption. Patagonia’s plea, “Don’t Buy This Shirt,” appeals to the already aware, the already environmental forward-thinking crowd. That crowd is relatively small and highly motivated by an ethical responsibility. The vast population that needs to adopt similar behavioral patterns is where the true opportunity resides, but the message regarding saving the planet isn’t necessarily resonating with them. What about these folks? What about those that cannot afford organic food and clothing? What about those less informed on the topic that are unaware of the negative affects of chemicals in their sheets? What about the unknowing parents letting their toddlers play with toxic plastic toys while crawling around on chemical-laden carpets? What message appeals to this audience?
My brand research shows that consumers will choose safer, less-toxic, less damaging, more environment-friendly products or processes if they understand the options. Why then aren’t McDonald’s burgers organic?
It’s not just an economic imperative. It’s been said that people would sooner change religions than give up eating meat. I’m a firm believer that truly is the case; however, given the right understanding even a cattle rancher can see things in a different light. Take No More Bull, for example: the bestselling book by Howard Lyman disclosing the dangers of eating meat. Howard’s life story is a remarkable tale of changed awareness as he realized the values he grew up with were killing him. He reinvented his lifestyle based on a new understanding. And that’s the rub. A new user experience design across almost every aspect of our lives is required, extolling virtues beyond just the lowest common denominator. To accommodate a burgeoning population and lagging technologies, user behavior has to change. Technologies will provide some of our answers, but it’s user behavior that will have the largest and most immediate effect. Will a McDonald’s customer buy an organic veggie burger? With education, a compelling reason, and a good story, yes they will, especially if the user-experience-design is crafted with a clear understanding of the customer.
We operate based on our cultural backgrounds, our education, and our beliefs: these “cognitive processes” makeup our worldview. Essentially, these processes are how information is consumed, filtered and acted upon. If McDonald’s were compelled to pen a one-hundred-year plan, the organic, veggie burger would most certainly be a part of the menu. But right now McDonald’s is focused on something else: the delivery of the greatest number of calories at the lowest possible price. If they examined where the planet is headed and what the requirements are to ensure future financial sustainability, they would focus their attention on the cognitive process of their current customer and design a new user experience in order to meet these demands.
Their current assumption is a gross oversimplification of why their customer decides what they decide.
These customers have loved ones. They want the best for them, regardless of their economic standing. Digging deeply into what that means will reveal other motivating factors relative to food: lifestyle, access, and what they ideally want for themselves and their families, loved ones, and circle of influence. Present these customers with a choice and McDonald’s will unearth a latent demand for good. Not save the planet good. Rather, selfishly motivated good based on changed awareness and greater understanding. Once good appears on the horizon, low and behold this customer will shift their behavior. Why? Because of the higher values-oriented cognitive processes at work in that individual. As Maslow predicts, people move from surviving (McDonald’s) to higher motivations (doing well). Wellness, love, and care are motivations that companies like McDonald’s need to understand as the world evolves and takes on the forthcoming challenges.
From the Encyclopedia of Earth
This idea, that how we are functioning as a global society needs to be refashioned, is increasingly discussed in the mainstream media and among disparate circles of influence throughout the world. Jeremy Rifkin (Empathic Civilization), Sir Richard Branson (The B-Team), Arianna Huffington (The Third Metric), Thich Nhat Hanh (Community of Nations), Ellen MacArthur (Circular Economy) and Yvon Chouinard (The Responsible Economy) are all concerned with the same issue, there is a persisting disconnect between a vision for the world as a peaceful, sustainable biosphere and our ability to realize that vision as a global society, and as global citizens. Rest assured, there is profit to be made doing good. We simply need to make “good” an economic win by designing a new user experience that doesn’t rely solely on ethics.