It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid

There are those who say the trend toward “mindful consumption” — people thinking more carefully about what and why they buy — will sputter out just as soon as the economy fully rebounds. They’re wrong, and for a number of reasons. As appealing as it may be for marketers to anticipate a return to hyperconsumerism and mindless excess, there are simply too many factors making that not just unlikely but virtually impossible.

First, there are serious economic elements at play. A consensus is emerging that many of the jobs shed during the Great Recession will never be restored; there simply is no rational economic benefit to bringing them back. And even those people lucky enough to be fully employed will find it more difficult to live beyond their means now that easy credit has all but evaporated in the wake of the burst housing bubble and other financial implosions. Hyperconsumerism relies on an unending flow of easy-to-obtain funds; that tap has been tightened, likely for good.

Second, the green genie has escaped its bottle and become firmly imprinted on the public consciousness. Whatever one may believe about the causes (or even the actuality) of climate change, sustainability has gone from cause celebre to an everyday consideration. When Walmart takes up the banner of eco-evangelism and starts pushing not just suppliers but its customers to adopt environmentally conscious behaviors, there can be little doubt that the green movement has made it into the mainstream. Economist E.F. Schumacher warned in 1973 that “infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.” It may have taken nearly 40 years, but consumers — and governmental and business leaders — have finally caught on to the unsustainable nature of our current models of consumption.

Third, myriad social factors are applying pressure on the side of mindfulness. Around the world, youth-obsessed cultures are about to collide with the unavoidable realities of aging. In 2000, there were around 600 million people over age 60; by 2050, that number is expected to exceed 2 billion. The older people become, the more cautious and mindful they grow, especially if finances are uncertain. Attitudes will swing away from the hedonistic impulsiveness of youth and toward the more mindful decision making of adults.

Already, we are seeing wanton wastefulness becoming taboo in much the way smoking has become socially unacceptable. Having been banished everywhere from workplaces to restaurants and now even some public parks, smokers lurk in the few designated areas still open to their kind.

Hyperconsumerism is undergoing a similar fall from grace. Reclaimed furnishings and repurposed materials are the height of chic, and people brag not about what they buy but about how much they are able to do without. “The New Consumer” study from Euro RSCG Worldwide confirms this: Whereas 79 percent of U.S. respondents say they respect/admire people who live simply (e.g., minimal purchases, debt free), only 15 percent feel the same about people who live a high-luxury lifestyle. Our notion of the “good life” has been turned on its head.

Even more important to the longevity of mindful consumption is the fact that it actually makes people feel good. Looking again at the Euro RSCG study:

 • 87 percent of Americans say saving money makes them feel good about themselves.
 • 78 percent say most people would be better off if they lived more simply.
 • 65 percent say making eco-friendly choices makes them feel good.
 • 73 percent say it feels good to reduce the amount of waste they create.
 • 69 percent say it makes them feel good to buy locally

While we tend to think of “cutting back” as a negative, the new mindfulness turns the more considered choices of conscious consumption into positives. And that is a key reason people won’t go back to mindless excess even if they could afford to do so. Need more proof? Nearly seven in 10 Americans actually see an upside to the recession, saying it has served to remind us of what’s really important in life. People are relieved they have finally been given an opportunity to step back from hyperaccumulation. For the past year or more, they’ve had a chance to consider just how much pleasure they have been deriving from our spend-spend-spend consumer culture; for many, the answer is “not much.”

So where does that leave marketers? In recent times, our job has mostly been about pushing consumers’ hot buttons, masterfully cultivating the desire for more, now. In the new culture of mindful consumption, we must find ways to speak to consumers’ growing distaste for excess and waste and their reawakened hunger for such nearly forgotten values as communalism, thrift, responsibility and self-sufficiency. Consumers have changed. And so must we.

Andrew Benett is CEO of Arnold Worldwide and chief strategy officer of Havas Worldwide.
 Ann O’Reilly is content director of the Euro RSCG Worldwide Knowledge Exchange.