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Sustaining the Green Push for Brands

Zeitgeist was recently asked to write an article on sustainability trends for the coming year. The following is an altered excerpt of the original article…

There is a hotel in Italy, nestling in the heart of the Tuscan countryside. It literally blends in to the surrounding hills; they form part of the architecture of the building. The Klima Hotel is not just an aesthetic triumph, however, for the soil that forms the roof of also helps keep the building insulated, saving on both cost as well as emissions that would otherwise be generated from artificial heating.

Today, sustainability issues are more prevalent than ever, as organisations and corporations desperately try to set themselves apart from their peers, creating a manifesto for their brand. Often though these efforts can amount to little more than lip service, a practice in danger of becoming as saturated in use as the phrase ‘lip service’. So many brands are exploiting these issues that it no longer suffices merely to say x amount of the paper used in the office is being recycled. There has to be a point, a purpose to the policy that goes beyond cosmetic dalliance. It’s not just about having a solar panel here or a wind turbine there, though these are important things. It’s about recognising changing shopper habits; since the recession, people want to be able to keep items for longer, reuse them, pass them on or put them to a different use entirely.

Pepsi’s Refresh Project has been an earnest attempt at promoting issues of sustainability, and not just environmental. Several supermarkets are currently making an impressive effort in this area too… Sainsbury’s take their sustainability credentials out of store, with beehives to help sustain the bee population, and even treehouses for, well, who wouldn’t want a treehouse? The Sainsbury’s in Gloucester Quay has employed an impressive array of sustainable initiatives, one of the most interesting being a device that takes the kinetic energy of cars as they pass into the car park and uses it to help power the store. It’s technology like this that can be taken a step further; can these touch-sensitive pads be used to monitor where free spaces exist, to direct shoppers using digital signage? 7-Eleven in Japan are planning to use LED lighting and solar panels on 1,000 of their stores, but the key point is their desire for charging points for the Prius. It illustrates that sustainability is not just relegated to specific areas, it is a way of life, a lifestyle that encourages responsibility as well as innovation. So far we’re lacking the impetus for that innovation…

What constitutes the next step? One trend is that of upcycling, that of not just dumping your goods into a big box with a swirly arrow on it, rather actually stretching the efficiency of your products once their initial purpose has expired and reconstituting them for entirely different purposes. At a recent LS:N trends briefing, London designer James Gilpin’s latest work was mentioned; it involves using urine from diabetics (therefore with a heavy sugar content) and turning it into a premium, single malt ‘Gilpin Family Whisky’. In this instance, the material is such that it is already labeled as ‘waste’, but actually still has the potential to be something else. While shopper habits might preclude a desire to see old urine sitting on supermarket shelves any time in the near future, as consumers get more thrifty, such a philosophy would go down well in homeware.

There is more than enough room then for aesthetic beauty and sustainability to co-exist. Fashion brand Hermès recently launched a line of accessories created from upcycled materials. The copy for a brand of upcycled wooden watches is beautiful in of itself; “Completely absent of artificial and toxic materials, the WEWOOD Timepiece is as natural as your wrist. It respects your skin as you respect nature by choosing it… the perfect natural mate, whose story also becomes yours”. Selfridge’s recently unveiled its Project Ocean, “aiming to raise awareness of the dangers of over-fishing”, Contagious reports. One very whimsical example recently highlighted by PSFK was the creation of furniture from old parts of the fair on New York’s Coney Island. Not only is this sustainable production, but it also imbues these “new” items with an in-built past, a piece of history that people can continue to live with (and eat off of, too, I suppose). And we all know how things get better with age.

The car, the city, the conceit

The way to stop waste from building up in the street is not to enforce a litter ban. It is to change what it is that they are dropping, into something that is not waste, something that becomes productive. Of the many stirring, puzzling and fantastic things that Zeitgeist was exposed to at yesterday’s LS:N Global Trends briefing yesterday (who presented the above insight), one of the more thought-provoking things was the above commercial, played during this year’s Super Bowl extravaganza in the US. It’s a bold, powerful advertisement, and rightly pointed out as a return to the more glorious days of advertising. There is a problem with it though, one of cognitive dissonance.

As we know, the US auto industry, with its epicentre in Detroit, had to be bailed out by the Obama administration. More recently Chrysler themselves thought the problem might be a more macro one of people being unable to drive. As with the initial example, the thinking in this commercial has the wrong end of the stick. The problem was not the global recession and the short-term devastation it wrought. The Economist wrote in January that “The car industry can produce 94m cars a year, against global demand of 64m”; this clearly has to change. The long-term problem though, unfortunately, is simply that the US auto industry makes low-quality cars. In terms of quality, they are subpar relative to other countries. This is partly why the country saw such an influx of Japanese models during the 1980s. The hysteria of Japanese cultural domination (evident in films like Blade Runner) was such at the time that popular fiction author Tom Clancy dramatised the whole affair, setting the Japanese auto industry’s invasion of America as the first step to all-out war in the novel Debt of Honour.

Last year was the first time when, around the world, more people lived in cities than in towns. Ipso facto, this means there will be less need for cars, as distances travelled on a regular basis become shorter. Car manufacturers make more profit from larger models than the smaller ones that will increasingly come to dominate the marketplace. Even Aston Martin is getting into the race for convenience in the city. Making the most of this dramatic shift will be of the utmost importance if the industry is to survive. That, and not using brilliant creative to make up for a lower quality in manufacturing.