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Environmentalism as aspirational brand

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Wednesday, Jun 25, 2008

Where I work, someone has thoughtfully put a $6 bottle of Kiss My Face Organic Grapefruit and Bergamot self-foaming hand soap beside the bathroom sinks, and every time I use it, I think, “Wow, this is far classier than using the industrial fluid installed in the basin-mounted pumps.” (I also think, “Weird. My hands now smell like Froot Loops.”) Today, because I had just been reading Megan McArdle’s post about morality as a luxury good, I also thought that it’s probably true that more people will be motivated to enivronmentally friendly behavior by its aspirational aspects, by the luxury it connotes, than by any sense of moral rectitude. In consumer society, morality is more of a product than a line of reasoning, and an identity signified through props as opposed to an ethos sustained through a series of actions.


McArdle is mainly interested in the positive freedom our general prosperity allows for: “Morality lies in doing the best you can with what you have. Given that I do have the luxury of finding delicious vegan food and non-leather shoes, I believe I have an obligation to do so. If that should change, I will go back to eating and wearing animal products without moral regret—though with a fair amount of digestive distress.” I think the framework that orients our notions of what prosperity means (more stuff) means that the calculus that goes into our moral decisionmaking may have been recalibrated for most of us, away from a focus on pursuing voluntary obligations and toward the idea of accumulating moral stances as so many prized possessions, reified into various tokens that symbolize our green concerns.


Hence, the Method soap strategy, which Rob Walker wrote about a few years ago. he talked to Eric Ryan, one of Method’s founders.


‘‘Design is a fast way to make these products more high interest,’’ Ryan says, to the target audience of ‘‘progressive domestics.’’ Environmental safety was ‘‘a goal,’’ one that he still sounds almost surprised to have achieved. But form is what really sells some $10 million of the stuff annually. Much of the feedback from enthusiastic customers boils down to: ‘‘I kind of thought it wouldn’t work, but at least I’ll have this cool container left over. Then I got it home and used it, and I’m shocked at how well it actually works.’‘



For most consumers, the sleek design and the product’s environmental perks are of the same ilk—distinctive qualities that mark the consumer who uses such a product as being of a better class. Environmentalism is not a ethos but a design quirk. This may be the only way to corral individuals into acting on a problem that is far too large for any one person’s actions to affect—to ignore outcomes and sell it on style.

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