Creating sustainable identities – the nexus of affluent and environmentalist identities

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

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Household income and household energy use are highly correlated. Identities are likely to be a key driving force behind the income-energy relationship. For this reason we need to take much more notice about how identities are formed and reinforced and how they are connected to relatively energy heavy consumption practices and environmentalist values.

Energy and income are highly correlated with income being identified as perhaps the key driver of household energy use. However, very little has been done investigate or intervene in the income energy use relationship. The rational economic approach would say that of course energy use will rise as incomes do as people seek to maximise their utility across stable consumption preferences (subject to marginal utility factors). But this explanation doesn’t not get to the bottom of the story. It does not explain how people’s consumption preferences are formed via the lifestyles, cultures and social influences in their lives. Particularly it ignores the critical role our personal and social identities. Now more than ever what we consume is critical to us working out who we are and who we are not). We can no longer rely on well formed social hierarchies, tightly knitted communities and clear identities that we are given by others at birth. In our postmodern world, consumption, unfortunately, is key to our identities and identities are key to our consumption.

Using an identity approach it is clear that how income and associated characteristics of a wealthy identity – hard work, intelligence and success are symbolically connected with relatively high energy products is likely to be critical to the income energy use relationship. On the other side of the coin, the environmentalist identity is opposed to the wealthy identity and connected with energy frugality. At the same time the values that underpin environmentalism are also seen as opposed to seeking financial wealth. This puts people who hold both identities in a bit of a dilemma. Where two identities are pitted against each other it will be the more salient and attractive that will win – it is not difficult to work out which will win in this case, 9 times out of 10. This doesn’t just mean it will be difficult for those who have an actual wealthy identity, but also those who have an ideal wealthy self. I would bet this is a great many people. We need to find ways to bring these identities and values into a common an sustainable place.

Although we are all complicit in creating and reproducing what signifies certain identities some actors have particular influence. One of these powerful groups of people is marketers.

We desperately need marketers to be aware of their immense power in connecting different identities with different consumption patterns and different values. No communication is neutral so if they are not designing, pricing, distributing and advertising products in ways that create sustainable identities then it is likely they will be perpetuating unsustainable ones. Currently energy heavy products tend to be consistently embedded with the affluent identity and materialistic values. We need products aimed at desirable affluent identities (through all aspects of marketing) that are themselves designed to be highly energy efficient compared to the average – and that these environmental credentials are made clear and the values of environmentalism brought with them. This way environmentalist and affluent identities can be brought closer together rather than being opposed.

Despite claims of eco chic, at the moment very few significant examples exist. There are however examples of products where affluence and environmentalism are brought together – but into a relatively high energy product (think of the Lexus hybrid who’s loudly stated environmental credentials were in relation to 6 cylinder SUVs). I call this ‘gold-plated greenwashing’ and believe this is more subversive and dangerous than normal greenwashing because the affluent identity, as the stronger one, will distort the environmentalist identity and not the other way round. Table 1 below sets out the opportunities and risks that exist in the nexus of affluent and environmentalist identities. The table is meant o be an aid for identifying where current products sit and future products might sit – are they targeted to appeal to those with affluent or environmentalist identities or both? Are the products and services relatively high or low energy?

Box A is a dangerous area where many environmentalists rightly have a great problem (particularly Tom Crompton and the WWF team). It is based on getting to the end goal of lower energy consumption without thinking about the values that are being brought with it. As a result you can end up undermining the end goal rather than aiding it. Equally dangerous is the fact that many low energy products fall into box C, which pitches environmentalism as something not to be desired by those who are affluent (read: hard working, successful and intelligent but a worthy product consumed by people with environmentalist identities.

There will be a great many consumption practices that will fall into box B currently – they are relatively low energy and are connected strongly to the affluent identity such as wood-burning Rayburns, expensive appliances with very long warranties or long lasting products that are continually repaired. But unless these are overtly connected to the environmentalist identity, their power to unite affluence and environmentalism and turn into a box D product is left un-utilised.


Figure 1

Of course this topic brings up many more questions than answers about the affluent-environmentalist nexus that need to be explored.

– How far can marketing push the sustainable identity agenda on their own without undermining their positions as money making machines?
– For marketers not embedded in companies but instead taking on a customers brief how far can they try and influence this?
– What must the marketing look like if we are to ensure long term non individualist values are fundamentally incorporated into the affluent identity, rather than the environmentalist identity becoming more individualistic and materialistic?
– How can we alter the perception that hard-work, success and intelligence are connected to being financial affluent? Or do we need to try and make hard-work, success and intelligence less desirable?

These are all questions I think need exploring, along with many more, and my work one aspect of this. I would be really interested to what people think about this and what examples of products exist that fit into the different boxes above?

Victoria HurthCreating sustainable identities – the nexus of affluent and environmentalist identities


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  • Tom - July 8, 2009 reply

    Thank you for this post, Victoria, which is really interesting. There are some things I agree with – marketers do have a profound influence on our identities, and our identities are crucially important in motivating responses to an awareness of challenges like climate change.

    But here we part company. Your argument is that we can pursue that elusive ‘decoupling’ of wealth and environmental impact by seeking to bring the wealthy identity and the environmentalist identity “into a common and sustainable place”. This is where I struggle.

    Firstly, I don’t think it is very useful to work at the level of the “wealthy” ‘identity’ or ‘values’ and the “environmentalist” ‘identity’ or ‘values’. People engage in pro-environmental behaviour for a range of reasons – from the egotistic (‘it’s in my self-interest to do something about this’) to the biocentric (‘I feel connected to the forests, and they are dying’). Nor do I think that there are a clear set of ‘wealthy values’ – many wealthy people are not necessarily pursuing the extrinsic goal of financial success, for example.

    What you seem to be talking about, implicitly, are a set of extrinsic values (associated with image and financial success) and a set of intrinsic values (associated with an increased motivation to engage in pro-environmental behaviour).

    You write:

    We need products aimed at desirable affluent identities (through all aspects of marketing) that are themselves designed to be highly energy efficient compared to the average – and that these environmental credentials are made clear and the values of environmentalism brought with them.

    So you suggest that ‘low-energy’ products aimed at an affluent market should be sold more explicitly on the grounds of their environmental benefits (you take the example of a woodburning Rayburn). I agree that it is probably better for marketers to sell more environmentally friendly goods on the grounds of these having environmental benefits (rather, for example, than on the grounds that they are cheaper to run).

    But this is no panacea. Such an approach carries a profound internal contradiction. By reinforcing ‘desirable affluent identities’ (here, it seems, identities which hanker after owning nice high-quality stuff that lasts) through marketing to these, the campaigns you suggest would be serving to undermine those very intrinsic values which we know need to be brought to the fore to engage environmental challenges in a systemic way.

    It’s not just that people who hold a more extrinsic set of values tend to consume more, and that this appetite for consumption should be deflected into more environmentally-benign product purchases. It’s that more extrinsically orientated people are more antagonistic towards environmental concerns per se. So it’s the source of these extrinsic values (traceable, perhaps, in important part to the activities of marketers) that needs to be tackled.

    Nice as it would be for marketers to have their cake and eat it on this one, the evidence from social psychology is not on their side!

  • John Grant - July 8, 2009 reply

    I may be stating the obvious but you don’t think that the link between energy consumption and affluence might have something to do with size of house?

    (house is a proxy – but whatever you spend money on roughly £1 = 1kg)

    I’m all for this identity campaign, but unless it becomes perceived as straightforwardly decadent & immoral (marie antoinette style) to live excessively given the magnitude of global poverty and the climate crisis…? There have been quite a few historical occasions when the wealthy have adopted (a great show of) frugality because lavish lifestyles would be intolerable in the face of widespread suffering, starvation, war or similar.

  • Victoria Hurth - July 9, 2009 reply

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your comments. As you may have predicted I have a number of things to say in response!

    Firstly you say:
    “Your argument is that we can pursue that elusive ‘decoupling’ of wealth and environmental impact by seeking to bring the wealthy identity and the environmentalist identity “into a common and sustainable place”. This is where I struggle.”
    In response I believe that if we don’t bring them closer together – by this I mean make the identity of being ‘wealthy’ represented by more sustainable product, services and practices – and values, then by default we are reinforcing a rift between what it means to have the identity of being wealthy (successful/hardworking/intelligent) and the identity of caring about the environment. We cannot pretend that affluence (more importantly what is represents) is not a powerful identity.

    Given the salience and power of the wealthy identity it seems clear that when pitched against the environmentalist identity, affluence is likely to win – a key reason I believe why we do not have the environmental action we might have predicted despite the efforts put into promoting pro-environmental behaviour. I also believe this is a key reason why the well documented ‘value-action’ gap is widest in wealthy groups.

    To be wealthy is one of the most powerful identities in society today i.e. I am successful/hardworking/intelligent therefore I buy/ do X. Or in a more socially constructed derived fashion: I also mix with other successful/ hardworking/ intelligent people. They buy/do X, therefore so do I.

    To give an example from a recent set of interviews on this subject I carried out. A lady who was from a middle class background was discussing her dilemma with her car. She cares about the environment and has a husband who works in an organisation actively promoting environmental travel choices. At the same time, for image reasons, she often changed to the new model of her large, energy heavy and ‘affluent’ car when it came out. This particular time because of her values she felt she ‘should’ buy a small efficient car instead. Her dilemma was that for her this represented going back to her poor student days that she felt she had long passed. I did not ask what giving up her car altogether might feel like for her identity.

    I believe we should not be putting people in these sorts of dilemmas as it is only the environment that will loose. As Tim Jackson noted (2005), asking individuals to reject a consumption practice which is vital to an important identity, or to adopt a new practice which embodies negative identity symbolism, without strategically altering the symbolism of that consumption, would seem futile. We need to help people find ways to fulfil their sense of who they are and what they value in ways that are easy and make sense.

    This is not the realm of non-thinking insecure people, but the often subconscious way we are all intimately tied to our sense of self and sense of social groupings – the very reason why identity is so critical to solving environmental issues. One important point is that now more than ever we have not just an option to create our own identities but a pressure to do so, instead of having our identities passed down through hereditary means, the breakdown in these ridged social structures means we are in many ways tasked with being the creators of our own identity (e.g. Beck).

    Secondly you say:
    “I don’t think it is very useful to work at the level of the “wealthy” ‘identity’ or ‘values’ and the “environmentalist” ‘identity’ or ‘values’. “
    Here you mention identities and values as if they may be the same thing and suggest it is unhelpful to talk about ‘wealthy’ or ‘environmentalist’ identities or values. There are two key points here.

    Firstly, values are an important influence on identity but they are not the same thing. An identity is about a sense of self which is formed in relation to others – who we are and who we are not. Identity cannot be removed from the symbolic as this is the key way in which identity is formed and maintained and forms the basis of ‘identity theory’ (Mead 1934, Stryker 1980, Turner 1987). Benford, and Snow 1994 suggest identity includes adherence to values AND beliefs, goals and practices. So the significant intersect between values and identity must be recognized but the two must not be seen as synonymous.

    Secondly, when looking at identities specifically, I think it is in fact critical that we consider what is perceived as a wealthy identity or an environmentalist one. We may wish these weren’t there, or weren’t important, but the social psychology literature as well as our personal experience will tell us these are important (Dittmar, Hirschman (wealthy) Clayton and Opotow, Dunlap & McCright (environmental). Of course there are other significant identities which I will briefly discuss later, but these two are particularly important. These, like other identities we may hold, encompass and shape what we do, what we buy, who we listen to and what we interpret.

    It may be useful to consider two main levels in which we can intervene in identities. Firstly at the level of symbolic interaction i.e. the shortcuts people have which say (taking the protestant work ethic for one moment which is very connected to the affluent identity)…. I am a Protestant, therefore I work hard, therefore I am affluent, therefore I buy big energy heavy cars. This can become a subconscious symbolic shortcut of I am protestant (or British or American) therefore I buy big energy heavy cars. If we can facilitate changing which products symbolise Protestantism or hard work then we can reduce the impact without asking people to stop being Protestant. If we do this well and make taking leisure time symbolic of Protestantism then we may also change the values of being protestant.
    Secondly, we can try and directly alter the values of what it means to be Protestant, because the value of hard work is one of the key aspects that influence the identity of Protestantism (but not the only one). We can try and bring African values of leisure and family into the Protestant identity through the large number of African’s who are Protestant. But even if you change this value it will only have a tangible impact on the environment if this translates into lower energy consumption practices that are synonymous with the identity.
    I believe we need to work on both levels and that both inform and interact with each other.

    So my argument comes from this basis. At a symbolic interaction level what I am saying is that when energy heavy products are purposefully targeted at commonly held notions of an affluent identity, then we are reinforcing the dangerous situation where to be wealthy implicitly means to be environmentally destructive. I am also saying that this may be one of the key reasons for the wide value action gap in higher-income groups. At the moment wealthy = being energy profligate. This is where marketers (and NGOs engaging in behavioural interventions) have particularly influence and need to take responsibility for but where all of us can play an important role. Greenwashing excluded, being an ‘environmentalist’ should mean energy frugality, therefore oppositional to affluence. However this is not always the case – which is why you cannot operate at the level of values alone but also what this symbolises in terms of consumption. For example. Lets take one value – connection to nature. This is a value which is seen to be significant to pro-environmental behaviour. For some this may mean I am an environmentalist and therefore I am energy frugal. For others this may mean, I am someone who loves nature, therefore I identify with people who engage in eco-tourism and travel to far off destinations every year to see nature in action – so that’s what I do. Or it may be, I love nature therefore I have bought myself a large estate with hunting facilities. The right values – the wrong impact.

    Just to finish off. I have just talked about affluent and environmentalist identities as two important identities we need to work with (as well as the Protestant one). However there are others that shape environmentally significant action where by working on both the symbolic level and the level of fundamental values we can help build sustainability.

    For example to be a ‘surfer’ used to be a micro identity that was connected with love of nature, simple pleasures and stopping pollution. That was a positive identity for the environment that many young people could connect with and aspire to. However, through marketing this has become more about what you wear and the exotic destination you travel to, it has also exploded in terms of the number of people identifying with it. Perhaps WWF could reinvigorate those deep symbolic connections and what – when you wear those clothes and connect to the identity – you are representing. This would have to be done carefully, but it is at this level that identity campaigning has great power.

    P.S. I am away for a couple of weeks so may not be able to respond to any responses for a while – but will catch up when I am back!

  • Victoria Hurth - July 9, 2009 reply

    Hello John,

    Thanks for making this point which is important. The size of house is a big contributor – Frank’s book Richistan illustrates this phenomenon well (although of course it is not always the case).

    At the same time what is unclear is what precisely moderates the facts that we desire ever bigger houses the more money we have. We know on some level there is a lot of hassle, feelings of loneliness and lack of cosiness connected with large houses – so why should this perpetually increase?

    The answer is not straight forward, at least interm of interventions, and takes us quickly into the realm of identities, lifestyle groups, cultures and status.

    Additionally there are a whole raft of areas of consumption that contribute to the links between income and energy use at a household level other than house size, from number of cars, car miles and flights, to appliances and a wide range of indirect energy consumption. I have a paper that outlines the links – if you would be interested to read this please let know and I will send it.

  • Ian Preston - July 13, 2009 reply

    On John’s point about the size of house. Our work on personal carbon trading for DECC showed a linear relationship between appliances and the number of rooms, regardless of occupancy. In other words, more wall space provides more room for products which you may or may not need.

    Victoria be interested to read your paper.

    All the best


  • Sandra White - July 18, 2009 reply

    Hi, Tom and Victoria,

    (Congratulations, Tom, on a very interesting development!)

    Coming in with a Jungian and psychoanalytic perspective, I’d like to link your conversation with some aspects of what Rosemary Randall has highlighted in relation to identity – the “fragility and vulnerability in the basic sense of self”.

    I have found that one of the vital components in identity is a core sense of being ‘good’ and that, often unconsciously, intrinsic to this is a sense of being ‘innocent’. I would go so far as to argue that such a sense of goodness and innocence is a vital ingredient in every personality which is linked to each person’s life-energy and ability to act. This sense, therefore, must actively be upheld, even when – perhaps particularly when – trying to work to change destructive behaviours. Environmental campaigning has long understood and worked with this need to avoid making people feel guilty.

    Yet, we have reached the stage where to try to communicate that any individual living an industrialised life is not implicated – and, thereby, guilty – is untrue.

    So, how to uphold this sense of goodness and innocence now? I think it is vital that we do because of the fragility that Rosemary has highlighted. If we understand that this fragility is not only to be found within therapy rooms but, rather, underpins many consumerist behaviours (including those of successful, affluent people), I suggest that we must work harder to uphold the sense of goodness and innocence and avoid the damaging impact of guilt.

    For me, this means shifting some of the attention of marketing and campaigning strategies away from individuals – for most individuals cannot bear this weight of guilt.

    Part of why this weight of guilt cannot be born is because the situation we are in now results not least from the trajectory our civilisation has been on for centuries. In a very real way, those of us living now do not bear all the responsibility, and should not, therefore, bear all the guilt. Some may argue that we will be entitled to bear all the guilt if, when we learn where we are, we do not address ourselves to the problem and change our ways. I agree with this. And yet, I argue, in psychological terms, this proposition may all too easily become conflated with “bearing all the guilt” (by unconscious mechanisms similar to the “symbolic shortcuts” Victoria described when discussing Protestantism and buying big energy heavy cars.) I suggest that “bearing all the guilt” feels intolerably unjust at a core level and if we act AS IF we “bear all the guilt” we compromise our sense that we are innocent. So, changing behaviour becomes inaccessible – because it publicly confirms our guilt instead of our innocence.

    In my conversations about climate change with a range of people who are not “environmentalists”, I most often bump into their need to uphold their internal sense of goodness and innocence. From this I have realised that what we in the environmental movement are doing is asking individuals who have only done their best to be good (to abide by culture’s rules), and who have done well at that, to recognise that, instead, they are guilty, repent and change. It is too big an ask.

    In the light of this, my strategy has become more and more to bring quickly into the conversation the cultural ideas we live by, many of which we have inherited and are therefore ‘innocent’ of, which inform us as to how to live successfully. One aspect at the heart of these cultural ideas, I suggest, is the very question “What is success?” I emphasise that our culture’s model of success is that of win/lose – i.e. to destroy is to win; to accumulate wealth at others’ expense is to win etc. etc. If, as a society, we were to come to agreement that the best model of success is win/win, this would shape everything, including our economic systems and our individual aspirations, differently.

    This is more than idealistic rhetoric. And I am not making a political argument; I am speaking purely psychologically. I have found that, when I place the blame or the guilt on the inherited culture, it relieves the individual people I am speaking with of the THREAT of guilt and they do, while talking with me, retain their sense of goodness and innocence. They have engaged with me then in exploring more about what a green future might look like and there is more of a feeling of “we’re all in this together” rather than “we’re on opposite sides and if you get your way it will mean that I can’t have mine” – which the discussion between Tom and Victoria has highlighted.

    I think, therefore, that there is a role for the marketing industry to address itself directly to CULTURE rather than to PRODUCTS. By marketing different cultural ideas (not lifestyles), questioning our win/lose models, showing models of success which are rooted in co-operation and win/win outcomes, demonstrating that, in a finite system, the thriving of the individual ultimately depends upon the thriving of the whole, this industry can change the frame in such a way which would enable people to know that they have always been good and innocent, (that they are, therefore, not being accused of anything un-bearable) which would keep their life-energy available to change their behaviours – because there is no risk of being publicly shamed.

    It may sound like a trick, but I don’t think it is. Rather, I think that this draws upon one of the ways in which therapy enables people who are really in touch with their fragility and vulnerability to turn and face, with courage, whatever it is that has previously been impossible to face. I think that we can learn from what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard” which upholds people’s intrinsic sense of core value at all times. It also is a form of what Jung encouraged – a “participation mystique” in which the analyst is able to mediate unconscious fantasy by entering into it with the person instead of standing outside it and trying to change it from there.

    What I am about to say is not the total picture, but I have to own that there is a sense in which, for me personally, to be an environmentalist is my latest version of being good. I hope I’m not alone!

    All the best,


  • Sandra White - July 20, 2009 reply

    Further to my entry on 18/7/09, I think that the Orange campaign “I am who I am because of everyone” was entering the territory I am suggesting. The slogan presented a cultural idea which challenges individualism, and the text profile of each person painted a picture of interconnectedness. They were not advertising Orange products, rather they were celebrating successful outcomes in a range of fields, which Orange had presumably supported in some way – also demonstrating interconnectedness. I have no memory of what the products were, but the slogan and the long, text profiles are still strong and resonant in my mind. This would work differently among people of different mindsets, but repetition of this approach might gradually seep in.

  • Victoria Hurth - July 27, 2009 reply

    Hi Sandra,

    thank you for these really useful comments. What your thoughts point to is something I am very passionate about – that we need to understand why people act the way they do and work with that- rather than standing from a far off point telling them they are in the wrong place. As you say we are fragile and our consumerist actions have a strong cultural, social and identity ‘logic’ to them which are underpinned but symbolic shortcuts. We need to work on that logic and so that sustainable action become logical and the unsustainable one’s illogical. The commonly held notion of success is a key symbolic logic that works fundamental against the idea of sustainability, it is strongly connected to notions of the ‘good life’ and in turn the power of the affluent identity.

    I agree that we shouldn’t focus on the individual as this puts too much pressure, but need to tackle the ‘logic’ at a product level (as well as all other levels of human engagement) as it is at the product level where the stories reinforcing the logic are told and then retold as we use and share those products. As with your Orange example, if done well this can not only alter the product level story (which influences the macro level) but also deal directly at the macro societal level…there is an upside to postmodern advertising!

    I would be really interested to see any papers/ articles you have written on this.

    All the best


  • Sandra White - July 29, 2009 reply

    Hi, Victoria,

    thank you for your response.

    I really want to encourage you to think again about the marketing industry only focusing at the product level. I agree that the Orange example was powerful. Part of what made it so was that it was not a campaign that was directly selling the products. At least, that is how it came across to me. For example, on the ad about the man who had cycled round the world, I found it extremely hard to gather what product was being sold (which may, of course, say more about me than it!). That particular advert brought home to me that what Orange was doing was CELEBRATING SUCCESS and they were placing that success in the frame of the man’s own narrative – which was that he could not have done it without the involvement of “everyone” – even with all his own, individual hard work and intelligence.

    From a sustainability point of view, we all know that an agenda to maintain an economic system founded on the manufacture and sale of products is holding us on the wrong trajectory. However, I think we also know that, psychologically speaking, the shock of simply stopping (were this practically possible, which of course it isn’t)would also be too great. At the moment, the shock of even contemplating this idea is itself too great. For it does not “make sense” to the majority of people who are completely identified with our prevailing economic system, for whom the current system is logical. To simply stop would crush their inner identities; I think it would be psychologically experienced as too great a defeat and we would reap significant other problems as a result. People are validly defending themselves against this possibility, in my view (from a purely psychological point of view).

    So I continue to think that an area we have to direct people’s attention to is our cultural, collective understanding of “What is success?”. It seems to me that there is a very poor understanding in the general population, and at the top of our society within the public and private sectors, that the success of the whole is the REQUIRED STATE for ongoing, longterm success of individuals. That, for us to leave a trail of destruction behind us each time we create a new product and build a new factory to make it etc, is NOT an image of success, it is rather, an image of FAILURE.

    This was further reinforced to me when I read Curtis White’s article “The Barbaric Heart” in Orion magazine and I wonder if you have seen it? If not, it’s at

    I find this article to be extremely accurate in its descriptions of a particular mindset which drives our culture and our systems and which is, intrinsically, a valid part of being human. Again, our culture has fostered this mindset over centuries and millenia so that it has become our default underpinning set of ideas for the dominant culture. I think that one of our difficulties is that, as awareness grows at all levels of impending resource shortages, the “barbaric”, conquering mindset is going to be perceived by many as the ALTRUISTIC choice. I think this is extremely important for us to understand. There is NOT a clear distinction between ALTRUISM = SELF-SACRIFICIAL ACTION FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE COLLECTIVE and ACTION WHICH IS FOR ‘MY’ BENEFIT THEREFORE DOES NOT BENEFIT THE COLLECTIVE AND IS BY DEFINITION SELFISH RATHER THAN ALTRUISTIC. I think that this is a dangerous, false distinction. For the “barbaric” mindset as Curtis describes it, to conquer as much as possible of the remaining resources to benefit one’s own tribe is the proper, heroic choice and there is altruism in it. We have a difficulty in that, with the atomisation of society which has been accelerated over the past 50 years or more, these days there is a danger that “one’s tribe” only really extends to “one’s immediate family”. However, rooted in our need to know ourselves to be good and innocent, I think that one of the symbolic shortcuts that happens is that when we fight to make ourselves and our immediate circle the conquerors, we really unconsciously believe that we are acting in the interests of the whole because we are “strengthening the gene pool”. (“We” in the sense of our culture, not as individuals). I think that this cultural idea, which has been fostered particularly strongly in the last 15 years with the increased publicity surrounding genetic exploration, has taken a greater hold in the collective psyche. Added to this, it also seems natural that, in the face of impending disaster, individuals will want to shore up their defences even more intensely. For wealthy people who are not connected with the environmental agenda, all this may translate into accummulating more and more assets to guarantee themselves a position of control when the going gets really tough. And the rest of our society holds the extremely wealthy up as the model to aspire to, as we know. They will set the trends …

    Without changing our cultural understanding that the whole needs to thrive for individuals to thrive – and that individuals at the top are actually completely dependent on the majority of individuals below them also thriving if they don’t want to end up living incredibly narrow lives cooped up in gated communities – I don’t believe that the confluence you are pursuing between affluent and ecological identities can be achieved. The frame needs to be widened substantially. If we don’t widen the frame, we are asking people to practice self-sacrifice which associates with poverty (as shown by your example of the woman who needs to keep buying bigger and bigger cars to show herself how far she has progressed since her poor student days) instead of self-sacrifice which associates with nobility. The marketing industry has an extraordinarily powerful role to play here, in my view.

    I regret that I have not yet published anything on this subject! Articles to date have been for niche, green-spiritual audiences and, while aiming to promote better understanding of psychology and ecopsychology, the flavour of it has been highly subjective.

    With best wishes,


  • Victoria Hurth - August 4, 2009 reply

    Thanks Sandra,

    I fear I may have slightly misrepresented what I am trying to saying on a couple of counts.

    Firstly I am definitely not arguing the marketing industry should only focus on the product level. It is critical that where CSR policies and budgets can be given, well considered use of media space should be used cultural social marketing – to actively promote more sustainable cultures and identities. If we are talking about philanthropic propaganda by the marketing industries (i.e. non product) that is absolutely not ultimately about products/services, then we are talking about them donating money to organisations (like a project called LoCEM which I am involved with around media fro sustainable communities). This would require them not putting their brand name to it but just report it as a good act in their annual review.

    This non product level action by the marketing industry is very important, and creates a culture where they explicitly understand the role of marketing in shaping sustainable identities. However action by marketing on this level alone is not enough as it has fairly tight limits (they are not going to do much of this and only if their product level advertising works).

    At this point you might say that Orange’s ad is not at the product level – I would argue although not directly about a product, was most certainly indirectly about selling products. It was about building brand relationship and loyalty which they know will sell more of their products and services. If this did not work, they would not do it. Perhaps it didn’t work, in which case they won’t do it again. Tim Kasser made a similar point on the ‘Is this the ultimate in green marketing?’ blog

    Either we ban advertising at the product level (which a) won’t happen and b) even without ads marketing can effectively create symbolic links through other tools in its mix – while products continue to exist and be sold they are unavoidably being embedded with cultural meaning, both by marketeers and by people who use them, or even talk about them. Additionally, products/services are used as cultural resources and as you rightly say this cannot just be stopped. The breakdown in traditional hierarchies of cultures means although we always have relied on products as cultural resources (Douglas) we now rely very heavily on consumption to shape our social world (Beck, Featherstone etc) and identities.

    Therefore product level marketing action must play a role if it’s not going to carry on as usual. To ignore this level is to let the current situation of perpetuation of unsustainable identities persist unhindered at the product level would be unwise.

    But dealing at this level is not easy as (as Tim Kasser’s comment also highlighted – you can cause more harm than good). The key question when dealing at this level is: how should the marketing industry be persuaded to design, price, distribute and promote its products in a way that creates cultures and identities that consume far less overall (but more of that particular companies – i.e. steady state competition) – be that through value change or some other kind of identity change.

    I agree with you fundamentally that questioning what we see as success is crucial (and have argued this on a number of occasions over the years), but this is not the only aspect. For example, a sub-question of the question above is what are the values, specific beliefs, systems of interaction, norms, definitions of success and notions of the good life that will create cultures where this reduction in resource use is possible?

    This will not result in one answer, but many. Some believe we need a distinct set of values such as explicit connection with nature and altruism, for others this is not the case and instead we need to let people keep their value systems which are likely to have their own validity and instead work on norms and systems. For some audiences the value message will resonate, for others it will repulse and the same for normative messages.

    Additionally, these are not clear cut concepts and so are unlikely to result in clear answers – like your example of altruism. I would argue success is not clear cut either. Success ultimately is a relative concept, even when success couldn’t have been achieved without others, it is still based on someone else doing worse (like the tribal concept you talked of).

    So although I agree we should question and help re-define success we must be careful if we try and emphasise the collective. Either this net needs to be so broad to encompass the whole of life on earth (which I think is the best approach and I think that is what you are saying as well), or it needs to work on a more traditional spiritual basis where success is only relative to one’s own past achievements and personal development (in relation to collective morals and values) – and not based on others. This is to sacrifice some of the collective aspects you talk of but I feel this version of success also needs to be revived.

    What has been a very dangerous advance in the decades is that success has been placed somewhere in the middle – firmly at the door of the individual, in relations to their immediate lifestyles groups but also explicitly connected to the global wealthy/celebrity. This creates a nightmare for positional consumption that Fred Hirsch highlighted.

    I hope I have explained myself a little better here. I think we have to call for action at the product level but it is a dangerous game, two of the key questions are – 1) what are the messages we want marketing to deliver to create sustainable identities and 2) how can we help marketing to voluntarily create the change needed within its own constraints? (of cause regulation is also an option but not one we are specifically talking about here). I have suggested promoting steady state competition based on long term market survival as one potential approach.



  • Sandra White - August 10, 2009 reply

    Hi, Victoria,

    thanks for all of this!

    You have brought out all the nuances and subtleties involved beautifully and, of course, I agree that there is no single approach. In my turn, I wasn’t meaning to suggest that Orange were operating only out of altruism; they were promoting their brand, powerfully allying it to achievement and success.

    Are there any examples you can point me to of marketing, whether of products or ‘culture’, which promotes steady state competition based on long term market survival?

    With best wishes,

  • Victoria Hurth - August 19, 2009 reply

    No I can’t think of any examples Sandra, but a discourse needs to start (within Marketers and society as a whole)as many people within ‘our world’ are continuously pointing out.

    What is interesting is thinking about how such an approach could be embedded in the culture of business and therefore be reflected in their communications – of course this would put a heightened emphasis on competition within markets (rather than growing the whole) but at the same time would underline long-term relationships with customers, quality and service (all of which have are hot topics already – rhetorically!). I can think of the types of communications that would reflect this – ‘x company is not trying to get bigger, just better’ ‘x company cares more about providing long term quality for a few than selling a lot to many’ ‘x company knows that a fragile world can only support a limited number of companies – we are one of them’.

    There are of course flaws with all of the above but just a quick brainstorm of the sort of messaging! Any ideas?

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