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.
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?