Wayne Rooney’s choice of car comes courtesy of his club sponsor Chevrolet. His Camaro convertible retails from around £41, 230, runs at an average 20.5 miles per gallon, and according to Chevrolet’s website is “a dream for countless schoolchildren”. A video on manutd.com shows Rooney and fellow teammates excitedly picking cars to add to their collections.
These are our society’s role models, living the dream of countless schoolchildren. But the life they convey is not only unsustainable – it is increasingly unavailable.
A burgeoning middle class in a world of seven billion people, all looking to spend cash on the same resource-intensive items, will soon find there is not enough to go around.
Sustainability consultant and former advertising executive Vicky Grinnell-Wright of Best Foot Forward recently founded the UK Dream programme, inspired by a movement in China. “About five years ago Peggy Liu started working on the ‘China Dream’, with the premise that the rise of the middle class is likely to reach 800 million [in China] sometime soon.
“If they all pursue the ‘American Dream’ not only will we all be in catastrophic trouble but also there won’t be enough stuff to make the stuff to deliver that. With such a rapidly rising middle class wanting to spend money, how can you channel that in a way that is sustainable?”
One way is by finding new role models, conveying a lifestyle that is both aspirational and sustainable. But do they exist? “I think they exist but sometimes they don’t help”, suggests Alan Knight, sustainability director at BITC.
“A role model for a truly sustainable life is harder,” he says, “because the way we articulate it currently is too difficult for people and unobtainable, like Ben Law living in a forest … it’s an interesting story but most people will never do that. What they do is provoke a debate, but what they don’t do is get enough people to say: ‘I really wish I was like them’.”
At Marks & Spencer, the current role model of choice is Joanna Lumley. “They chose her for a reason”, says Knight. “She’s a celeb that people admire. If M&S had advertised Shwopping with children cuddling a sapling, it would only reach a small proportion who respond to that type of communication.”
Richard Gillies, director of Plan A at M&S, says that Joanna Lumley was chosen for being “a cool and relevant role model … we have seen other examples, when the Toyota Prius first came out and you had Hollywood celebrities driving around in one – all of a sudden the Prius was cool and terribly successful.”
The trouble is, celebrities driving a Prius is so 2004. And with respect to Lumley, in the eyes of schoolchildren she’s no Wayne Rooney. Young people, argues Grinnell-Wright, “don’t want to be told they can either be consumers or be good people – they want to do both, and expect brands and businesses to evolve what they offer to enable them to have both.”
Therein, says Gillies, lies a potential answer. Business may be even better positioned than celebrity to push sustainability into the mainstream – to become the ‘new normal’: “It is less about criticising the role models we have today, and more about how we engage consumers, how we engage society, by creating goods and services that are better, more attractive, more accessible and more convenient.” This, he says, is central to M&S’s proposition. “You can’t now buy anything other than free-range eggs from M&S or in any of its products; you can’t buy unsustainably sourced wild fish from M&S … the vast majority of any wood-based products or anything with cardboard packaging is now FSC-approved … We have a responsibility not to market to ‘deep greens’, but make sustainability much more accessible to the mainstream market.”
This is also known as “choice editing”, that by being given fewer unsustainable choices we automatically lead more sustainable lives. “I led the peat taskforce for a couple of years for Defra”, says Knight, “looking at how to get the industry to phase out peat [from bagged compost]. The retailers and producers told us that … customers don’t care what’s in the bag, they just want it to work. We don’t need Joanna Lumley on telly saying ‘buy peat free’, we just need to change the formulation of the grow bags … One of the more sophisticated conversations that we in industry need to have is where can we make our products more sustainable, and where do we really need to involve the customer.”
So do we need role models at all? “If we made sustainable behaviour more cool then it would happen more,” says Knight. “My argument would be the marketing and communications professions know how to make things cool … at the moment we’re not asking enough marketing professionals to look at this.”
Currently, the sustainability agenda can even be offputting to brands, says Louise Stevens, sustainability manager at Innocent Drinks. Despite her organisation’s admirable sustainability credentials, “we have never seen sustainability as a purchase driver … I think there is a disconnect between the super-powerful world of marketing and sustainability, because it just isn’t a reason to make consumers want to buy a product in the first place.”
Marketing and sustainability are the two worlds that Grinnell-Wright’s UK Dream programme and BITC’s Start initiative are currently trying to bring closer together. Knight argues that: “There’s a whole range of products where the citizen will be more sustainable because retailers offer them the sustainable choice.
“But there remains other areas where only the citizen can make the difference … retailers can stock only MSC-certified fish, but if a customer buys three and throws two away then that fish is still unsustainable. We can’t choice edit that – and that’s where a high-profile celebrity role model can help to have that conversation with customers.”
Just imagine if Wayne Rooney and his teammates were to arrive at their training ground in Zip cars. And not only one per car, but backseats full of superstar footballers, arriving together. What if that were the “dream of countless schoolchildren” instead of the gas-guzzling sports car? It would give Joanna Lumley a break, if nothing else.
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