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Why We’ll Never Be Sustainable If We Keep Thinking About ‘Consumers’
October 8, 2012
At the recent unveiling of Nokia’s latest smartphone, the Lumia 920, CEO Stephen Elop optimistically discussed his company’s renewed focus on delivering a product that consumers would be happy with. Stephen Elop isn’t alone in caring about consumers. Steve Jobs proudly claimed that the Apple "DNA is as a consumer company"; Robert Iger, ex-CEO of Disney professed "to go where the consumer wants to go"' while Thorsten Heins, upon his appointment to RIM, makers of Blackberry phones, committed to making the company "more consumer-oriented." The sentiment in each statement is the same, a commitment to the people who use their product, to design with empathy and consideration.
But how many of us think of ourselves as "consumers" — mindlessly imbibing products and services like bottomless garbage digesters? The term reduces us to a set of dollar signs. It values us purely for the notes in our wallets and seems to overlook how and why we value the things we buy and use.
Sadly, it is not only profit-motivated businesses that champion consumers. Across the Atlantic, two men wrestle for the votes of the American populace. The fact that "consumer confidence" in America has reached its lowest level since 1952 is a matter of grave concern to Obama and Romney alike. Nurturing the willingness of the American people to spend and encouraging them to "consume" appears to be one of the primary means by which the leaders of the world’s most influential country hope to improve the position of their nation and the people within it. American leaders are by no means the only ones to be obsessed with resuscitating consumption, just the loudest.
Does the hope for "a recovery" really rest upon rekindling our willingness to spend, use and spend again? Is our economic and social well-being so inextricably linked to ceaseless consumption?
A few examples offer hope of another way forward.
At its most basic, Threadless it is a T-shirt manufacturer and online retailer. But according to CEO and founder Jake Nickell, the company is "the customer." The strength of the organisation resides in its online community of over one million members (growing by 20,000 each month). Each week, these members submit over 1000 T-shirt designs. They then vote on each other’s designs to determine which will be printed and sold via the site. This on-demand model of production ensures very little stock overflow, feeding what consumptive appetite does exist on an as-needed basis. In a 2006 paper published in Sloan Management Review, Frank Pillar surveyed Threadless members and noted that “almost no one was simply consuming. They were all participating.” Threadless is not simply an online retailer —t is a club, a hobby, a community — and as such, so much more valued by its members who return time and time again to participate. With 200% annual growth and revenues of over $30m, Threadless demonstrates that the consumption of products is only one of a number of ways in which people can bring value to businesses.
“What makes eBay successful — the real value and the real power at eBay — is the community. It's the buyers and sellers coming together and forming a marketplace. It's really this 'of the people, by the people, for the people' environment. It's a very bottom-up environment. It's not the kind of approach that's top-down, centrally directed. ... I think there's a potential for a lot of interesting business models that share with eBay the same principle.”
The success of eBay indicates the promise of an economy based not on consumption but on redistribution. It highlights that people can bring as much value to a business as users, collaborators and participators as they do in their role as consumers.
It may seem an issue of semantics, but language is important in structuring our perspective of the landscape of opportunities and possibilities. As long as businesses consider people primarily as "consumers" they are unlikely to perceive the myriad of other relationships that can generate value. eBay, Threadless, WhipCar and Airbnb are just a few examples of businesses that have discovered untapped sources of wealth in relationships of partnership and collaboration. These relationships maximize the use of resources rather than encouraging us to consume more. It is clear that the politicians are not going to lead the movement from a consumer society to a more sustainable system. Businesses have the power to change the system. A more humble place to start is changing a word.