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Forget the 'S' Word: How to Make a Sustainable Lifestyle Sexy and Aspirational

Rob & Mart Drake-Knight, founders of eco-fashion brand Rapanui, appeal to consumers through hip images and messaging, not by preaching the virtues of sustainable clothing. | Image credit: Julian Winslow

This is a call for lots less chatter, twitter and yammer about the earth’s limits and in place of those, a world of new, real and lively conversations around ‘persuasive’ limits.

Let me give an example of why: According to the latest data, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere have reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history. The problem, however, is that that very sentence is capable of making otherwise contented people run screaming for the nearest copy of Hello magazine.

Quite aside from the folly of our somewhat paralysing and polarising language of fear, we are also constantly forgetting (or ignoring?) that 17 million — yes, that many — UK adults have the numeracy skills of a primary school child. The number of innumerate adults in England has grown by up to two million in eight years and yet, in spite of this we, the science and sustainability community, continue with our tireless use of the periodic table (CO2), measures (grams and ppm) and numbers. Arguably, Esperanto would be a more accessible and unifying language than this!

Ignoring the complex science, we do turn to ‘simple’ percentages: 97% of scientists agree that climate change is manmade, but so what? Our telling and retelling of that story has led to less than a 50% public buy-in, which has to beg the question: Will saying it again louder, more clearly, more scarily or more earnestly really help? Surely that is the ultimate triumph of hope over experience? The earth may have limits but so does our ability to change consumer and citizen behaviour with sheer will — wanting it to be ‘so’ is not enough.

Many attempts have been made to ‘communicate sustainability’ without the use of the numbers. Not all of these have gone well. A notable recent example, reported in the Guardian, is the rapidly removed Hyundai ad. Selling low-emissions vehicles on the basis that they are hard to end your life in was, as it turned out, not a massive public hit and has, in all likelihood, left the brand teams with a very big job to do. However, they are not alone there is a litany of the same. It is also proof positive that we need a re-think. Communicating ‘sustainability’ is not doing it for brands or consumers!

It is time to wake up to our limits. The barrier to change is not a lack of information. The absence of a shared new, desirable and yet socially, environmentally and economically sustainable dream is.

We need a new dream; a new UK Dream and a whole host of re-examined and culturally relevant dreams around the globe. The dream process was born in China, when Peggy Liu recognised that should c1 billion people aim for an ‘American Dream’ lifestyle, environmental limits would be smashed. She and Julian Borra then worked together towards a Dream-in-a-box process for reshaping consumer aspirations  access vs. ownership. Experiences rather than ‘stuff’ are amongst the possibilities that are now, via leading brands, being all wrapped up and dressed up into a lifestyle we can feel good about, not restricted by or forced into.

What the Dream programmes recognise is that the people who can truly shape and sell sustainability may lack the in-depth knowledge or climate change-centric metrics, but they are well-versed in human irrationality, cravings and emotional appeal. These people are storytellers and dream weavers and priests and script writers who understand that we humans make complex choices based on very human impulses. These impulses include the desire to show our status, to have a life of pleasure, to care for our families or stay connected to our friends. Environmental experts need to now hold hands with those very people who started the consumer revolution; the people that know consumers inside out and back to front — marketers, social psychologists, advertisers, storytellers and branding experts.

We need a new language and brands need a new promise to offer in a homogenised world and one in which, with increasing regularity, we see brands exposed by their social or environmental ‘bad’ deeds or incongruities.

It is time to create consumer demand that supports businesses and brands in embracing a different future. The ‘UK Dream’ is a not-for-profit that will rethink all aspects of the UK lifestyle: style and culture, well-being and living infrastructure. The project will look at what could and should be desirable and ‘normal for Norman and Norma in 2025’ and how, as a society, we can get there.

Big brands are signing up to this approach. M&S, Unilever, Mars and Rapanui were among the founding attendees at the first UK Dream workshop. This holistic approach  integrating social, environmental and economic prosperity into a cohesive whole  has been well received by businesses as they seek to align their social and environmental responsibilities and aspirations with purpose beyond, but including, profit.

Big brands are embracing a new initiative which will imaginatively engage previously disinterested UK consumers … by not mentioning the ‘S’ word and building true, new and conviction brand promise. The UK Dream challenge is to make a sustainable lifestyle sexy and aspirational.


Vicky Grinnell-Wright is founder and director of Eight Plates Consulting, which offers transition coaching, business and personal mentorship, and corporate behaviour and change strategy. Vicky's work centres around helping organisations, individuals, and brands move towards better and future-proofed business or… [Read more about Vicky Grinnell-Wright]