We have to make ‘green’ sexy.
Those were the words of UNFCCC Chief Christiana Figueres as she addressed an audience at the Rio+20 Earth Summit.
“Today I got green thread tied around my wrist by a youth who said Christiana please help us make green sexy,” she said.
“Well that is exactly what we need to do. We need to make it so sexy that it becomes the norm. I thank you all for contributing to making green sexy. But I challenge you. We have to do it not tomorrow, not the day after: we have to do it now!”
For too long, green lifestyles have been put into two categories. On the one hand, we have the hair-shirt wearing, dreadlocked eco-hippies, and on the other we have the middle-class, white, yummy mummy. Green has either been too ‘out there’ for people or too expensive.
Now is the time to bring everyone into the fold, but how?
From the Future Foundation’s ideas on consumer trends, to H&M’s sustainability principles and insights by those set to be the designers of the future, I have gone some way to answering the question of how we make green sexy.
This idea of making green attractive, exciting or sexy is not one that was thought up in Rio. A Google search brings up a wealth of information and ideas going back years.
In fact, back in 2005, the Sustainable Industries Journal asked the exact same question to a number of marketing agencies.
The results ranged from companies who felt we needed education to those who felt sustainability had to align with consumers’ individual needs.
And today still there are wealth of people coming up with new (some newer than others) ideas on how to make sustainability sexy.
There are whole websites dedicated to the task. Take for example, greenissexy.org – set up by three friends in the US who found issues of sustainability coming up in conversation nearly everyday.
Talking about sustainability and caring for the environment have for a long time now been the social norm. If someone told you they couldn’t be bothered to recycle, you’d think they were a little odd.
But when it comes to our bigger lifestyle choices, there is a disconnect between what we say and what we do.
But is this something we can control?
Dominic Harrison, Head of Global Trends, at the Future Foundation, a research consultancy that focuses on consumer trends, says humans are naturally reactive rather than proactive.
“The big events in life, the big disasters and the big extreme weather events, acute scarcity of resources – all of these impact on our behaviour,” he said.
“The biggest thing to make sustainability sexy is the pictures of disaster and shortage of energy which will make people change. And it has definitely had a big impact in Japan.
“It became clear that that event [the earthquake and tsunami] probably did more than any other government campaign to make people act more sustainably. Lots of people in Tokyo and the big cities have actually tried to reduce their energy consumption because of the events of that particular disaster.”
It’s not all bad news. Where companies and organisations can drive people towards more sustainable lifestyles, Harrison says there are three key trends that can be used to their advantage.
The Creative Consumer: “Nowadays how people see us is not so much about the wealth we have or the types of products we own or the things we can afford to buy… It is becoming more about the types of people we are and how creative we are.
“When I was in Tokyo we looked at this small pop-up shop that had opened and they invited people to design their own gift cards for example in the run up to Christmas, so allowing people to get hands on and create things. What is stopping a charity, or a more sustainably minded company enabling people to do that with recycled items for example, to get creative with materials.”
The Quantified Self: “It is essentially talking about how we as consumers are creating huge amounts of data in our everyday lives…If you have a smart phone you are able to monitor how many calories you consume in a day or how many miles you walk or how much water you drink.
“Why do people actually use them. One is to be able to analyse their activity, the second is for people to understand their impacts – on the world or on their health – and thirdly to motivate them…You can easily apply that to the environment.”
Harrison uses the example of the Nissan Leaf car which includes a data monitoring system in the dashboard.
The system collects data on driving efficiency and essentially turns it into a game where drivers go up against one another.
Smart Consumer: “Since the recession has hit people are a lot more resourceful. You could describe it as taking a slightly more professional approach to consumption. People are budgeting more, they are taking more care when they are shopping for a big purchase – spending a lot more time researching, asking their friends about their previous experience with a brand or whether a particular product does a good job.
“What about temporary ownership of goods and services? When you are concerned about spending so much money on something why not go for the alternative means of enjoying an experience or a product. Actually renting products rather than owning them outright.”
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Purchasing power and designing for sustainability
How and where we purchase products will have a huge role to play in pushing for sustainable business practices.
UNFCCC chief Figueres called on young people to make ‘green’ choices while shopping and put direct pressure on big business.
But choosing the right products will largely be dependent on what is available – and sometimes there is not a lot on offer for the green shopper.
My next stop on my quest for an answer was to London’s New Designers show 2012, a showcase of some of the countries best young design graduates. Who better to ask those people who will be making the sustainable products of the future?
Appealing to the right people
For one young graduate, Catlyn Adams, making green sexy is all about appealing to the right people.
“I think it is starting to get a little sexy,” she said. “But I think it is quite a middle class thing at the moment. I think to make it sexier you have to try and appeal to the youth rather than just the mums with the money – young trendy mums.
“They are the ones that really go with it now but I think if you make it cool with the younger generations – whether that is through schemes, actual interaction services, campaigns, that sort of thing – not making it nerdy or just for hippies but making it the in thing.”
Making green the norm
For Hamish Glover-Wilson sustainability does not have to be sexy. He says it should just be “an integral part of design rather than making it ‘this is a green product and that is not so green.”
For James Ward, it is about making sure green designs live up to all the other criteria placed on them.
“You have to look at the design of a product and make it attractive – not only visually but financially,” he says.
“Often you can get green products but they have extortionate prices tags on them. You have to make it affordable, either cheaper than the existing product or the same at an equal level of performance.”
So getting people to buy green products could be about removing the stigma that is often attached to them suggesting they are not going to be as good as the leading brand.
Building sustainability into aesthetics
It’s also about convincing consumers that buying green does not mean poorly fitted, uncomfortable hemp trousers.
H&M have deliberately sold their Conscious Collection on fashion rather than green merits.
Their Head of Sustainability Catarina Midby, told me: “It’s always about fashion AND sustainability, never one or the other. But it is always about fashion first – attractive clothes and accessories you look and feel great in.
“Our customers come to us for fashion, although the added value of sustainability is of utmost importance to our conscious customers.”
The truth is that many of those wearing H&M Conscious Collection clothing today, could be completely unaware they are part of the company’s sustainability strategy.
But for those who are environmentally conscious, they can use this information to make a choice of where to shop and what to buy.
If more consumers refuse to buy from stores which do not offer transparent and strict rules on sustainability, then there could be a further drive by companies to invest in ‘greener’ ranges.
But while the rhetoric on sustainability appears to be becoming the norm, people’s actions are still lagging behind.
H&M have proved you can make green sexy.
Now it’s up to businesses and organisations (and consumers) to take these ideas and put them into action, so that sustainability really does become sexy.
Five top tips to making green sexy:
– Educate children that green living doesn’t have to be boring.
– Use people’s obsession with data and gadgets to make going green fun
– Get your hands dirty and get creative – and encourage employees and consumers to do the same
– Make sure ‘green’ appeals to young people with the buying power
– Make sure eco-products still mean good quality, exciting styles and affordable price tags