Sustainable Economy And The Resignification Of Success

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New sustainability codes give new meaning to the contemporary market and question the criteria for defining the concept of success

by Lena Maciel cover image Justin Sullivan / Getty Images translated by Aline Scátola

Consumerism as we know today started to be outlined over 100 years ago, during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. The people who started that movement, i.e. the owners of the first factories and their investors, probably were not completely aware of the consequences of the habits they were encouraging. After all, at that time the world did not have 7 billion inhabitants, so they thought they were living in a huge playground of unlimited resources. Now we know that’s not really the case.

An analysis carried out by the Akatu Institute in August, 2013, shows that if we keep our consumer standards as they are today, by 2050 we will need two Earths to support us. Two. The point is, in this case, we don’t have another planet easily available where we can just go and earn some miles. So it seems to me it makes a lot more sense to think about taking care of this Earth we have here around us.

Of course companies and institutions are aware of that fact, and since the early 2000s, sustainability practices are being implemented more and more frequently by all kinds of manufacturers and producers. No doubt this is an important awakening of awareness, but what we have been seeing most of the time is brands that use that surge only to drive more buyers, or a conflicting message, like multinational corporations that display green seals while also continuing to pollute rivers or destroy forests.

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Success is no longer what it used to be

The thing is, while in the past an ever-ascending trend line looked like a pot of gold in the end of the rainbow anyone could get hold of, now doing that math is no longer plausible.

In order to keep humankind viable, we need an overall mentality shift, especially concerning what should be considered a successful person or business. The criteria of “success” have changed.

While the practice of excessive profits is increasingly questioned and the accumulation of personal goods and assets is no longer an absolute symbol of winning, it’s up to us to think about the new codes that will replace that old model. And a new perspective is becoming more and more relevant in that scenario: sustainable economy.

A consistent example of that kind of reasoning comes from sportswear brand Patagonia, which amid all that Black Friday madness, published a full-page ad in The New York Times called “Don’t buy this jacket,” making allusion to its best-selling piece – which, by the way, is made to last over 10 years, according to them. The message behind their ad is simple, yet contagiously bold: if you don’t need something, don’t buy it!

Patagonia Black Friday
A new advertising approach: click the image to read Patagonia’s advertisement.

Just like one of the questions brought up in “The Rise of Lowsumerism” study, the unspoken message of Patagonia’s advertisement is that just because something is on sale or crazy discounts are being offered, that doesn’t mean you have to buy it. Even if it is “cheap,” production costs are always high, and by buying anything just for the sake of it, we are feeding an industry that is depleting the few resources we still have.

The first thing consumers who are in line with a new consciousness of reality should ask themselves is: do I really need this?

Another interesting alternative is Instituto Chão’s financial proposition, which advocates for transparency to make sure they can keep their business going. Along with manufacturers who are tired of being exploited by big retail chains, their idea is to pass on to buyers only the production costs of each item, with no built-in dividends on the price tag. A blackboard above the cash register displays all their costs, and they are pretty clear about them: for every R$1 sold, they need R$0.35 to keep their business running. So it’s up to each person to contribute with what they can or will to help them pay their bills.

New ideas to reinvent old consumer habits are also growing in Amsterdam. Concerned with the savagery taking over the fashion industry, four friends got together and created a “fashion library” called LENAfencoura, focused on sharing and sustainability. To join it, you have to pay a monthly fee that allows you to borrow clothes for a period of time, depending on how many points you have.

The interesting thing is that they were able to find a sensible way to get around consumerism and relieve the hunger of people who love to refresh their wardrobe, moving away from the idea of compulsive buying encouraged by fast fashion. It’s also about giving new life to quality pieces that were just hanging there in the closet. And in case you get tired of a garment or realize it’s outdated, just trade it for something else. Basic.

In times of attacks on consumerism, it may seem contradictory to exist as a brand, because every business would find its genesis in encouraging consumption. But what those examples are showing us is that it is possible to have a lowsumer perspective on the act of buying and selling and still keep the market going. Everyone needs money, it’s the currency of survival in our economic model, but what those alternatives suggest is that we can evolve the way we make money and even learn how to spend it more sensibly and stylishly. In a subtle, yet powerful way, by supporting initiatives like those, lowsumers are disrupting a system that is not very kind to people and the planet.

Nadav Kander
Nadav Kander

A recent video published by NASA shows how air pollution in Asia, a region considered ground-zero for economic growth in the last few years, has been altering the weather in the West Coast of the United States. More than just setting apart the good guys and the bad guys (especially considering the US has been one of the world’s biggest polluters for over thirty years), NASA’s animation shows an undeniable truth: we are one! Despite any cultural, economic, or geographic barriers we made up, we are united by winds, sea currents, migratory birds, and even bees. When the ice melts in Antarctica, the coast of India will also be inundated by heavy floods.

All that rational thought that made us build satellites, develop cleaner energy sources, and create new ways of venturing in the market and in life can also help us understand that ambition and greed are different things; that it’s a lie to believe a habit I choose concerns nothing but my credit card bill and will not impact anyone else’s life. It’s clear that all the aggression against the planet one day will come back against those who most rely on that biosphere: us. So from now on, before giving in to your consumerist impulse, you should ask yourself with wholehearted honesty, “do I really need this?”

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