Corporate responsibility - it's a matter of desire

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I chaired a seminar here this morning jointly hosted with the up and coming brand communication consultancy TLG. The focus was sustainable and ethical business, but as is often the case with these things, it was hard to get past the motherhood and apple pie declarations of corporate goodwill. I came away thinking that it is in the sphere of product development and marketing that the real test of corporate responsibility lies. 

There is no question that a lot of companies are taking carbon reduction seriously. Paul Kelly from ASDA laid out this morning some very ambitious objectives that have been publicly set for his company. Hearing from other brands and also listening to the work of  the Carbon Trust and Fairtrade it was also clear that more companies are beginning to look seriously not just at their own shop window but also at their supply chains. 

But the aim still seems to be to manage the carbon impacts of whatever products consumers can be persuaded to buy. I remember writing a very early blog on the subject of digital photo frames. Millions of people have bought this product even though – as I understand it - it requires three pieces of equipment to be on all the time (the PC, the router and the frame itself).  

With many products the big carbon impacts are very clear and could be addressed with innovation. For mobile phones, for example, it is chargers being left on, the energy used in accessing the network and the impact of people replacing their handsets every few months. At last, smart chargers are now being developed that turn themselves off after a certain time, but why has it taken so long to address this and how hard will the industry push to diffuse this technology? 

Our persuasive technologies project here at the RSA aims to get into some of these issues by exploring how design of products and processes can encourage pro-social behaviour. But the corporate sector as a whole has to be willing not just to celebrate the way it is trying to green what it does, but to ask how it might work with Government and consumers to change unsustainable behaviours.  

Last night I read a great essay by Mark Hopkinson from University College Oxford about the rise of consumerism. I had no idea that as early as 1932 Franklin Roosevelt said ‘I believe we are at the threshold of a fundamental change in our popular economic thought; that in the future we are going to think less about the producer and more about the consumer’.  

Hopkinson’s big point is that the flaw with consumer politics (the idea that politics should be judged by whether it meets our demands as consumers) lies in the insatiability of our desires. And, as Neal Lawson will argue in his forthcoming book ‘All Consuming’, marketing and advertising is all about increasing and channelling that insatiability.  

Hopkinson ends his piece with this statement: 

‘…if consumer aspirations are fuelled but not limited by the growth of the economy, while its politics are based around satisfying those aspirations, then down-payments on future growth are likely to be stretched and accelerated‘.

 Absolutely - and, by the way, not a bad description of the mind set that led ultimately to the credit crunch. 

A really challenging corporate agenda on sustainability would be about the manufacturing of desires not just how to reduce the impact of meeting those desires.

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