This morning, on my way to the WOYP clubhouse, I saw some orange juice ads. That isn’t so unusual, of course, and neither is the fact that the orange juice was advertising itself as pure, non-concentrated, unsweetened, organic goodness, that’s what orange juice generally advertises itself as. What was interesting was that this was only the latest in an serious trend towards green, sustainable, and organic themes that I can only assume is sweeping the advertising world. Internet, I’m actually conflicted about this trend.
On one hand, it is fairly obvious that many large companies – producers of orange juice, food, and anything else that can be made sustainably – have no intention of changing their manufacturing or distribution practices to reflect anything resembling a social or environmental conscience, and the ads are disingenuous, manipulative, and exploitative of many a well-intentioned consumer. On the other hand, ads appealing to conscientious consumers could represent the growing influence of environmental and social concerns over consumer trends. Perhaps this is the start of an exciting progression, and in a few years it will be impossible to sell anything that doesn’t come with some kind of promise of sustainability. It sounds unlikely, but why not be optimistic?
Well, because lots of smart people like Heather Rogers aren’t being optimistic for some very good reasons. Heather Rogers, who has a new book out, in which she decries what she calls “armchair environmentalism.” She’s justifiably annoyed with “green” products and ideas that at best hardly do any good, and at worst actually hurt the environment. For instance, the infinitely annoying “carbon offset” credits where you can pay someone to plant enough trees to balance out all the carbon you left in the atmosphere when you rode an airline or drove your car. The trees in question won’t absorb enough carbon for a good hundred years, if they aren’t cut down before that. And personally, I’m pretty sure carbon offsets are a lot like knocking the planet in the head, and then getting it an icepack. It doesn’t change the original offense, it just sort of makes us feel better. Heather Rogers’ point, in the interview I read, is that many of these “green” initiatives, like hybrid cars and food labeling, just help us ignore the larger problems cause by the way we live. Hybrid cars help us drive more and worry less, organic labels on food help us buy more and think less about what we buy.
But let’s go back, for a minute, to my optimistic take on organic themes in advertising. I think we are in the middle of a crucial time, when the current enthusiasm for conscientious consumption can either become a shallow passing fad, or grow into a new framework for how we conduct ourselves as consumers. What companies are doing with these ads is recognizing that people want to buy “green” products, figuring out how to frame their existing products as “green,” and courting consumers with ads that present those products as “green.” What we, as consumers, must do, is seize this moment when companies are looking at sustainable values and movements, and looking for how we decide if products fit these values. If we tell them that we decide based on what their ads say, or based on whether or not their ads “seem trustworthy” (which usually means getting actors and models for the ads, and ceos for the companies, that look and act like the target market) or whether or not the product has an “Organic” label of some kind stamped on it, (another of Heather Rogers’ points: many of the organizations that certify products with those labels aren’t exactly legit, and anyway a lot of those labels were just put there by the manufacturer and don’t mean anything) if we judge products based on advertising, spokespeople that look honest, or dubious labeling, what looks like a movement now will be a passe trend before you can say “focus group.” HOWEVER, if we do our homework and judge the products we buy based on where they come from, how they’re made, and who makes them (and I mean actually look that information up and don’t buy anything unless you’re certain you know it’s whole story down to every detail) I have faith that companies will realize that consumer attitudes are changing, and that conscientious products are the only ones people want to buy.
Before I end this post, I want to mention, briefly, this bit of news: Santa Clara County, CA, supervisors have passed a law prohibiting restaurants from selling meals that contain toys for kids if those meals do not meet minimum nutrition requirements. This law sends an important message to food producers: “if you want to sell food with toys in order to lure kids, that’s fine, but we expect you to uphold a standard of nutrition for those kids, and we are going to actually test your food to make sure you do so.” Similar nutrition laws have already passed here in New York and elsewhere, but point that these laws make, and that we can all help make by carefully choosing what we buy (vote with your dollar, to appropriate a free market mantra), is that we will judge products not on their advertised qualities, but on the factual details of their origin.