One of the SXSW sessions I was most intrigued about this year was Digital’s Emerging Role in Unconsumption, given by Nita Rollins of Resource Interactive. The session description asks some provocative questions about this emerging trend. But, the session was made even more interesting by the backchannel uprising…
First off, I should say that the presentation was somewhat rambling and unfocused. Rollins gave an overview of the unconsumption movement, including liberal references to New York Times’ Consumed columnist Rob Walker’s unconsumption blog, explaining that “consumers now have more options than reduce, reuse and recycle, including refuse, make, sell, and swap.” OK, I buy that (pun intended). We could argue whether anyone actually considers “reuse” different than “sell” or “swap” but it’s a fair point to demonstrate the range of options.
Then, she veered into the practice of greenwashing by brands. Honestly, most of the time the claim of greenwashing is very subjective, because marketing messages may be grounded in truth, but may not present the entire truth (for example, a textile mill might decide to reduce the amount of water used in production of cotton cloth to save on cost, with a side benefit of being friendlier to the environment). Regardless, Rollins quoted Saatchi and Saatchi as saying that the death of greenwashing comes with the rise of radical transparency.
Rollins’ point here was that greenwashing would no longer be an issue because companies are radically transparent (perhaps thanks to technology? She didn’t make this point explicitly, but I can only assume). But, that doesn’t make sense – first, there are select few companies that practice radical transparency. Look at how difficult it is for inspectors to accurately vet Nike’s factories – and they bend over backwards to give good access! Second, being transparent doesn’t address that murky situation I mentioned earlier – while I may feel that a firm is being a good corporate citizen, another person might feel that they are not presenting the “whole story” and, hence, are greenwashing.
Then, Rollins went on to discuss the ability for brands to charge a premium for green products. What either of these topics had to do with unconsumption, I don’t know. Maybe Rollins was setting the stage, but the linkages weren’t clear. Twitter started grumbling a bit here. Check out this Tweet.
Then, Rollins tried to make the case that the unconsumption movement was fueled into high gear during the current recession – craigslist barter ads were up 100%; Goodwill saw a 7.1% increase in Q1 of 2009 – impacting Target and Walmart’s bottom line for the quarter. I would argue that this had nothing to do with a philosophical movement at all, but instead was driven by pure necessity. As of September 2009, the unemployed and underemployed population under the age of 25 totaled 54%. That is the age cohort most likely to be online, and only half of them are fully employed. Think that might explain an increase in bartering?
Rollins did talk about the burgeoning communities that are forming online like maker community Etsy.com, the rise of swapping websites. I would legitimately count all of these as part of the unconsumption movement, along with the beautiful examples of art she referenced, like Michelle Brand’s amazing plastic bottle chandeliers,
But, then she veered into a supposed backlash against unconsumption. Um, really? Backlash against something that most people have never heard of? Maybe this is better described as a backlash against the recession itself: it’s mall hauling – the practice of vlogging all of your mall purchases, holding each one up to the camera in loving detail. It’s creepy. Watch if you dare:
Finally, Rollins closes with a treatise on how brands can co-opt the unconsumption framework. This is where things got really icky for me. I think there are legitimate ways for brands to be citizens and community members, but at the end of the day, if you make new stuff, by definition you are not part of unconsumption. But, Rollins felt that retailers could legitimately use the positioning with stunts like offering discounts for recycling old stuff (Gap did this with jeans recently).
I mentioned to Rollins afterward that people consider resale value significantly in their purchase decisions, but brands don’t even use that in marketing – she didn’t know of any brands doing so either. She also hadn’t heard that Best Buy is planning on taking their online Trade In pilot into stores.
After the live blogging dust settled on the session, Rob Walker got pretty steamed about the whole concept of the presentation. He has been very active on Twitter in the past few days reaching out to Rollins and some of the workshop attendees to clarify that he sees this talk as an affront to unconsumption. His sad/upset tweets on the subject, which I think are both justified on moral grounds, and right intellectually, have been lambasted by session attendees, so he felt that he needed to write a longer blog post explaining his position. Also, since then he reached out to Rollins, but she did not respond and they have had a discussion.
All in all, I have to say Rollins did not handle this well. She should have been more inclusive with Walker in the first place. I would have loved to see them have a debate together about what role brands might play in unconsumption. Instead, she presented an enviro-hodge-podge, and left a bad taste in my mouth (to be fair, many people liked her panel…and also to be fair, these were people that asked long winded questions about how we can “take down the system”).
Also, no love in the talk for the freegans?!