Monday, December 31, 2012

Ruminations 45: Re-Thinking Consumption, Shaping Consumer Reality; On the Triadic Relationship Between Consumer, Object and Enterprise

In two recent posts I have suggested (1) the importance of belief in the construction of governance (law, moral, ethical, religious, etc.) systems and the subversive power, the evil, of suspicion and disbelief to that order (Ruminations XLII: Conformity and Forbidden Knowledge--The First Rule of Fight Club, the Invisible Hand and the Semiotics of Obedience, Law at the End of the Day, Dec. 26, 2012) and (2) that the task of science and the function of law is to manage the premises and judgments about things that form the reality of the relation of people to the world (Ruminations XLIV: If Reality is not Fixed Can we Train People to Accept Anything?, Law at the End of the Day Dec. 28, 2012).  

But I am afraid my discussion has been perhaps necessarily abstract. For this post I want to try to weave the ideas considered in those two posts around a very precise and concrete occurrence that is helping to reshape the way in which individuals perceive and thus understand the reality around them and thus reinforce the connection between object, meaning, action and meaning framework. The object of a recent study: GlobeScan, SustainAbility, and BBMG. Regeneration Roadmap--Re-Thinking Consumption:  Consumers and The Future of Sustainability (Nov. 2012) (an in-depth online survey of consumer attitudes, motivations and behaviors relating to sustainable consumption among 6,224 respondents across six major international markets conducted in September and October 2012).

The Regeneration Roadmap is a collaborative and multi-faceted initiative by GlobeScan and SustainAbility built around consumer perceptions of relaity and of the expectations of conventionla consumption patterns.  Presenting sponsors of The Regeneration Roadmap are BMW Group and SC Johnson. Sponsors include Cisco, DuPont, Interface and Pfizer. The Regeneration Consumer Study is sponsored by Campbell Soup Company, Itau, L’Oréal, Shell and Starbucks. From the GlobeScan Press Release (Nov. 27, 2012):
On the eve of the holiday shopping season, a new study by The Regeneration Roadmap - a joint project by GlobeScan, SustainAbility, and BBMG - finds that consumers are rethinking consumption with sustainability in mind. According to The Regeneration Consumer Study, two-thirds of consumers in six countries say that “as a society, we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations” (66%), and that they feel “a sense of responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society” (65%). The findings are based on an online survey of 6,224 consumers across Brazil, China, India, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States conducted in September and October 2012.

Well, what does this mean?

The authors point to a number of key findings:
• Rethinking Consumption: Consuming Less. Consuming Better. Nearly two-thirds of respondents across six markets (66%) say that “as a society, we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations,” and 65% say they feel “a sense of responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society.”
• New Demands and Opportunities in Emerging Markets. Consumers in developing markets (Brazil, China, India) are more than twice as likely as their counterparts in developed markets (Germany, United Kingdom, United States) to report that they purchase products because of environmental and social benefits (51% to 22%), are willing to pay more for sustainable products (60% to 26%) and encourage others to buy from companies that are socially and environmentally responsible (70% to 34%).
• Perceptions of Price, Performance and Credibility Critical to Driving Sustainable Consumption. A majority of consumers globally agree or strongly agree that they would “purchase more products that are environmentally and socially responsible” if they “performed as well as, or better than, products they usually buy” (75%), “it didn’t cost more” (70%), and “companies’ health and environmental claims were more believable” (64%).
• Sharing Responsibility for a Shared Future. Three in four respondents globally say that government (76%), businesses (74%) and consumers (74%) should be very or extremely responsible for “working to improve the environment and society for future generations,” with two-thirds of respondents globally (65%) saying they personally “feel a sense of responsibility to society.”
• Requiring Action: Top Issues for Companies to Address Include Water, Health, Fairness and Jobs. Nine in 10 consumers globally (92%) say it is very or extremely important for companies to address “safe drinking water” as part of their products, services or operations, followed by health care (87%), fair wages and safe working conditions (87%), jobs and economic opportunity (86%) and waste reduction (86%).
• Collaboration and Participation: Being Part of the Solution. Two-thirds of consumers globally (67%) are “interested in sharing their ideas, opinions and experiences with companies to help them develop better products or create new solutions,” while seven in ten consumers globally (72%) “believe in voting and advocating for issues important
to me.”
• The Dynamics of Happiness: Balancing Relationships, Time and Passions with Income and Material Possessions. While consumers across all markets overwhelmingly say “friends and family are the most important thing in life” (85%), consumers in developing
markets are more than twice as likely as those in developed markets to prioritize “time with people and projects I care about” over income (62% to 28%, respectively). Conversely, consumers in developing markets are also more than twice as likely to say “having a lot of material possessions is important to my happiness,” (49% to 23%, respectively).
• Consumer Segmentation: From Advocates to Indifferents. Advanced statistical modeling reveals four consumer segments on the sustainability spectrum, from highly committed Advocates (14%) to style and social status-seeking Aspirationals (37%), to price and performance-minded Practicals (34%) and less engaged Indifferents (16%), providing a rich understanding of consumer values, motivations and behaviors as well as insights and opportunities for engagement and action.
• Aspirationals Offer Key to Sustainable Consumption. Importantly, the largest consumer segment, the Aspirationals, is seeking both sustainability and consumption. They are looking for brands to provide solutions that both improve their lives and serve the larger society. And, because they are trendsetters in emerging markets like China and India, we believe business has the opportunity to shape a new consumerism by meeting their aspirations and desires with more sustainable products and lifestyle choices.
• Implications and Opportunities for Action. Finally, building on our consumer segmentation analysis, the concluding section of the study explores the tension between material possessions and social and environmental progress – a dynamic that we believe
provides the greatest opportunity for companies to advance sustainable consumption and create positive social impact through their practices. We outline five implications and action steps to advance a more sustainable economy, including opportunities for product innovation, transparent communication, social networking and consumer collaboration. (Regeneration Roadmap--Re-Thinking Consumption:  Consumers and The Future of Sustainability (Nov. 2012)pp. 6-7).

These findings are quite remarkable even in a conventional sense. Sustainability is becoming an important element of product design and development.  This represents a substantial change from what had been the traditional premises of economic markets, ones that were grounded principally in quality, status and price.  These changes have substantial implications  for the way in which corporate social responsibility is naturalized within corporate culture in the context of product development and marketing.  It also has effects on important national and international soft law projects that have as their objects the creation of rule systems that are sensitive to the human rights, environmental and social and cultural rights impacts of corporate activities. The focus on consumers is natural, since, within the logic of globalization, the political community of product markets are consumers and investors, whose "laws" and "system,s" of consumption have a direct impact on the well being of economic enterprises in the market.  See, e.g., Backer, Larry Catá, Multinational Corporations as Objects and Sources of Transnational Regulation. ILSA Journal of International & Comparative Law, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2008.

But more importantly, and as a consequence, consumers are clearly "seeing" products in a different way.  Reality has shifted; and the shift is due to changes in the interpretation of perception rather than in the "facticity" of the product. Thus a product that was perfectly suitable in accordance with the premises of consumption 20 years ago is no longer suitable, not because it has changed--it has remained the same--but because the consumer has changed in the way she responds to the product (understands it, judges it, etc.).  Sustainability, in effect has altered the reality of product by acting as an additional filter through which objects (consumables) are understood and related to both the producer and the consumer. Here we see the creation of a belief that is abstraction and object and interpretive filter 

The findings are even more remarkable for way in which they combine instrumentalism with customs and mass opinion--the management and operationalization of belief. The collaborative nature of markets, even markets in abstractions, like "sustainability," evidences the way in which objects (products) are shaped by in the interplay of market stakeholders in not just an organic way ("custom" and the desires of the aggregate of consumers) but also in an instrumental way (using products to shape the meaning of sustainability and and forms of the obligations of consumers and producers to the ends of this premise). This was a markets study sponsored by industry leaders and developed by  a marketing firm to spot trends, manage them, and respond to them a

They are more remarkable still for the way in which they suggest the ways in which sustainability knowledge is produced through a variety of classes of interpretants.  It provides the essence of the mechanics for the production of belief:
Consumers across all six markets look to certification seals or labels on product packaging (40%) as the most trusted source of information about whether a product is environmentally and socially responsible, followed by media reports (31%), consumer reviews and ratings (28%), friends, family or coworkers (27%) and government information and reports (27%). Certifications are ranked highest by consumers in developed countries (43%), while those in developing markets list media reports (37%) as their most trusted source. (Regeneration Roadmap--Re-Thinking Consumption:  Consumers and The Future of Sustainability (Nov. 2012) pp. 17).
In a sense, consumption of sustainable products are grounded in the conclusions and directions of others.  Consumer judgement is basic--purchase or not purchase sustainable products. The reality of the character of "things" is thus shaped through a received interpretive framework. But the sources of reality--or perhaps better put--the source of knowledge that goves meaning to objects within the reality "sustainability" can vary across cultures and states.
Consumers in developing markets are four times as likely to trust “social media like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn” as consumers in developed markets (22% to 5% respectively). Similarly, consumers in developing markets are twice as likely to trust “CSR Reports” than their counterparts in developed markets (20% to 9%). By contrast, consumers in developed markets are twice as likely to turn to “endorsements by organizations you trust” (29% to 15%). (Regeneration Roadmap--Re-Thinking Consumption:  Consumers and The Future of Sustainability (Nov. 2012) pp. 17).
One things does not vary--consumers do not trust corporate communications about the character, nature, that is, the reality, of the products they place into markets. (Ibid.). They do trust each other, though--communal knowledge sets the measure of the reality within which behaviors can be regulated, monitored and reinforced. 
Interestingly, brand-associated communities may be an emerging motivation for sustainable purchases, with more than half (54%) of consumers in developing markets saying they agree or strongly agree that they would purchase more green products if “it connected them to a community of peers who share their values and priorities,” compared to 42% of global respondents and 31% of respondents in developed markets saying so. (Regeneration Roadmap--Re-Thinking Consumption:  Consumers and The Future of Sustainability (Nov. 2012) pp. 27).
Yet the relationship between individual will and the structures of obedience remain complex:
Across all markets, there’s widespread belief in individualism, with more than three-fourths of respondents (78%) saying “that individuals should be responsible for taking care of themselves and not rely on the government to do so.”

This belief does not undermine a collective sense of responsibility, however, as a majority of respondents globally (65%) say they “feel a sense of responsibility to society,” with consumers in developing markets being much more likely to say so than their peers in developed markets (81% to 50%, respectively). (Regeneration Roadmap--Re-Thinking Consumption:  Consumers and The Future of Sustainability (Nov. 2012) pp. 35).
It follows that there is room for instrumentalism even within systems grounded in communal knowledge. The Roadmap identified a variety of segments in consumer attitudes toward sustainability of consumerism.  "The Regeneration Consumer Study reveals the important role consumers are playing on the path to sustainability, as well as opportunities to address barriers to sustainable consumption and seize promising pathways forward." (Ibid., 48). For any participant in markets for sustainability in consumption, instrumentalism is possible by identifying the most useful segment of consumer "culture" and then seeking to expand its influence and scope. "Our analysis has identified a set of consumers that we think represents a vital opportunity to advance sustainable consumption in the future. Their desire to both shop for better products and help better the planet is clear in our consumer segmentation model."(Ibid.). 

And how does one create and sustain structures of belief (Ruminations XLII: Conformity and Forbidden Knowledge--The First Rule of Fight Club, the Invisible Hand and the Semiotics of Obedience, Law at the End of the Day, Dec. 26, 2012), and manage the premises and judgments about things that form the reality of the relation of people to the world (Ruminations XLIV: If Reality is not Fixed Can we Train People to Accept Anything?, Law at the End of the Day Dec. 28, 2012)? 
Unleash the Power of Tribes

Consumers may need stuff, but what they really want is to connect: to each other and to the brands that matter to them. More than eight in ten consumers prize friends and family as the most important thing in life and they are turning to their social networks as well as consumer reviews to discover, choose and share brands.

Similarly, more than half of Aspirational consumers would buy more sustainable products if it connected them to a community of peers that shares their values, perhaps uniting their desire for social status, connections to others and the chance to make a difference together.

Every imaginable product category enjoys its niche community of passionate enthusiasts, and brands can leverage the power of tribes by connecting the like-minded, championing their ideas and extending their voice to extend their reach and impact. (Regeneration Roadmap--Re-Thinking Consumption:  Consumers and The Future of Sustainability (Nov. 2012) pp. 50).

And thus back to the to earlier posts. In a sense, those posts put forward the idea that the governance consequences of insights that have been traditionally  within the realm of cognitive psychology. And you brought up some interesting points. Some of these debates have been fought out since the 1950s (the cognitive revolution: Behavioralism vs. Cognitive Science), and, to some extent, are still being fought today (the tabula rasa model vs the human nature model). Steven Pinker, for example, has suggested that if the tabula rasa model is indeed correct (the blank slate), humans will be more susceptible to totalitarian social engineering and rule. I'm not exactly sure what camp you "fit" into, probably neither, but I think many agree that the environment does plays a significant role in behavior and norms, but does not account for all aspects of behavior.  There is a hint, though unconscious that the conclusions about sensory data suggest those of Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason.  

I was trying to acknowledge these insights but re-frame the arguments in ways that made its connections to and implications for governance clearer. More importantly, at least for governance, the nature-nurture debate did not seem helpful, precisely because these were second order debates.  That is, they were grounded on the presumptions of stable and recognizable nature and of some distinguishable nurture, both of which, in turn, could be dependent on their own ordering premises.  With that in mind, the nature, nurture or "the "a little bit of both" camps seems to focus on symptoms rather than causes, on well ordered understandings of "nature", "nurture" etc. But assume that there is, in fact, no such thing as a tabula rosa (unless a community wills that abstracted state into being in accordance with its beliefs) and even human nature is understood as the sum of longitudinal and aggregate "data" that are assembled into an abstracted "object" of "knowledge.  That also doesn't get to where I was going.  It was, instead trying to understand the way individuals respond to stimuli and the way they make sense of it only communally, the failure to accept constitutes deviance (moral, theological, political, economic, social, etc.). So that the two things are different (1) response to stimuli and (2) stimuli.  If this is the case, then a more interesting question follows, one that is better explained through traditional knowledge buried in myth and religious text (suspicion and doubt as evil; obedience without inquiry, etc.).

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