Toby Usnik

What is the elephant in the retail industry’s living room? Consumption — unbridled consumption. We humans are consuming our way to the abyss and the retail industry is speeding us over the cliff with every BOGO, pop-up, discount, rebate, supersize, green, online-only offer it makes. We’re told: “Buy more! Have more! Eat more!” Retailers profess that we will be better, prettier, happier, patriotic or even loved. It is time for an intervention.  

Perhaps we are in denial of the true cost of our consumption because retailers do not want us to look too closely? “Just look over here,” they tease, and thus distract us. “Don’t think about climate change, credit card debt, or the kids’ future. Forget our legacies and what we might be remembered for.” Their implied motto is “In Retail We Trust” as they guide us down the road laid down by The Wizards of Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

If we hesitate at any point of sale or if we pause to question whether we actually need to buy their latest offerings, enter the pitchman right out of the musical “Chicago”:

Give ’em the old razzle dazzle

Razzle Dazzle ’em

Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it

And the reaction will be passionate

Give ’em the old hocus pocus

Bead and feather ’em

How can they see with sequins in their eyes?

 

Don’t Shoot the Messenger (or The Elephant) — Just Acknowledge Him

I am not a retailer. My career has been in corporate communications, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. I have helped advance great brands, including American Express, Razorfish, The New York Times, Christie’s and now my own, Philanthropic Impact (π). But through my marriage to a 40-year veteran retail executive, I have gained an insider’s view of the industry. As I see it, retailers and consumers alike have been seduced at the expense of our well-being, if not our long-term survival. We actually believe that consumption is the only way to grow an economy or find joy.  

But how can consuming more be the only way forward? It is not tenable and it is not sustainable. Why do we accept the premise that consumption is all good, all the time? Even when we see the reports and statistics about the adverse impact of unbridled consumption on climate change, personal health, and social justice, we continue to consume more than most of us ever need.   

Let the Buyer Beware: Caveat Emptor

Despite the cautionary warnings, the consumption beat goes on. Each season, the retail industry overserves us its latest looks, dishes and upgrades. Online and offline, we await with arms, mouths and wallets open. The danger of excessive consumption manifests itself in perverse ways — storage lockers mushrooming, obesity and diabetes, landfills overflowing, plastics swirling in our oceans. We are consuming our way over the edge.

When confronted with this elephantine reality, the wizards, retailers and showmen say, “Look over here!” That’s right, they surprise us with their latest trick: the sustainability sleight of hand, meant to assuage us of all guilt or responsibility for our rampant consumption — and ensure that we buy more. They promise: “We’re greening our supply chains, recycling more, paying fair wages, sourcing materials ethically. We’re using technology and social media to measure and report on how responsible we are. Join us on the circular economy carousel!” Razzle dazzle ‘em.  

The True Cost

The sequined cloak of eco-friendliness is wearing thin, exposing the underbelly of unbridled consumption. The new generation of consumers, employees and investors are tuning in to having less. When given all the information of the cost of their transactions — the cost to their financial well-being, their families, communities and planet — they are choosing to reduce their purchases. That is the premise of my book, “The Caring Economy.” Next-gen consumers (as well as old fogies like me) care about more than just having more. They are choosing to have less if it supports a brighter future. And — here is the good news for retailers — they are supporting the businesses that share their values.

In my work from Beijing to Bogotá to Boston, I see consumers taking on greater responsibility for the true cost of their transactions. They are choosing access over ownership and engaging in the sharing economy. And true retail leaders are embracing this revolution. From the fashion, food and packaged goods companies to the financial services firms that lubricate the economy, a new generation of leaders is taming the rogue elephant of unbridled consumption.   

The New Look of Success: Just Have Less

How has this subtle revolution come about? Which leaders have begun to reconcile the individual urge to consume with collective need to conserve our resources? There are many great examples to learn from, but I will cite just a few.

At the top of the ladder is Larry Fink, ceo of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, with more than $6 trillion under management. In his 2019 letter to stakeholders he challenged business leaders to factor environment, social and governance issues into their business models. He noted that this concept of purpose is inextricably linked to profit: “Purpose unifies management, employees and communities. It drives ethical behavior and creates an essential check on actions that go against the best interests of stakeholders.”

Among retailers, the grandfather of responsible consumption is Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia — a company whose customers cherish their puffy coats and repair them with duct tape or use the company’s Worn Wear program and repair center. At Patagonia, each repair is a badge of honor for a well-lived life.  

The company inspires a society of product consumers to become responsible product owners. Patagonia instructs us in proper cleaning to repairing, reusing and sharing, in sharp contrast to consumers who “take, make, dispose and repeat — a pattern that is driving us towards ecological bankruptcy.”

Patagonia challenges its customers to steward their purchases and the planet simultaneously. The company operates the largest garment repair facility in North America, making 40,000 individual repairs per year. By buying only what they need and maintaining it, consumers reduce their overall consumption, and their purchases become investments that save money as well as our planet.  

With the recent rise of experiential travel and education, more retailers are taking a page out of Chouinard’s playbook and integrating conservation and unique experiences into their business models — and reaping new rewards. Think of Starbucks’ Roasteries, where customers return with their own mugs for a refill of fair-trade coffee and a lesson in coffee roasting. Or Levi’s promising its customers more ways to customize or repair their jeans with one-of-a-kind customization centers. Or Rimowa, the luggage company that invites customers to share their adventures while repairing well-traveled suitcases for free?  

We joked during my time at the 250-year-old Christie’s auction house that we were the original recyclers. We encouraged clients to buy quality works, cherish them as stewards and relinquish them to the next owner when ready. Our business model was helping the planet and sparking joy 250 years before Marie Kondo’s “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” was published.

Ahead of His Time

Another visionary retail leader who was ahead of his time is the former Bottega Veneta designer Tomas Maier, famously profiled in a 2010 New Yorker article titled “Just Have Less.”

His philosophy of having fewer, better-quality clothes was contrarian, even heretical for a leading designer from the Kering luxury empire. In 2013 when I had the opportunity to compliment him on this enlightened view, he amazed me by saying that he believed that having less was, in fact, a luxury. He was correct. Like others on the vanguard, he was ahead of his time. His 2018 departure from Bottega Veneta did not mean he was wrong.   

Opposite Sides of the Same Coin

Retailers sell products and services, but too many still do so with shortsighted, unsustainable business models that put growth and sales above all else. They miss the opportunity for sustainable growth. I view consumption and conservation as opposite sides of the same coin. They must coexist. Humans need to consume. But we need to come back to equilibrium. Gross consumption has taken over and it comes at the expense of our planet and future.

The public is starting to hold profit-obsessed executives accountable. We need to support those who are nudging us to wake up — whether they are business leaders, employees, customers or investors at the brands we support. It is not too late.   

Groucho Marx once joked: “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How it got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.” Maybe accepting that we have an elephant of unbridled consumption in our lives is the first step forward. We do not need to wait for an intervention; it has already begun. As individuals we can reverse our current course of overconsumption. As Patagonia reminds us, let’s behave like owners, not consumers, and repair rather than inflict something new on the planet if we do not truly need it. Let’s celebrate the effort of trying to fix something, including unbridled consumption.

First, we look the elephant in the eyes. Then we choose to have less while also becoming more informed. And last but not least, we remain vigilant. Caveat emptor: Beware of the ol’ razzle dazzle.

Toby Usnik is founder and principal of Philanthropic Impact (π), author of “The Caring Economy” and former head of corporate social responsibility at Christie’s.

 

 

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