Rethinking Christmas Shopping and Consumerism

It’s that time of year again. The malls are bursting at the seams and many people shop as if the apocalypse is upon us. White elephant gifts find their way to the Christmas tree, just to end up at the back of a drawer by the end of December. People spend their hard-earned cash on things like festive season crockery, which they will use only once a year, when other people on the planet don’t even have plates to eat from.

A few years ago I was at a workshop where Claire Janisch from Biomimicry South Africa showed us a video of Dr Seuss’ The Lorax to drive home the point that events don’t happen in isolation and always affect the other parts of a system. I think this video is particularly important to watch at this time of year. If you don’t have time to watch the video, The Lorax is the story of the greedy Once-ler who destroys the environment by cutting down all the Truffula trees so that he can sell his products called ‘Thneeds.’ The Lorax is the actor who campaigns for the well-being of the environment and its inhabitants.

As consumers we often don’t think about the raw materials, labour, electricity and transport costs which go into the production and delivery of the ‘stuff’ that we so mindlessly throw into our trolleys, real or online. Obviously we need certain products to stay alive, but when you go Christmas shopping this holiday, take 2 minutes to see your potential purchase in a holistic way – where it came from and where it will likely end up. After these 2 minutes reevaluate if it’s really necessary to buy the thing that you are holding in your hand.

An anti-consumerism magazine called Adbusters has been championing ‘Buy Nothing Day’ for the past couple of years. It takes place on the day after Thanksgiving, to protest the overconsumption that takes place on Black Friday.

“The first Buy Nothing Day was organised in Canada in September 1992 ‘as a day for society to examine the issue of over-consumption.’ In 1997, it was moved to the Friday after American Thanksgiving, also called “Black Friday,” which is one of the ten busiest shopping days in the United States. In 2000, some advertisements by Adbusters promoting Buy Nothing Day were denied advertising time by almost all major television networks except for CNN. Soon, campaigns started appearing in the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Austria, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, the Netherlands, France, Norway and Sweden. Participation now includes more than 65 nations.” (Wikipedia)

Here’s a short clip of an interview from a while back with the co-founder of Adbusters, Kalle Lasn.

Sadly, the reaction of this CNN anchor perfectly illustrates that a widely held systemic worldview still needs to take hold. Earth Overshoot Day shows us that we’re already taking much more than the planet can handle or regenerate from (we only have one earth, but we’re using the resources of 1.7 earths).

If I had to make an ad this festive season, my message would be: ”Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Just because you can buy a load of crap, doesn’t mean you should. Even if it’s not crap, I would urge us all to reconsider too. As Rachel Botsman writes in her book ‘What’s mine is yours’ – “The average power drill is used for only twenty minutes in its entire lifespan.” So, unless your husband/boyfriend/brother is a contractor, don’t buy him a power drill for Christmas. Rather borrow the neighbour’s. Surely, the whole street won’t be DIY-ing at the exact same time on the exact same day.

A particularly big challenge, is to change the mental models of (especially the poor-turned-middle class) citizens who feel that it is their right to enjoy all that materialism has to offer – this Christmas and in the future. Many of these individuals will want to relish in the fact that they can (for the first time in their lives) buy what they want, when they want and how much they want. How do we help the new generation of consumers to leapfrog the learning curve and spare them the time of figuring out that buying and owning loads of stuff will not make them happy?

I’m not saying that we should go back to wearing loincloths and stop buying toothpaste, but what I am trying to get across is that we should try and get more people to avoid overconsumption, mindless consumption and consumption to fill a void in their souls. When you do shop, make sure that you really need it and that it’s a product worth buying. That’s why I try to highlight products that work/are good quality here.

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The Trend That We're Not Talking Enough About: Mental Health

It was a Wednesday evening and I was Skyping with one of my team members to complete a project for an online course we had both enrolled in. In a previous mail she mentioned that she would be travelling and visiting family the previous weekend. So, to start the call, I asked how her holiday was. "Oh no, it was no break, really. My parents have some mental health issues and it was more of a babysitting situation, unfortunately."

She said it without shame, without judgement and simply stated it matter-of-factly, but still acknowledged the challenges that come with such a situation. The World Health Organisation estimates that depression will be the biggest healthcare burden by 2030 and that it will be costing us $6 trillion globally in a mere 12 years. 

The pace of life has been (and is still) increasing, technology has changed (and is changing) how we live and work and function and our world is much more uncertain and unpredictable than before. It's no surprise therefore that the number of people suffering from depression increased 18% between 2005 and 2015. All three factors will continue to play a role going forward, but I expect the mental health challenge will grow, especially as we're using more and more tech, but only figuring out the implications as we go along. We've experienced the sleep disorders that come from entertaining Instagram's infinity scroll right before bed time; there's the story of the boy who needed bowel surgery after prioritising online gaming rather than toilet breaks, and then the tragic stories of children who took their own lives after their personal messages or photos were shared with the whole class or school.

TV series like 13 Reasons Why are a start, but I think we'll need to open up the everyday conversations and be more accommodating and understanding in our schools, workplaces, shopping malls and public spaces. Depression is not some kind of H1N1 [insert animal] virus for which pharma companies still need to find a cure. It's a treatable disease, but if intervention is delayed or if there is none at all, then it becomes so much harder to get back to a point of equilibrium. 

Why should businesses and governments care? The (lost) productivity cost is huge. Why should entrepreneurs care? It's a massive and crucial area in need of innovation. Why should you care? The next person who needs help might be your brother, grandmother, colleague or even...you.

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Global Consumer Distrust And The Transition To Transparency

The truth has always been able to come out, now it’s just so much easier to spread the word. With the advent of the Internet and social media, power and influence have become decentralised. A teenager in Nairobi can, in theory, be just as influential as a CEO in New York. As a result of our inter-connectivity we share more and we know more and yet we trust less. The Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 reports that globally, trust is in crisis and that overall the situation is as dire as in 2017. Why is that and what are the implications for brands? 

Perception of a world in crisis 

On grassroots-level the perception is that conditions and prospects are not improving and that politicians, companies and global organisations can’t be trusted to bring about lasting, sustainable change. Bill Gates says the world is getting better overall and if you look at the data we’re making progress. However, we can’t shake the feeling that it’s apocalypse now (or very soon): the richest 1% is on track to own two-thirds of global wealth by 2030; environmental degradation and climate change is undeniable and terrorism still rears its ugly head

Uncontrollable technology

Tech firms have a difficult job to do as they are dealing with an ever-evolving marvel or monster (depending on how you look at it). Technological consequences are real, whether they’re intended or unintended and so far there’s been more than enough instances which led to us questioning the trust we place in these behemoths. 

Technology was used intentionally to get Donald Trump elected as president of the United States of America. It has been reported that millions of Facebook users’ data was shared with Cambridge Analytica, a company which played a role in helping Trump win the presidency by influencing/manipulating voters. In a similar vein, Edelman found that seven in ten people globally are worried that false information or fake news can be used as a weapon. In light of these findings, it’s no wonder that the EU decided it’s necessary to implement aGeneral Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will come into effect in May 2018. Mere years ago none of these concerns would have made it into the mainstream and now they have become a reality that needs to be navigated. 

Without a holistic approach, technology can also easily lead to unintentional dangers. To illustrate this, let’s consider algorithmic bias and the decision-making powers of AI-machines that are making people uncomfortable. If a self-driving car has to choose between hitting a toddler or a grandmother, who determines and programs that final logic? How transparent should companies like Uber and Tesla be regarding their back-end processes? Ethical considerations abound and for the most part we’re simply muddling through. 

What brands are doing and what they should be doing

Some brands have been paying attention to the paradigm shift taking place. Provenance successfully used blockchain to track and trace fish from ocean to table. H&M’s new brand Arket displays an item’s factory and supplier name on the website which is a start towards transparency, but it’s not enough. Even though the website states where the factory is located, the consumer still needs to start his/her own investigation about working conditions, fair pay, child labour etc. Russia’s Dodo Pizza on the other hand goes so far as to livestream its kitchen operations. Countries are realising that they have a role to play too. In 2018 Iceland became the first country in the world to pass a law that forces companies with 25 or more employees to pay women and men the same wage for doing the same job. It’s a move towards equality and transparency that’s been widely praised. 

What’s a brand to do then? Firstly, brands should ensure that they have nothing to hide and when something does go awry, they need to own their mistake, apologise and implement corrective measures. Any other strategy is risky, because every brand is outnumbered by about > 3,5 billion Internet users, all with the potential to create a viral tweet, post or video. Secondly, in an Exponentially Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (EVUCA) world, consumers are looking for trustworthy actors to pave the way and/or sense-makers to guide them. First-mover brands who authentically position themselves as champions of transparency and protectors of societal trust will be able to claim this new type of ‘market share’. 

The transition to transparency could ultimately lead to a more just, efficient and sustainable world. Consumers win all the way as they are able to hold companies accountable and demand them to act responsibly. The process is painful for many brands as they have to learn and play by the new rules of the game. Unfortunately for them they don’t really have a choice, unless they willingly want to choose death by distrust.

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Drinking Food Waste: Cheers To Toast Ale

Many things make me sad, but food waste is right up there on the list. I just cannot get how society has normalised the behaviour of throwing perfectly good food away when so many others are starving or scraping by.

The UN estimates that globally we are wasting one third of all food that we produce. This is not just the actual food that ends up in the landfill; it's the water, electricity and transport costs which went into producing those products that we so easily tend to discount. Think about that the next time you're simply not in the mood for last night's lasagne...

A company called Toast Ale is using surplus bread and turning it into something drinkable. Toast Ale is being brewed in the US, Iceland, Brazil and here in South Africa too. Knead and Sandwich Baron are currently supplying the carbs to the South African team. Business doing good - makes my heart sing! 

Cognitive Enhancers: Are You Willing To Play That Game?

Nootropics, smart drugs, those pills in Limitless (call them what you want) are increasingly being taken by healthy individuals in order to improve brain function. After you've popped one of these, you're able to remember more, focus longer, stay up later - you basically receive mental superpowers until the effect wears off.

Some of you might be thinking...whaaaaat? Surely that's just science fiction. No, my friends, this is a brave new world. University students who don't have ADHD, but take Ritalin or Adderall to get through their exams are already crossing lines previously drawn in the sand and this trend will only grow. According to Research and Markets, the global nootropics market was valued at US $1,346.5 million in 2015, and is expected to reach US $6,059.4 million by 2024.

The whole nootropic issue raises several questions:

- Which smart drugs will society see as simple supplements, like fish oil, and which ones will we label as brain voodoo?

- We all know that life is unfair, but how will these types of drugs increase income and access-to-opportunity inequality when only some can afford these cognitive turbochargers?

- Could companies demand that their employees or contractors use nootropics as a condition of employment? Taking drugs is already an unwritten rule or expectation in some corporate cultures; the industries I'm aware of are tech and advertising.

- What are the long-term consequences of taking nootropics?

We're in for a long overdue philosophical and ethical debate, that's for sure.

The Duchess Effect

Handbags, dresses, sneakers - if you can get a royal like Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge or a celebrity and future royal like Meghan Markle to wear it, your brand is bound to benefit hugely. The Strathberry bag that Meghan Markle wore on her first official engagement with Prince Harry is a case in point. It apparently sold out in 11 minutes. Back in 2012 the 'Kate (Duchess Kate) effect' was estimated to be worth a whopping £1 billion to the British fashion industry. In short, the Duchess Effect is a marketer's dream and a conscious consumerist's nightmare.

There's a mystical thought that arises in many a woman's mind when she sees a Duchess (a real one or one in the acting, cooking or sporting kingdom) glamorously waving on Google or the glossy pages. It goes something like this: "Ah man, if I could just get those earrings she wore or the blouse in the episode last night, then I'd be just as stylish or confident or (fill in the blank)." Unfortunately you'll not receive some magical powers or instant success just because of a specific bottle of shampoo.

It's one thing if you want an item, because a Duchess has it and you want to be like the Duchess; it's another thing if you simply see something pretty for the first time and a Duchess just happens to be wearing it. In the first case you're buying from a place of insecurity and irrationality. In the second case you're buying, because said item would have spoken to you regardless of which individual introduced you to it. Even if you saw the lipstick on your nosy neighbour, you'd still have wanted it.

Instead of shopping till your credit card snaps in half, try to ask yourself why you're thinking of buying a specific product. If you manage to a look at your purchases critically, I'm pretty sure you will have more money left at the end of the month and you'll have less stuff that you need to Marie Kondo.

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Social Media And The Blesser/Blessee Phenomenon

Author and expert on tech addiction Brad Huddleston and colleagues at the Bureau of Market Research (BMR) and its Neuroscience Division at the University of South Africa have studied the blesser/blessee phenomenon (or the sugardaddy/sugarmama trend). Apparently, Instagram is the number one driver of this phenomenon in South Africa. When students in various population groups with various household incomes were asked why their friends were entering into these 'relationships', it all boiled down to this:

They want to be able to buy clothes and bling so that they can take a picture, post it on Instagram, get 1000 likes and create their own fame like the Kardashians.

When I heard this, I found it incredibly heartbreaking.

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Ethical Fashion, Please!

How is it possible that in 2017, almost 2018, we still have companies with supply chains that make the consumer nauseous? Factory workers in Istanbul producing clothes for fashion chain Zara, have apparently left messages on item tags saying "I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn't get paid for it." Their words remind me of a documentary I watched earlier this year called The True Cost.

One shocking point that the film makes, is that the price of clothing has been falling over the years, but only because the externalities of human and environmental impacts are blatantly ignored. Something really is not right, when you can buy a T-Shirt for R40 or $3. The business model is not sustainable if that's the price you ask after incorporating material, labour and transport costs...Please think about that the next time you buy an item, just because you're in the mood for some retail therapy.

Zara (and your competitors in the industry), I like your designs and some of my purchases are actually quite comfortable, but please sort your sh^t out, this is not the Middle Ages.

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Living Lives True To Ourselves

I rarely, if ever, watch violent movies. If I do, I close my eyes and use the auditory cues to gauge when it is safe to open them again. Hacksaw Ridge, set during World War II, is definitely not a movie for the faint-hearted and yet at the same time it's a movie for the brave-hearted. Let me tell you a bit about the protagonist, Desmond Doss, and then you'll understand what I mean. 

Desmond Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who believed in non-violence and vegetarianism.However, he did not think it fair that his peers should go fight in the war while he stayed at home. Therefore he 'enlisted' but made it clear that he wanted to serve as a combat medic and would not pick up or use a gun under any circumstance. In the end he risked his life to save 75 wounded soldiers and was decorated as a war hero.

What stayed with me longer than the blood and gore that I inevitably witnessed as I watched the film was the fact that Desmond was 100% true to himself despite suffering for it. Desmond Doss is not a singular case though. Many of you have hopefully come across the words of palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, who saw that her dying patients all shared the same 'number one' regret: "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."

In a world that's constantly trying to change us, how many of us can truly say that we're owning who we are and living our truth? Whether that means proudly saying that you don't like the taste of coffee or that you're not on Instagram because you think it breeds narcissism, how many people do you know who stand their ground and don't sway when the winds of popular culture and conformism blow?

I think many of the problems in the world today can be traced back to people forcing themselves to be what they're not. In the short-term this strategy works, but in the long-term it's a recipe for disaster. In the coming years and decades, I expect that we'll experience a growing fallout as a result of this trend.

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Digital Drug Addiction: What’s Your Poison?

I recently attended a talk by Brad Huddleston, an expert and author on the effects of technology (specifically tech addiction or 'digital cocaine'). He is not anti-tech, but stresses that humans should be careful not to become mastered by it.

Everyone using digital devices are in danger as the brain does not distinguish between content. Educational apps, Pinterest recipes, Minecraft - regardless of content, the brain treats all stimuli on the screen the same way and can become addicted to the neurotransmitter, dopamine (more on that below). Even if you are an anesthesiologist who monitors a screen every day or a researcher trying to find the cure for Alzheimer's, you are in the same boat as the kid who is gaming 8 hours a day.

Huddleston believes digital addiction is the new smoking and in the same way that doctors were used to condone cigarettes less than a century ago, trusted authorities are proclaiming that there's nothing to worry about when you provide your preschooler with a tablet. You see, the same area of the brain that gets addicted to cocaine or alchohol, gets addicted to technology. The drug of choice triggers a release of dopamine in the brain and while all humans need dopamine, the brain starts to build resistance when there is too much of it. As a result, you need to take more of the drug to reach the high you had before. This out-of-control process leads to burnout, also known as, emotional numbness.

To heal protect and heal your brain, Huddleston recommends the following practices:

1) Unitask in silence

The brain is a sequential processor and by jumping between tabs on your computer, or checking social media while studying you are actually stressing your brain out. Multitasking is a farce and it may feel like you are able to do several things simultaneously, but you are actually taking much longer to complete your activities and you are only really focused on one task at a time. All other tasks take a backseat.

New habit: Work for 20 minutes in silence and then take break to check Facebook or listen to some music.

2) Remove all tech from the bedroom

From the moment you switch off your iPhone or laptop, it takes 2,5 - 3 hours for your brain to reach the deep sleep/REM state. So, if you want to sleep at 22:00, your phone should be on aeroplane mode by 19:00. We've reached a point where more than 66% of Australian youngsters suffer from sleep deprivation and as such have been dubbed zombie teens.

New habit: Read a novel once you hit the mattress and ensure you de-tech three hours before bedtime.

3) Embrace boredom

We have gotten so used to grabbing our devices the moment we have nothing else to do. By simply being and allowing the brain to solve the boredom problem when it arises, we nurture our creativity.

New habit: Don't reach for your phone the next time you're waiting at the restaurant for your friend. Just breathe, look around you and give your brain a little time-out.

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