Patagonia’s repairs, New Balance’s leather leading as consumers’ vote with wallets for future value – conscience and commerce key
What can Benjamin Franklin, the ‘Green Revolution’ and consumer purpose teach us about future value? A lot, writes VMLY&R’s Troy Nicoll. In the third instalment of VMLY&R’s value series, he says brands that move last will be remembered – negatively. And those that understand ‘value’ as being a holistic, long-term relationship with consumers – like Patagonia and New Balance – will help reimagine marketing thinking. People are already voting with their wallets out of principle, identity, and survival.
On the American frontier in the 1700s, a collision of extremes in tribal and civilian culture challenged the values of even the most modern people. Benjamin Franklin noted that despite "all imaginable tenderness to prevail with their own to stay among the society, in a short time… they would take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods."
Examining extremes reveals much about our nature. The advent of the industrial revolution would not only have amplified the disconnect between the cultures we were and the culture we were about to become but would have thrown us into a new realm of existence and values.
Today, alongside the undoubted benefits of industrialisation, the negative impacts are also evident. The food industries’ 'Green Revolution', for example, had the honourable intention to 'feed the world', but its industrial model of agriculture has placed an immense demand on our planet. Exposing topsoil to harsh elements with intensive monocropping while dousing it in synthetic fertilisers and pesticides has ignored the reality that soil is a living thing.
The impact? Some now estimate that large parts of the U.S. may only have 50-60 years of harvest before the soil fails to meet demand. Additionally, our weakening soils produce food that's roughly 50 per cent less nutrient-dense than those eaten by our ancestors. And when the cost of restoring just 900 of the 2 billion acres of agricultural land lost is estimated to be $300bn, the time will inevitably come when profits plummet under pressure.
And we feel this. Our health and the world we live in have never been in worse shape, and if it isn't our personal experience sounding alarm bells, our access to an online world confirms that things aren't as they should be. We're aware. We live in an age where information is easily accessible, transparency is more in demand, and brands can only be as good as the authentic promises they can fulfil.
Brands now face critical choices that require visible and deliberate action because value is no longer simply a balance of price and product but a connection to conscience and values. People will vote with their wallets out of principle, a sense of identity, and eventually because our survival depends on it. Likewise, employees don't want to compromise their values and contribute to unsustainable causes.
For the modern practitioner, this line of thinking challenges what it means to practice Human-Centred Design responsibly. People are ultimately at the mercy of the ecosystems designed for them. For example, our desire for fat and sugar served us well for survival in earlier times. However, when you flood sedentary societies with hyper-palatable processed food, is it any surprise we're suffering a diabetes epidemic?
At a conscious level, ask anyone if they recycle, and it's a unanimous yes. But few would be aware that despite placing waste in the yellow-lid bin, roughly 80 per cent of it still winds up in landfills or our oceans; by 2050, there's expected to be more plastic in the water than fish.
Indigenous Australian Peoples are the strongest examples of creating and perpetuating a sustainable culture. If you speak with elders, they'll explain this wasn't achieved with a Darwinian mindset of 'survivability' but rather a perspective of 'Relationality'. Simply put, if you have a good relationship with your neighbours, you'll have trade and no war. If you have a good relationship with your land, you'll have food, water, and shelter. If you have a good relationship with your elders, you'll have wisdom.
Brands need to visualise and act on their transition into the Circular Economy, which means far more than simply 'closing the loop'. The opportunity for brands who successfully manage their transition is a share in a green technology and sustainability market close to $8.7 bn at a cumulative growth of about 27 per cent. Alongside that are cost reductions via operational efficiencies, greater resilience, innovation capability by leveraging strategic partnerships along the value chain, and brand reputation.
As is commonly the case, being a first-mover matters. Brands that fail to act on what will eventually become the new business as usual will be hard-pressed to convince people that their actions were a result of will rather than force. It needs to become your thing before it's a thing.
One of the brands making early moves is New Balance. They recently announced they will now be sourcing leather from 'Land to Market', a regenerative farming operation that manages cattle in a carbon-negative way, which is about as far from mere offsetting as possible. It's a partnership, an act of reciprocity with nature that offers a new value offering to consumers that aligns with their values.
Patagonia has been waiting at the finish line for years. Their materials come from sustainable and regenerative operations, products are made to last, and a repair service ensures that your garment lives long enough to shift from a valuable ticket item to a phase of sentimental value.
Brands that shift their mindset from 'cradle to grave' to 'cradle to cradle' have less demand on natural resources, fewer landfills, and access to a whole new world of opportunity that aligns our value for the natural world with a sustainable commerce model.
Brands that can retain the value of their products and services while designing for our collective human values create a system that not only grows but sustainably thrives. A triple-bottom-line must define commercial returns against the effect on people, planet, and profit; in short, a Return on Impact. It may seem like a new idea, but perhaps this is what those rebellious pioneers recognised over 300 years ago.