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The Future Laboratory, Conscience Consumers and the New Austerity
Alex Steffen, 31 Aug 06

Chris Sanderson and his colleagues at the Future Laboratory believe we're seeing a fundamental shift in how people think about the things they buy. I stopped by their London offices to find out what they're seeing and predicting.

"Overconsumption is no longer a signal of success," he says, sitting at a table strewn with proofsheets for the Future Labs house magazine, Viewpoints. Instead of conspicuous consumption, he says, a "conspicuous abstention" is emerging. People want less noise in their lives. They want design whose form serves function beautifully. They want homes with a spare, modern aesthetic and the health and sustainability benefits of green building. They're almost proudly adopting a "make do and mend, waste not want not mentality." Most of all, they're hungry for a connection between the things they buy and the lives they want to be leading -- and recognizing that sometimes the best thing to buy is, simply, nothing.

The Future Lab folks call this movement "Nu Austerity," and it has real implications for both the future of sustainability and commerce.

Indeed, I think this hunger for more life rather than more stuff is at the very heart of a transition to a bright green future. Many of us are already valuing experiences and relationships much more than toys and tools. Recognizing that the stuff we buy can clutter our lives as easily as compliment them, many of us are looking for ways to engage with products and services that offer us the straightest line between ourselves and the people and experiences we value, and that same search is exposing many of the bedrock assumptions of marketing and advertising as pathetic ploys, making us more savvy about brands and the ways they manipulate us.

Indeed, Sanderson says that not only are brands "really monitoring the trend of choosing not to buy," but Future Lab's own research shows conclusively that people are moving beyond shunning bad companies to actively punishing them. As one of their reports puts it,

"Consumers are becoming increasingly politicized, socially aware and civically motivated in their shopping and purchasing habits. ... They are becoming more judgmental, less forgiving and more determined to use their power..."

Particularly telling is, as we've discussed before, the new move to "vote with our dollars." In many circles, having the wrong stuff (or just too much stuff) is becoming a social gaffe. Think for instance, of the growing pop culture backlash against SUVs and Humvees. Think of the PETA campaign against fur, which, despite industry attempts to create a rebel chic around wearing fur, has mostly succeeded. But the trend isn't limited to obviously bad companies. It's beginning to extend to every aspect of our commercial lives.

As the same report puts it,

"Cash-rich, credit-using 30something urbanites are keen to use, as one of them put it, 'credit cards as ballot cards. ... ethical retail is now valued at 25 billion pounds a year in the UK alone."

One of the clearest places this new set of attitudes is emerging is around food. The most influential consumers in the developed world no longer want to eat food they perceive to be bad for them and for the Earth. Even more importantly, they want to know what they're eating is good. As Sanderson puts it, they want authenticity and "trace-ability" in the things they buy -- for instance, they're more interested in knowing (and trusting) the farmer who grew their food, more interested in farming allotments or their own gardens, more eager to learn the provenance of the food they put on their tables. Food miles and the carbon footprint of our diets are becoming mainstream concerns (indeed, the Future Lab estimates that already in the UK alone, 3.4 billion pounds a year are being spent on consumer goods and services which purport to help people reduce their climate impacts).

The taste for better food (or "grub" as our allies Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry name it) is rapidly redefining our social mores around eating, especially among the most influential consumers.

But the meta-trend isn't limited to organic lima beans. Imagine what would happen if people started wanting a similar shift in quality in all the things they buy. There are good signs that the trend is in that direction.

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Forgive my cynical tone, but woop-de-doo. So fashion is shifting back to austerity, like during the Second World War. That'll be just great until it swings back again, like fashion always does.

Posted by: pauldwaite on 31 Aug 06

But then again, fashion isn't just the abstracted cultural froth we've grown accustomed to in our energy-rich economy. In the end, like everything else (except the fantasies of many economists), it's bound by material limitations. And there may not be room for a counter-swing back to profligate consumption when this fad is exhausted.

I say bring it on. Let's dress the valuing of experiences and ethics over goods and convenience in whatever language will grow people's awareness of ecological realities. If someone sees it as wearing a hair-shirt, tell them it's "nu austerity". Let's make it sexy to pre-empt material limits instead of barrelling ahead with fantasies decoupled from ecology that just end in a truly unsexy crash.

Posted by: Gyrus on 31 Aug 06

My thoughts straddle pauldwaite's and Gyrus's, but I think I'd call it "Nu Quality" or something that conveys simple in means, rich in ends. Austerity, for nearly anyone reached by this group, is a mere pose. But it should be possible to convince people that Enough is Plenty.

Posted by: David Foley on 31 Aug 06

Great post - thanks, Alex.

As a designer, it gives me hope to think that inteligence, rather than decadence, defines desirability in the marketplace.

Posted by: alex langeberg on 31 Aug 06

Like PaulDwaite, I get a little cynical when I hear designers authoratively pontificate on 'what people want'. It doesn't seem to take much for them to be convinced that the phrase refers to all people, not just some.

But, even if it is 'some people', and that some is growing, then it is a good thing!

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 31 Aug 06

Anytime I hear someone talking about brand choices as revolution I get suspicious, and this time it seems like suspicion is warrented. Here's text from future laboratory's intro -

"The job of the Future Laboratory is to bring the future to you; to ensure that your brand, product or business uses the most relevant and up- to-date trend information and consumer insight tools to better anticipate market needs.

Once you are ‘on trend’, and know where the market is going, we can then make sure that your brand strategy, your brand’s tone of voice and your marketing, advertising and PR messages are all appropriately aligned."

These are the people who are pundits for Nu-consumption? They are soooo deep into consumerism they can't see anything but. Sorry I'm cynical too. There's been countless histocial flip flops between austerity and conspicous consumption as each new wave seeks identity and reacts to the preceding wave. While I like the growth in green markets, a limited focus on the status elements of consumer behavior is just the same old same old.

Posted by: Kif Scheuer on 31 Aug 06

I blogged this, but there doesn't seem to be trackback and I think the comment belongs here:

I hate consumerism and have developed an unconscious ad blindness. I automatically ignore them. However, I've been putting effort into understanding what such things are and how they work.

All of the most subjective humanities are naturally fickle, and this isn’t a flaw. Cultures have to be able to experiment and rapidly protoype to find new things that are worth keeping (or merely deemed worthy; as a mass expression of the human psyche, culture is just as vulnerable to pathology, pathogenesis, and maladaptation). The output of most means of cultural production, such as art and fashion, is largely disposable, but that doesn’t make them entirely superficial. Deep memes, long-term unconscious majority behaviour and ultimately even traditions can emerge.

Trends are conduits that provide fairly rapid means for all sectors of society to propagate signals and project influence to large numbers of cultural actors. Sometimes they’re purely aesthetic, but in the case of fair trade goods the trend is deep on concept and motives, at all levels of the supply chain. Farmers coops didn’t get into fair trade to look cool, and they won’t give it up on that basis either. Even if it later dies as a fad at the consumer end of the interaction, the fashionable upswing in ethical commerce is an opportunity to project the memes further than ever. The potential is for fair trade markets to be emplaced more securely in widespread cultural values.

I understand the cynicism, but art and fashion aren’t just a pernicious fever dream. Culture has been demonstrated to occur in other primates. As a social force, it is older than our species and forms the basis for many editable constructs. Some such human constructs may currently be engines for consumerism, but all parts of the system can influence the rest.

Posted by: David Hayward on 1 Sep 06

Woo hoo, time to jump on the cynical train! Hopefully I can add something new.

I agree there is a style of conspicuous absention, that has come back into vogue for the first time since when- the 1960's maybe?

But I very much doubt that actual resource consumption is being reduced. That's because the conspicuous abstainers I know (outside of 20somthings and urban hipsters who are truly poor and have no choice) are still consuming a lot -- it's just hidden. Their living room is a big clean modern space you could roller skate in -- and their basement and garage are crammed with crap. They still take plane rides on a monthly or even weekly basis. These people have a subcultural identification, but if you looked at their consumption stats, I doubt there'd be much difference.

Example with data: Supposedly American housing has taken a turn towards smaller and simpler styles, but the actual evidence shows no downturn yet. The change is in style, not substance. I wrote on my blog about Cottage Living magazine's "dream house" at 5337 square feet. Even superhip Dwell magazine mostly reports on places that are 2000+ .. which is still twice the size of the average house built in 1950 -- when families were bigger than they are now.

I agree people do want the sense of less stuff and annoyance in their lives. That goes with the clean modern style. But the final irony is that the easiest way a busy modern simplicity seeker can have that without giving anything else up is quite old-fashioned: hire servants!

Posted by: bottleman on 1 Sep 06

I agree with bottleman's mention of air travel. Many who consider themselves to be increasingly conciousand environmentally aware consumers are traveling more and more every year. It's absolutely taboo to point out the environmental consequences of this very new phenomena. They are also still spending a lot of money on goods, even if fewer, but those purchases now happen to reflect their growing income levels and so have more expensive labels on them. I have friends who's mailboxes are crammed with high end mail order catalogs daily. You don't get on those lists by buying less.

Posted by: mlebeau on 2 Sep 06

Hmm, the nu austerity got me thinking so much I did my own response to it. Cheers!

Posted by: bottleman on 4 Sep 06



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