Joachim Schöpfer

Joachim Schöpfer

Managing Partner, Serviceplan Berlin


“Manufacturer of sustainable products seeks solvent consumers with an interest in green issues.” This looks like a classified ad, bringing green producers and consumers together. Unfortunately, classified ads are out of fashion and those who buy green products are often very different from what many people think. So where do you find green consumers? And what do they look like?

A quick look back: in the past, people were distinguished by the fact that you could immediately tell who belonged to which group. Purchasers in organic shops in the 80s, for example, belonged to the green-alternative subculture. You could recognise these green environments by their clothing. For women: Birkenstock sandals and a flared skirt. For men probably a leather jacket and striped trousers. In this group they shared not only a passion for sustainable food but an entire world view. Whoever bought organic food was also simultaneously against rearmament and nuclear power but in favour of Nicaragua and the legalisation of cannabis. Tolerance was overlooked via small inconsistencies – such as the over-compensation of the beneficial effect of organic apples by mass consumption hand-rolled cigarettes. You would be against a crazy idea like an “organic supermarket”, using the jargon of the times, believing it to be an intrinsic contradiction, in other words an almost ridiculous idea. An organic shop had to be anti-capitalist, small and somehow or other be called Rapunzel.

Today, the world looks rather different. Organic foods have undergone an unparalleled career. There are not only organic supermarkets, there is even organic food at discount stores. And under the extended term “sustainable” there’s everything from fair-trade smart phones to holidays. But where has the clearly identifiable green environment gone?

A clear answer: it doesn’t exist anymore. Clearly defined environments in which one shared everything from fashion to ideology are either extinct, have shrivelled to insignificance or are more or less involuntary emergency associations (e.g. pensioners in dying villages). Instead, there is a patchwork existence as an individual equivalent of the patchwork family. You can make use of individual drawers of a huge lifestyle storage shelf and build up your own individuality together. And this is often not of pleasure, but because it has become a necessity. Where there is no environment to connect to, there is, so to speak, pressure for freedom. And the price of this freedom is firstly disorientation. Therefore, the search for guidance is as pronounced as ever. Each look at a Smartphone is a look to guide yourself. Am I still up to date? Have I missed something important? What should I do?

To illustrate how radical this change is, have another look back to our green-alternative environment of the 80s. Then it was discussed constantly, but only to reassure themselves that the shared ideology stood on a firm foundation. The perceived progressiveness of the group was at the expense of individuality within the group. If someone had said “No to rearmament” and “No to Nicaragua” simultaneously, one would have at best assumed that someone had smoked something wrong. This pressure to conform was not perceived as a loss – after all, they were indeed on the right side. In return, there was also a lot of love and security, and confirmation. And indeed this comforting feeling is lacking today. People who seek the company of others who think the same way as themselves have to go to a football stadium.

Of course, the desire to build communities beyond football is still there. And indeed it is the will to belong to the “community of the good” that drives sustainable consumption. Only it is simply no longer a closed environment in which this takes place. Statistically, about half of the population in developed countries belongs to the community of those who are “somehow sustainably oriented”. However, if one looks for similarities within this large group, it becomes vague. Trend: the wealthier and more educated you are, the greener you are. The poorer and educationally disadvantaged you are, the less interest you have in sustainable consumption. This is also obvious. It is more interesting to consider the motives for sustainable consumption. In closed environments with high moral ideals – like the faded green environment of the 80s – consequence was the most important driving force. In other words, you wanted the things that you stood for ideologically to be implemented as well and as comprehensively as possible. Implication: “Let’s create a better world.”

In today’s world of patchwork existence, however, it comes to compensation. Not everything we have pulled off the lifestyle-shelf and integrated into our lives is sustainable. Strictly speaking, much of it not sustainable. And because we are aware of it, we are simultaneously doing things to compensate for this: “I fly to Bali but I cycle to the office”, or “I live in a very big apartment but I have solar panels on the roof”. Compared to the idealistic consistency of the green pioneers this obviously appears a bit weak. Instead of saving the world we are content with doing a little something so that it doesn’t perish. Overall, the balance for sustainability is positive though: a) because there are many more people participating, at least sporadically, in sustainable consumption and b) because the range of sustainable products is growing steadily.

As a final question: how do we reach the great mass of consumers, some of whom consume sustainably? The answer is simple: by giving guidance. It has already been said that through the disappearance of closed environments and the emergence of patchwork existences a compulsion has arisen for people to define themselves. There is a correspondingly high demand for guidance. Guidance which companies must give. When consumers who are looking for guidance are simultaneously asked by companies what they would like, that’s not on. Figuratively speaking: It’s no good when two disoriented people ask each other for directions at a crossroads. It is the company’s task to bravely say where it’s headed. They must clearly formulate what they stand for as far as sustainability is concerned and state why they do what they do. The more attractive and credible this communication turns out to be, the more likely it is that guidance-seeking consumers will pounce upon it.

Interestingly, a circle closes here: the world again belongs to the persistent men of conviction – only this time they are on the corporate side.

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