Dads, daughters and sustainability — a view from the road
Recently, I had the luxury of spending a week on the road to drive my daughter Sofija back home to Minneapolis from Oregon, where she goes to college. We covered over 2300 miles in five days in a rented Ford Fusion Hybrid. (The car was a revelation — 44 miles per gallon, a beautifully designed interior and enough cargo space for five suitcases, a bag of trail mix and five chocolate bars.)
In the process, I learned quite a bit about the mindset of people a lot younger than I am, particularly as it relates to issues of consumption, the secret life of things, and new technologies. I can say that I finally understand Snapchat (kind of) and also get why there's so much buzz about Virtual Reality.
I'll submit that driving halfway across the country is a good way to clear the mind. It's also an excellent way of gaining a better appreciation of the challenges of achieving environmental goals on things like climate change and waste reduction. Every sustainability practitioner who lives on a coast should consider getting into a car and driving at least once to the center of the country to get a better understanding of why improving infrastructure for recycling and renewables in huge swaths of the country are problems not easily solved.
I'd like to share a few of my observations as food for thought.
1. The circular economy is likely a generational thing.
I tend to resist the temptation to label generations as this or that, or believe that one is better or worse than the other. Yet when it comes to our consumerist culture, it does appear as if 20-somethings are somehow different.
Over the past three years, with the notable exception of fashion, my daughter has been slowly unburdening herself of stuff. Hard goods just aren't as appealing as they once were, and certainly not as enjoyable as going to music shows and finding new places to explore.
And she's not alone. While this is clearly anecdotal, the students and young professionals I run into these days don't seem as attached to things as they used to be. And the way they get rid of things is different, too. Decluttering often translates into sharing or donating used goods, rather than selling.
Retailers already know about these shifting patterns of consumption and are trying to adapt. The successful ones will thrive, while the others may be headed to the ICU.
2. Brands need to develop healthier relationships with inanimate objects.
I confess I did a little dumpster-diving to see what college students are tossing on moving day. Unfortunately, it's still a lot.
The item that got me thinking was the discarded computer charger with a cracked cord. Marketers love to talk about the emotional connection between their brands and people. But what about their relationships with the things they produce and sell? Did the broken charger have a long and productive life, or did it break down well before its time? Do the manufacturer and retailer who sold it know or even care?
It's likely that smart organizations, like those that have joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's CE100, understand the need to get a better handle on these and other questions about the life-cycle of things. Currently, the unfortunate reality is that once a product is made and sold, companies often have little to no idea what happens next, in the post-purchase phase.
What ends up being lost is a lot of recoverable material, insights into product design improvements that can be made, and the opportunity to build deeper relationships with consumers.
3. Virtual Reality will significantly change the way we understand the natural world.
This is one of those potentially preposterous predictions I may come to regret, but the power of this rapidly developing technology is undeniable.
Upon returning home to Minneapolis, my family and I had the opportunity to personally experience virtual reality at an event hosted by the Walker Art Center in collaboration with the Sundance Institute's New Frontier Program, and Northern Spark, a local arts organization. VR is already realistic enough to cause you to lose your sense of place and self, and we're only in the early stages of development of the technology. I came away from the experience with two competing thoughts: VR may either destroy our humanity or be the technology that finally saves us from ourselves.
For my first experience, I chose a film titled The Click Effect, an underwater documentary about whale and dolphin communication. With the VR technology, you believe you're in the water. It is so real you can almost feel yourself getting wet.
It was quite profound and the kind of experience that I could imagine being replicated to demonstrate the effects of climate change or deforestation in a way that would create an intense emotional connection to those issues. It's the kind of experience that could spur a heightened sense of purpose and a viscerally intense desire for action.
But then I experienced the horror film, Sisters: A Mobile VR Ghost Story, which scared the living daylights out of me and made me appreciate how the technology could also be used to exploit one's deepest fears. (In this case, creepy possessed children's dolls.) Far less sophisticated methods of propaganda have been used to great effect in the past. I wondered, could VR be used to bring out the worst in us and cause us to fear and revile our neighbors, or perhaps even turn on the fearsome cabal of climate scientists?
I'm an optimist. I think we'll get it right. But in the meantime, all I'm hoping for is that the people making the VR goggles will at least set up a takeback program so that the current models don't end up in the landfill when the new ones inevitably take their place.
There's a good chance a new generation of consumers will demand it.