Polina Silakova is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is her second article written for the program. In it, she explores a few options for enforcing environmentally sustainable behavior in times of scarcity and abundance.
It was a hot, late spring day from my childhood in Moscow of the early 1990s. My grandmother and I simmering in a long, slowly moving, queue in front of a grocery store. For a couple of months, the stalls have been nearly empty, with just very, very limited food available. In the pre-internet age, it made our “trips of hope” to the nearby stores a daily routine. That day we were lucky: they had cheese, hence such a hustle.
Towards lunchtime the queue started moving faster, testing my excitement. When it was our turn, I noticed with surprise that the door was defended by a bulky store assistant in a uniform, acting like a gate-keeper. The gate-keeper, who happened to be equipped with a pen, left some sort of autograph on my grandma’s hand, amplifying my confusion. Then we left. On the way home, my grandmother explained that the store was closing for a lunch break and the autograph was, in fact, our number in the queue, so that we could re-join it an hour later.
What happened after that has vanished from my recollection of that day. Although various forms of queues are still a common practice, the experience of being quite literally numbered in a queue to satisfy a most basic need left a more profound imprint in my memory than whether we actually had cheese on the table that day.
Today, in many countries consumer experience is opposite to that of post-Soviet Russia: the abundance of products make brands hunt for consumers. They spend billions of dollars on media budgets, packaging, new product development and the purchase of our data, trying to make us healthier, smarter, better people and simplifying the journey from our need to their product.
The trends of recent years indicate that additional variables have already started impacting consumer decision-making. Brands have to adapt their strategies to stay competitive. Consumers increasingly see their purchases as a statement about their identity, portraying an image they want to be known for. This raises expectations from the brands to improve transparency, become greener and more efficient if they want to recruit more consumers to their team. Companies like Method, Lush and Everlane are already actively exploring the new area of purposeful marketing, while the agency enso.co is publishing a World Value Index which ranks brands not in terms of their business success but based on what they do for the world. Will this be enough to create a positive impact at scale? Or will other factors remain the prevalent drivers of our purchases until something else will radically change our perception of our responsibility as consumers?
While enso.co is rating brands, the Chinese government (although not necessarily driven by sustainability agenda) is rating its citizens. China is undertaking a massive project of implementing a social credit system. Once rolled-out in 2020, it will rank each and every citizen based on the individual’s economic and social behaviour, as well as the scores of others in the person’s network. Things like purchases in last week’s shopping, frequent contacts circle or behaviour such as not showing up to a restaurant without cancelling your reservation – all this will count towards your personal score if you are a Chinese citizen in two years’ time.
This reward and punishment system opens a big controversy. It is hard to say whether it will actually do more good or harm to society. No matter whether we would want to live in a world like this or not, let’s imagine that the mix of the two rating ideas from above is in place: a social credit system which rates us in regard to what we do for sustainability of the world. Each time we purchase a product from a particular place or brand, or buy a coffee in a plastic cup, our public image gets shaped and our personal rating is adjusted up and down on the scale.
And what if, in a utopian future, when the scarcity of natural resources is fast approaching, and unsustainable behaviour is stigmatised in the society, our personal sustainability rating is used to allow or prohibit access to resources we need? What if this number, not written with ink on your hand, but publicly available in all databases mentioning your name, will again become our position in the line for limited resources? Will we then change our behaviour? And, most importantly, how can we change it now, so that we do not end up in such a world?
© Polina Silakova 2018