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Could social impact dominate consumer behaviour?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, April 11, 2019

Esmee Wilcox writes her fourth blog post in our Emerging Fellows program. She asks about the dominance of social impact over consumer behaviour. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


In one generation my family has seen starvation and rationing through war and genocide. These experiences have hardwired how they think about value and consumption. My generation hasn’t lived through that, and we’re caught between our concern for environmental limits and our experiences, our expectations, of personal gain through consumption. With so much opportunity still to consume right in front of us, why might we choose to displace this with something more relevant? What is changing around us that might lead us to think differently about what we value through how we consume?


In a number of spheres, we’re seeing the rise of networks of use displacing inefficient ownership models. Our status doesn’t come from owning a particular make of car or having the best gym membership but being part of a network of users. These networks of (re-)usage may create social and environmental benefits alongside economic efficiency. You can now uber-chicly rent and rent out your wardrobe as a means of “fast fashion”.


Networks add value because they realise what would otherwise be latent potential. We can add small parts that create something much bigger. Participation requires an element of reciprocity, in giving and taking, in producing and consuming. We might start to meet our wants to be inventive and productive and our needs to consume, by being part of more open networks. The enjoyment we get from reciprocal relationships is different from the instant hit of private consumption. It might dominate where we can see the value of a more sustaining activity over an instant hit.


To realise this changing pattern of consumption towards the primacy of social impact, the drivers for allocating capital resources would need to evolve from where they are now. Instead of defining and measuring a linear relationship between costs and benefits, we might see allocations that understand the complex relationship between inputs that are constantly evolving and social system benefits. The accumulation of capital is not as important as its continued flow and use around the network.


In this space social investors might be more concerned with describing the emerging changes within social systems instead of reducing the gains to known pre-existing cost sources. We might allow the change to happen before fixing the evaluation criteria. We might then look for what does help the community in practice to self-organise around birth, adolescence and bereavement for families under economic and social stress. Instead of the known, but limited, cost gains around children staying within the family unit and not going into the formal care system. In this future, social enterprises might still be tackling the issues of health, housing and education but they might be formed more around acting as access platforms. As super-connectors of the ecosystems in which poverty exists. To extend the reach of separated systems and the flow of social action.


Let’s not forget though the strength of our behavioural patterns that concern us with private accumulation instead of system flow. We could still see an increase in social impact in this future. But having the capacity to consume in a socially beneficial way might determine social and political status and perpetuate inequalities. Think about how Aribnb only helps property owners. It’s making it harder for private renters to access rented accommodation and enter property ownership. You have to have capital to access the benefits, and Airbnb raises the threshold for those that don’t.


Moreover, the step-change to recognise that the social issues of our time that affect us all require networked and systems working obliges us to step out of atomised and ‘now-ist’ frame of thinking. Scarcity has had the tendency of driving narrowing competition and closing down thinking about tomorrow. Rule bound and closed cultures develop in response to sustained threats. Resource constraints can make us less trustful of our fellow citizens.


It takes imagination to perceive of how we might deliberately choose to displace personal desires to consume with behaviour that is more sustaining. As we head into the next 30 years, people and communities that have choice over what they consume might be compelled to start consuming less. Where this act of consumption can also create wider system benefits, we might start to conceive of consumption very differently. This future that generates more from social system production than private gain may be viable should we start to notice, value and enjoy our own role in that complex network. If we perceive of a collective working towards that future together.


New technologies might be the way in which we can start to understand our collective contributions. That make it easier to see how we are tackling systemic social issues. The development of these new technologies might create the space for self-organising patterns of socially beneficial consumption and production to emerge. It is within this future that we may find, unleash and make visible our preferences for social impact to dominate our patterns of consumption.


© Esmee Wilcox 2019

Tags:  consumption  social impact  value 

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