As we are bombarded by news reports slicing and dicing the “Black Friday” kick off to holiday sales, let’s pause to summon the ghost of Christmas Past – how many of the gifts we receive are truly wanted and cherished? Our culture of hyper-consumption is never as blatant as during the holiday season. And this year, despite continuing economic uncertainty for many, is proving to be no different.
According to the Associated Press, many merchants started pushing early discounts on holiday gifts before Halloween. Beyond the deals, the New York Times recently observed that, in an uncertain economy, stores are focusing on options that urge customers to buy now and pay later through layaway programs, or branded credit cards with built in incentives. It appears that the words of Dr. Seuss’s Lorax still hold true: “a Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!”
Or is it? With $2 billion in goods estimated to be purchased via mobile phones in 2010, technology is clearly influencing how consumers acquire goods. Given that changing consumers’ habits has been the holy grail of the sustainability movement for – well, forever – opportunity may be lurking in this transformation.
Leveraging technology for the greater good isn’t news, but it’s still relevant as we contemplate a shift to more sustainable forms of commerce. Amazon’s Kindle is a technology that altered the way people acquire books – making it more convenient and saving paper. As e-readers become more common, the Cleanteach Group forecasts that the resulting demand reduction for printed books could prevent the release of 22 billion pounds of carbon dioxide by 2012. More generally, the digitization of goods, like books and music, offers the possibility of reducing overall demand for new natural resources.
Reinforcing the old saying that “there’s power in numbers,” online communities and couponing sites like Groupon and LivingSocial also support the growing trend towards localizing services and product offerings, with associated environmental benefits. Creating a hybrid marketing effort leveraging social networks and geography to market discounts and information on what’s available, what’s happening, and what’s nearby is clearly good for consumers, judging by the early success of these efforts. Additionally, though, they provide another way for smaller, local businesses to compete with larger retailers. As Intuit’s “Local Hero Challenge” demonstrates, local businesses can be powerful social and environmental change agents.
Even more encouraging, though, is that technology is accelerating the adoption of “collaborative consumption” – where needs are met through sharing services, like ZipCar, Freecycle or social lending services. The smart folks at Levi’s tapped into this trend with their “Friends Store” where, through Facebook Connect, you can get real time answers to whether your friends think these are the right jeans for you. Riding this wave, Microsoft’s Bing recently announced a new feature where content your friends have “liked” will show up in search results when it’s relevant. Now your friends’ opinions can compete with those of online advertisers.
There’s a fundamental shift underpinning all these advances that offers promise for the sustainability community, if only we tap into it. Madison Avenue’s ability to shape what we choose to buy is dwindling, and is being replaced by our communities and social networks. Maybe changing consumption patterns doesn’t have to mean taking on the role of the season’s Grinch, after all.
Amy Skoczlas Cole is the Director of eBay’s Green Team, where she leads the various aspects of the company’s environmental strategy, including tapping into the collective power of the 90 million people who use eBay everyday to make a real difference in world. eBay recently introduced Group Gifts, which merges e-commerce and social networking to make it easy for several people to purchase one gift together, increasing the chances that a gift given will be a gift that’s really wanted. While the program wasn’t developed for environmental reasons, eBay realized that it intrinsically had the potential to benefit the planet.