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The Simulacrum of Sustainability: Green Marketing’s Real Problem

A simulacrum is a copy without an original.  It’s a slippery concept, but we are surrounded by examples in pop-culture and environmental sustainability.

We can look to cyberpunk literature’s futuristic portrayal of human life for models of simulacra.  In Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner (Warner Bros., 1982), humans are replicated with painstaking detail (and a 4 year expiration date and superhuman strength).  Memories are perfectly implanted into the humanoids so that not even they know they are ‘replicants.’  They are replicas of humans that never existed.

Environmental sustainability, as we are shown through green marketing, is a simulacrum.  This is as dangerous for marketing as it is for sustainability.

Modern consumers are offered convincing images of pastoral perfectness through green marketing.  It’s all very believable as a (mostly Photoshopped) tapestry of what we picture sustainability to be like (endless energy as bright white turbines set against impossibly blue skies). We are like tweenage girls flipping through the pages of Glamour Magazine, thinking all those women are real.

Through the worst (and most popular) of what passes for green marketing, we are offered a kind of perfect memory (the cow used to make the yogurt is happy on the hillside) to reflect on.  This pastoral imagery both harkens back to a simpler time (which did not exist) and offers the promise of a future (which will not exist).   Most corporate portrayals of sustainability are truly copies without an original.  They are hyperreal in that we cannot differentiate reality from fantasy.

It reminds me of Jim Carey’s character’s experience in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (Paramount, 1998).  A perfect fictional town has been built around our hero and (unknown to him) he has been filmed since birth on this fake set.  It is the ultimate in reality programming (the every day as opposed to the Real Housewives of Atlanta). Everything Truman consumes is manufactured specifically for him, and filmed.  Everyone around him is an actor.  And it is perfect.  Until, of course, little rips in the fabric of his manufactured reality (a replica of a perfect town that could never exist) begin to pull and tear at HIS very existence.  Even the audience (of the television show within the movie) begins to ask that same ultimate question which sustainability itself forgets to ask:  How Will It End?

French Philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in his treatise on Reality Simulacra and Simulation claims that modern culture has replaced all reality with symbols of reality.  “All“ includes our concepts of sustainability.  Sustainability does not exist without the construct of business within which to place it.  Business created the very need for – and there for controls the image of  – Sustainability, and it is in this manufactured vision that the simulacrum is revealed.

Even though the framing of sustainability has shifted towards “sustainability as a journey” (does that imply that it is only a concept ?) the common language of “sustainability talk” still holds it up as a tangible, achievable place or state (to “go green,” as in to “go insane,” maintains inevitability).  Far from greenwashing, this replicated place creates a more sinister context that once again placates consumers with anything but a 1:1 relationship between “manufactured reality” and The Real.  It permits us to believe we will consume our way out of climate change, or that we are worth ‘luxury green’ items.  It allows us to have our Mac and be environmental activists too.  As the omniscient director (creator) of Truman’s T.V. show Christof (Of Christ) reminds us, we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” Are we, culturally, at a point where we dare pick at the fabric of the authenticity of our portrayals of sustainability?  What if, like Truman found, it is all veneer?

The perfection of sustainability – that classic condition of growing while managing resources without impact to future generations – is what we are trying to model…to, er,  replicate.  But there is no original.  Business has created the need for and the context of a sustainable business model.

But something IS happening.  Corporations are making real changes.  I’ve read about them.  I’ve even seen some.  I know it.  Perhaps I have read too much cyperbunk, but I can’t help but wonder if, as in Blade Runner, these might simply be implanted memories, and we might not actually know the difference.

John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group and the author of More Than Promote –A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing.

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5 thoughts on “The Simulacrum of Sustainability: Green Marketing’s Real Problem

  1. Excellent insight but take it one step further. In the current cynical environment, audience members (consumers) are already stripping away the the fabric of the set and concluding that a lot of the “green” movement and “sustainability” marketing is sham, corporate hack sales pitches. That’s why sales of Clorox’s “green” laundry products have dropped from $100 million in 2008 to less than $60 million in 2010 despite the fact that according to surveys, consumers “say” they want and use environmentally sensitive products (ha, ha, not really!). As the fabrick of “green and sustainable” marketing is stripped away, cynicism itself that becomes reality because most of that “green” and “sustainability” hype has been unmasked as phony. The consumer’s reality now is anything he/she want’s it to be. Thus “my opinion” is as valid as anyone else’s because it’s my reality and that’s a fact. And “my old detergent is just a good as the new green stuff because I think it is and that’s what I’ll buy!”

    Corporate marketing and overzealous advocacy have papered the landscape with unrealizable goals and phony claims. People are turning it off.

  2. I always thought I am being secretly filmed because my life seems not to have a dull moment. However, I would like my milk to come from a cow on a hilltop, but is that even possible these days? Somewhere, I heard that there is no natural way to make ice cream no matter what the box says. Sad, that we have to go to an organic store to buy natural things or we believe that those are natural products.

  3. I believe this article to be overly dour.
    No question that Mr. Rooks writes with a razor sharp realist’s edge – and also no question that sustainability and CSR will only benefit from his reality-based discussions. But why gaze philosophically into a societal awakening of thought that is still being shaped and tempered by minds such as your very own?
    Today information moves faster than ever before, and this will facilitate mindsets changing across whole societies at rates never before experienced. While no one can guarantee what sticks until it does, it seems like ideas based on reason have an appeal that could not be bought with advertising or even the best celebrity sponsorships.
    What if sustainability is the first idea of the digital age that is strong enough and rational enough that it will genuinely influence human behavior (hopefully) around Earth? It certainly seems to be doing just that. Sustainability is not a new mindset – but its popularity is finally such that advertisers abuse it. Advertisers will abuse all that is sacred to make a sale, but in that act they do not always destroy so much as dilute.
    Perhaps “sustainability” as a phrase will be beaten into ambiguity by advertisers – maybe it already has been – but the concept of sustainability and its critical importance to our future has already infected the planet and cannot be denied. We cannot step back in time to when there was even a debate as to the importance of sustainable practices. So try as advertisers and greenwashers might, they cannot capture the power of the idea itself. They can only feed on its ethereal scraps.
    Sustainability does not have roots in every industry, and as such you could say that sustainable approaches to those industries are simulacra. However we, as in everyone alive right now, MUST develop sustainable methods, mindsets, and practices in every industry to prevent our self-destruction as a species. Please compare sustainability to psychology, which was new and had no branches when it was first being formed as a science. The developed branches of psychology were initially simulacra at some point as well – a grafting of the vine of psychology onto the industrial, organizational, educational, etc. worlds to facilitate necessary change. So too will sustainability be applied as a newly developing science of human thought.
    Sorry for the long response, but it disheartened me to think you were disheartened by advertising’s endless prostitution of meaningful, influential ideas. Green pastures, blue fields, happy cows, and utopian visions are the stuff of dreams and adverts, so nod and acknowledge the power of the idea they’re based on and press on spreading the real (and good) word.
    I look forward to continuing to read your columns.

  4. Great comments. A few replies:

    Chris Stock: Agreed. One point is that we do create our own realities….or at least think we do. “You see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear” said the man from the pointless forest (RIP Harry Nilsson).

    sammy zoso: It is a long way. Guilty. But I think there’s more to it than simple greenwashing. It’s more about the system that permits the washing. it’s more about our cultural acceptance of the image of the idea than the idea.

    The Dog Island: You are being filmed. (Kidding….kind of).

    Matt M: It is dour (and I’ll even cop to it being ‘overly’ so). But it makes me think of Oscar Wilde – that it is easier to have sympathy with suffering than it is sympathy with thought.

    Good news and pretty images permit us to keep on keeping on (shopping).

    The importance of ‘power of the idea,’ is precisely the reason why we need to examine the message and the messenger…even in overly dour (and overly academic) ways. I’ll keep on if you do.

    Thanks for the comments everyone.


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