Tag Archives: consumption

Green Movement Drives Innovation in Materials

The West Coast Green conference took place in San Francisco last week, featuring three days of speakers and panels and over 300 exhibitors on the trade show floor. The conference tag line was “green innovation for the built environment.” In other words, a focus on new approaches to green buildings.

One of the themes that emerged from the show was a profusion of new materials, or new uses for old materials. The green movement seems to be spurring tremendous innovation and creativity in the area of “stuff:” stuff for filling, for coating or for building. This innovation usually operates in one (or more) of three green dimensions:

  • The material itself is more environmentally friendly;
  • The material makes a building more energy efficient; or
  • The material lasts longer, and so over time a building requires less resources.

Some of the materials at West Coast Green were fairly high tech, like the coatings produced by Evolution Surfaces. These coatings use nano-particles to protect surfaces from moisture, mold, UV or other assaults. The nanocoatings are biodegradable and last longer. Also in the high tech world were the foams produced by NCFI Polyurethane. These foams provide the insulating power of fiberglass while providing an airtight barrier, making a home more energy efficient. Rinoshield’s ceramic encapsulated paint and Timbertech’s plastic decking boards were other high tech materials.

A medium tech approach used by some innovators was to apply technology in order to recycle existing waste materials. For example, Nyloboard takes old carpet fibers, processes them and applies a resin to create a water, rot and termite resistant faux-wood for decks. Icestone makes a kitchen counter material out of recycled glass and concrete.

Finally, there were folks who were taking existing materials and reusing them in innovative ways. Restoration Timber takes wood from old barns and other buildings and repurposes it into flooring and paneling. Oregon Shepherd and Bellwether Materials are both taking the wool from sheep that is currently discarded (90% of the total amount sheared!) and using it as building insulation to replace fiberglass.

In all of the examples above (and plenty more not mentioned), entrepreneurs were focused not on solar, water purification and the other usual suspects of green building, but on the mundane stuff of which buildings are made. Even here, the market opportunity of green is driving innovation.



Mother Nature vs. Capitalism

I was recently reading a transcript of a speech that theologian Sallie McFague gave on religion and ecology. In the speech McFague works her usual metaphor magic, discussing how language drives thought, and thought drives actions. Specifically, she called for a reimaging of the Christian worldview, from one in which the world is seen as a thing, a machine in which humans live, to one in which the world and the humans therein are seen as shared parts of a holistic body of God. This view – “that the world is from the beginning loved by God and is a reflection of the divine” – would forefront the inherent value of the environment and the religious importance of its conservation.

Interestingly, McFague claims that this reimaging is not new, but instead a return to a traditional worldview, held by Christians and non-Christians alike. The concept of earth as machine, she claims, “is an anomaly in human history, for until the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the earth was assumed to be alive, even as we are.” McFague is not calling for a return to pre-scientific thinking, in which we must appease tree spirits and illnesses are caused by foul humours (although the current use of medicinal leeches is totally cool), but rather a recognition that all of creation is equally part of God.

For McFague, the culprit is less the scientific revolution than the drive toward individualist consumption that the market economy has engendered. Consumption of goods is linked to consumption of the earth’s resources.

“From the time of Aristotle to the eighteenth century, economics was considered a subdivision of ethics; the good life was understood to be based on such values s the common good, justice, and limits. Having substituted the insatiable greed of market capitalism in place of these values, we are now without the means to make the qualitative shift in thinking that is required.”

While I would not be inclined to say “insatiable greed,” there is no question that a market economy is inherently consumptive and that it drives people to focus on the individual rather than the common good. McFague would have us work within the current system, but temper its impact on our behavior by changing how we think and speak about the world.

To McFague’s argument from metaphor I would only add that it’s not nice to fool mother nature.

Convenience Consumption, Part 2

Just a few days after finishing my entry on convenience consumption I read in The Atlantic a great article by Virginia Postrel on what she termed “inconspicuous consumption.” She explores the works of several economists who show that spending on visible consumption goes up as neighborhood income goes down. In other words, people in poor neighborhoods are more likely to buy flashy cars and watches than people in wealthy neighborhoods.

Postrel notes that when Veblen was writing in 1899, America was a much poorer country than it is now, so the wealthy wanted to show off. But now, the wealthy have already established themselves, so it’s the better off among the poor who engage in the most conspicuous consumption. She quotes Euromonitor:

“Bling rules in emerging economies still eager to travel the status-through-product consumption road….[but] bling isn’t enough for growing numbers of consumers in developed economies.”

This plays right into my thesis of convenience consumption. The upper class no longer needs to display its wealth, so it displays its importance, as measured by convenience. Gaudy bling has been left to the hoi polloi while the upper class focuses on Fiji water and packaged meals from Whole Foods.

Convenience Consumption

Many people are familiar with conspicuous consumption, Thorstein Veblen’s brilliant term from Theory of the Leisure Class for describing how upper classes consume as a way of displaying wealth.

But it seems like now we are seeing a new form of consumption where people are consuming for convenience instead of conspicuousness. Of course, people have always paid for convenience – that’s why last minute plane flights are so much more expensive than advance fares – but the convenience consumption I’m seeing has certain differentiators:

  • there is a cost to society
  • the gain in convenience is marginal
  • the consuming seems driven by appearances as much as convenience.

Bottled water started me on the path to this theory, like a spring feeding a Fiji bottling plant. The growth in bottled water consumption in the U.S. has been dramatic, growing to 9.4 billion gallons and $12.6 billion in 2008 from 4.7 billion gallons and $6.1 billion in 2000. On a per capita basis, this represents growth to 29 gallons per year from 13. That’s a lot of water. Everywhere you go, people are swigging from plastic bottles of water: in the car, on the bus, walking down the street.

The cost of all those plastic bottles, however, transcends the $1.50 that the consumer paid. Only two out of ten water bottles consumed in the U.S. are recycled, with the rest going to the dump. That adds up to 38 billion bottles tossed into landfill every year. In addition, it takes 17 million barrels of oil to produce the water bottles consumed in the US every year. Finally, it takes thrice the clean water put in every bottle just to produce that bottle. Combine the garbage generation with the natural resource consumption, and drinking bottled water clearly has a cost to society.

Carrying your drinking water in a bottle is convenient, but not significantly more convenient than getting water at your destination. This is America, where virtually all tap water is safe to drink, and virtually all houses and offices have sinks with taps. It is challenging to imagine a circumstance where an urban or suburban American is more than 30 minutes from a source of clean drinking water.

So why the billions of bottles of water? Proper hydration has clear health benefits but I question that as the root cause. It feels more like people want to show – to themselves and to others – how busy they are. Realistically, nobody is so thirsty on their bus ride to work that they have to drink water from a bottle. We can all wait until we arrive at our office and fill our water glass then. But drinking from a bottle demonstrates to our busmates how busy we are, and how hip to hydration.

If nobody is so thirsty that they have to drink on the bus, much like nobody has such an important phone call that they can’t delay it while waiting in line at Starbucks, why are we doing both? By paying for unnecessary convenience, we can demonstrate to the world how much we NEED that convenience, how important we are. The parallel to Veblen is clear. But in a green world, conspicuous is out, convenience is in. In the modern world, you prove your worth not by owning a mansion in Newport, RI, but by being so busy that you need to drink, talk and eat on the run.

If I’m right about convenience consumption, what are the implications for the future? I predict that food will continue to be conveniencized. There is already Go-Gurt and Lunchables for kids, but I think that package food for adults on the go will continue to expand. Because lord knows, when people are hungry they have to eat…NOW! And if it’s gourmet, that’s all the better, since after all, we live in Veblenland.