Monday, May 28, 2007

Power to the People, Sort Of

Unlike this very long post, it was just a little two sentence article in the Consumer Briefs column of Sunday's LA Times, but it spoke volumes about the power of the consumer. Proctor & Gamble, gigantic marketer of just about every product imaginable having to do with the basic functioning of our homes, is going to start selling concentrated liquid laundry detergent in containers that are half the size of the current ones. This will "cut transportation and warehouse costs and reduce plastic that goes into landfill." Yes, huzzahs and cheers to them for their corporate cost-effective yet still noble effort, but the important thing is that they're doing it "to meet customer demand." Is it possible that concerns for the environment have reached some sort of critical mass with consumers and that has resulted in major corporations finally tipping over the edge into, dare I say it, green thinking? This is quite encouraging.

But while I'm delighted to know that consumers seem to have enough awareness and clout to influence positive change in a manufacturer the size of P&G, I'm less enthusiastic to learn about consumers' ability to influence a major retailer who sells women's shoes. Of course, it's a cliche to say that women love their shoes and have far too many pair in their closets. But we may have hit a new high in overindulgence reflected by the flagship store of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. In August, the store is opening an 8,500 square foot designer shoe salon that is so huge it will have its own ZIP code. Thanks to the clever plan of the Saks marketing executives, this eighth floor behemoth will even be named 10022-SHOE. It will feature, in addition to about a trillion shoes, "a VIP room for private shopping, an in-house cobbler and a chocolate cafe." (Footwear, obviously, is the only item of apparel a woman can shop for without guilt while simultaneously indulging in chocolate.)

One might conclude that there's a significant disconnect between (1) consumer sensitivity to the environment that results in an important change in product packaging and (2) consumer demand that causes the expansion of a shoe department to 150% its former size to accommodate the shopper who had custom glass shelves devoted to shoes in her home and her friend who estimated that she owned 500 pairs of shoes. But maybe there isn't a disconnect at all. Maybe, once again, we're all just responding to marketing and the cool factor.

I believe that people generally want to do "the right thing" and, at this particular moment in history, the right thing is to be aware of the impact we're having on the environment, then choose to do something, anything, that we believe will help. It's finally becoming cool to be "green." Not necessarily radical, No Impact Man, tree-hugging green, but green enough that we can demonstrate to ourselves and our friends that we're willing participants in the effort to help save the environment. (Of course, eventually messy coastal flooding from the continually rising sea levels may force all of us to reevaluate our level of commitment to change.)

How have we become aware of these environmental concerns? The media. But it's not just news stories that got our attention -- reporting the situation has been going on for ages; no, it's the opinion leaders, the people we think of as "cool" who have pushed awareness into the realm of the general public. If a famous person we admire is supporting an environmental cause, we're more inclined to pay attention, and most importantly, we're more inclined to act based on the endorsement of that famous person than if we're simply presented straight facts. That's the whole basis of marketing. That's why "causes" work so hard to get a famous spokesperson to represent them; they know we'll listen more attentively to the message and maybe even respond if we like the spokesperson.

In addition, we humans are social creatures, interacting daily in situations that require us to assess the hierarchy within the group of people and the circumstances around us. Who's someone to be reckoned with, who's someone easily dismissed, who's at about our level and therefore possibly a comfortable associate? And let's face it, our appearance is what plunks us right down on "our" spot on the hierarchy. No discussion is necessary about the legitimacy of making this kind of evaluation -- of course it's ridiculous to presume all the things we do based on appearances, but it's also a reality. So I was interested to note the comment from a Saks shopper who said, "Because New York women don't have cars, their shoes and their handbags tell you everything about them. . .It's sort of their way of communicating themselves without being behind the wheel of a car."

I live in LA where recognizing and acknowledging status is an art because looks can be deceiving due to our extremely casual lifestyle. This shopper's comment made perfect sense to me. While in Beverly Hills the other day with my significant other, The Writer, I said to him that it was amazing how much the area had changed. Now practically everybody looks like a tourist (no offense, dear tourists, but you know how you dress sometimes; and yes, I've been known to go out looking less than fabulous, too). A few locals were easy to spot, but for many, many people on the street, the only clue to their wealth (except, perhaps, for an expensive watch) was to see what kind of car they got into. A total schlub could step into a Bugatti because here in a city where cars are of primary importance, the Bugatti was enough to make the status statement. (As I mentioned in a previous post, many well-known show biz types are now making the Prius a cool green status symbol, but that's often because those particular types already have recognizable faces.)

But in New York, where there's a more formal culture, and with winter to contend with, too, a statement of a different kind is required: shoes and bags. And at some point, status awareness becomes a function of marketing, not quality. Otherwise, why would one high-quality designer be the darling of the fashion world one season, only to be overthrown by a totally different high-quality designer the next season? In fact, it's the changeability of the fashion trends that send the cool signal. The more status currently accorded the brand, the cooler the individual who wears or carries it. And if Vogue (or Dwell or or whatever source is your favorite arbiter of style) says this is the designer, this is the wardrobe style, this is the lifestyle, you can pretty much bet that defines the aspirations of its target consumer. The manifestations may vary based on geography (LA people are more focused on cars, New Yorkers on shoes), but we all respond to what's presented to us as cool. It's a phenomenon that's fascinating, understandable, and sometimes unfortunate.

So the apparent consumer disconnect may not be quite as disconnected as it seems. In both cases, the concern for the environment and what we feel we require to make a status statement are to a great extent simply a function of marketing. Yes, we're more aware now that our purchasing choices can make a difference for the future of the planet and we're willing to help where we can. This is the good news. But we're also trying to function in the real world and wanting to assert ourselves in a way that demonstrates to others who we are in the scheme of things. The problem is we're not yet aware that it's possible to do that with fewer than five hundred pairs of shoes.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, May 25, 2007

Our Disposable Culture on Campus

Everyone knows that November and December are the months that many people open up their checkbooks to make end of the year charitable donations. But who knew that the end of the school year also offers a potential charitable bonanza? On college campuses across the country, departing students leave behind a gigantic load of tangible goods, often in great condition, that make perfect donations for charities. That's if the stuff isn't just tossed in the trash.

Generations of students have commonly stocked up throughout the school year on the usual staples of college life, from desk lamps and study supplies to sports souvenirs and laundry detergent. But the trappings of our affluent society have spread to the dorm and students now commonly have all sorts of fancy furnishings, small appliances and big wardrobes that they acquire with the same gusto their parents demonstrate at home. Since most schools offer little or no storage during the summer term, the majority of this stuff usually has been consigned to the dumpster or just abandoned in the room, especially if the student had far to travel and didn't want to deal with packing and shipping expenses. Here's just a partial list of items that students leave behind, gleaned from several recent articles about the phenomenon:

computer printers
microwave ovens
toaster ovens
window fans
clock radios

Excluding the more esoteric cast-offs, such as a boa constrictor and a three-foot inflatable Jesus, there are literally tons of useful things that formerly were being thrown out but are now offered to local charities where they serve an enormous need. Many student organizations and administrators realized that it was a terrible waste, a major landfill burden and a big clean-up expense for the college to allow so much perfectly fine merchandise to end up in the trash. Students and schools began setting up systems to collect donations from students and distribute them to charities. There's even a non-profit company called Dump and Run that transforms the piles of abandoned stuff into organized charitable donations on a dozen college and university campuses.

But what does the accumulation of all this stuff say about us as a society? Clearly, it says that by the time kids hit their college years, the pattern of over-consumption and the belief that we live in a disposable culture have been well ingrained. At the University of Florida alone, twenty tons of usable items were donated recently to the Salvation Army and other local charities. Twenty tons, all from college students on one campus. It's astonishing. And it's a sign that if we want to make a cultural change in the way we consume and value our possessions, we'd better start by setting a good example for our kids and explaining the concept of "enough" when they're still very young.

MSNBC's report on this "spring fling of things" includes the following:

Ed Newman, who oversees the recycling and reuse programs at Ohio University, calls the spring move-out "a study in conspicuous consumption."

"There are 85 schools in Ohio and 4,000 in this country, and they're all living like there's no tomorrow," he said.

Though proud of the [recycling] efforts, he is also troubled by how much still is wasted. About 80 percent of OU's trash could be recycled or reused.

"It's more appalling than anything else," he said.

If you have a college student in your family (or if you are one), what a difference you and your school could make to local charities by setting up or participating in a campus-wide donation system at the end of the term. Yes, it's too late to start a big new recycling project for this year, but just in case you or your college-age kid are still packing up to head home for the summer, please try to take the time to donate what you're not taking back with you. To throw away useful things that you no longer need isn't just thoughtless, it's exactly what Ed Newman said: appalling.

Check out, and the LA Times for more details on this compelling nation-wide story.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, May 18, 2007

Style, Advertising, and the Cool Factor

This week, I turn again to the Los Angeles Times, which generously continues to provide plenty of blog fodder with show-biz and style stories that range from the encouraging to the downright depressing. Here are a few examples.

On the positive front, Gina Piccalo reported that the "celebrity posse" is now passe. The excesses of celebrity have hardly been eliminated, so expensive hairdressers, chic stylists, personal trainers and private chefs are not quaking in their Uggs (okay, I'm really out of the loop; are those still considered fashionable?). However, Piccalo reports, "Big entourages are now widely seen as the sign of a neophyte, a has-been or a wannabe." Celebrities who require throngs of service-providers or scads of hangers-on are becoming the minority.

And what could be a greater demonstration of stuff-gone-mad in contemporary life than an assortment of human beings used essentially as accessories? Celebrity posse downsizing, or, even better, its elimination, is a great example of the cool factor in action: if it's no longer cool for celebrities to be perceived as high maintenance, then low or at least lower maintenance becomes desirable. Of course, it is all a matter of perception as Piccalo notes: "Authenticity (even if it's feigned) is a sure-fire way to stand apart from the decadence . . . chronicled by . . . the tabloids." But, it's the direction of the trend that's important and that trend is headed toward "less," not "more." Ostentation, in the form of stuff or people-as-stuff, is not cool.

Another interesting story came from Mimi Avins who wrote about the "anti-heirloom" wedding dress. Designers have been infiltrating the lower-priced market for all kinds of goods for quite a few years; think of Martha Stewart and Michael Graves. Now the market for formal bridal gowns, which are usually incredibly pricey, is host to more affordable creations by the likes of Isaac Mizrahi and Viktor & Rolf, no slouches in the designer pantheon. One J. Crew spokesman said of the type of bride who would be attracted to that company's lower-priced gowns, "She has a casual attitude and a pared-down style that comes from a level of sophistication." Translation: she's cool because less is more.

Most encouraging was a comment from 'Project Runway's' stylist, Tim Gunn (sorry, I don't watch the show, but based on the following quote, I do like the way this guy thinks). In an article by Booth Moore suggesting that buying the season's "It" handbag is not necessarily the smartest decision a fashion-conscious woman can make, Gunn says, "[T]here is a kind of social embarrassment to having an It bag. I would rather say, 'Gee, this is a $4,000 bag. Why don't I spend $600 instead and give the balance to charity?'" For those of us who have difficulty comprehending any reason to spend $4,000 on a bag, this kind of comment from a popular fashion stylist represents a huge leap forward and rates a mighty cheer. Thank you, Tim Gunn, for making it clear that it's simply not cool to spend that money so thoughtlessly.

On the downside, there was also a story by Kim Christensen about Deleese Williams, a woman who planned to be on the "Extreme Makeover" reality show (again, sorry, I don't watch the program). She was going to be given major facial plastic surgery and breast implants, but her participation was cancelled because the recovery process would take too long to fit the show's production schedule. According to a lawsuit filed by Ms. Williams, her sister had been "goaded by producers into videotaping 'hurtful and horrific statements' about [Ms. Williams'] appearance to heighten the drama." The lawsuit alleges that the sister ultimately committed suicide because of her grief over having said those things and then having the show back out of the planned surgery, thus causing emotional trauma to Ms. Williams.

While it's impossible for us to know the family dynamics at work in this situation, or the emotional health of any of the participants, what we do know is that a woman was so distressed about her physical appearance that she felt it was necessary to go through major, multiple surgeries to feel all right about herself. Accompanying the article was a fairly large photograph of one woman holding up a snapshot of another woman. At first glance, before reading the article, I thought perhaps the nearly-invisible woman in the little snapshot had been the one who felt she needed surgery and that something had gone wrong in the process, leaving her "emotionally scarred," as the headline read. Not until I'd read the photo caption carefully did I realize that the other woman was the potential focus of the make-over. I was stunned.

While it's unlikely anyone would call Ms. Williams fabulously attractive in this picture, she just looked to me like an average gal. She's thin (that quality is certainly in high demand), has long hair, maybe a mole on one side of her face. Hardly someone I'd peg as a candidate for an extreme physical makeover. But my opinion doesn't count; her feelings about herself were what led her to seek such drastic means of "improvement." In her mind, she needed to get some new "physical stuff," otherwise she'd never be happy. How many other women feel the same way? Too many.

Advertisers have us under their spells. We're constantly being told that we're lacking something and that's why our lives aren't the way we want them to be. The solution? Buy whatever they're selling, whether it's an expensive wedding gown, the season's It bag, or even a whole new face. Then you'll be surrounded by an adoring posse of admirers.

Oh, wait. That posse's no longer quite so cool, nor is the ultra-expensive wedding gown, nor the extravagant handbag. If we can just get to the point where the obsessive need for the ever-young, ever-flawless face and body isn't so cool either, we'll really be making progress.

I can dream, can't I?

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Better Ways to Spend Your Money

If you haven't done so already, please take a moment to check out a few changes that have been made to the new and improved blog of The Thoughtful Consumer!

On the right side of the page, you'll now see bigger, easy to use subscription links. There's also a handy list of labels for all the blog posts that lets you search previous posts by subject. You'll still find the usual links to a few sites I think are important, including a link to purchase my book on Amazon -- very important! Way down at the bottom of the page, you'll discover a reminder to help you keep things in perspective "because there's more to life than stuff." A glance at the constantly changing news headlines from CNN and MSNBC make it clear that there is a big world out there with lots going on that's much more important than buying another little knick-knack that will sit on a shelf gathering dust.

But back over there on the right side of the page, you'll notice that I've added a list of links to non-profit organizations. It's called "Better Ways to Spend Your Money Instead of Buying More Stuff." One of the things that happens when you stop spending your money on unnecessary things is that you may actually have a little money left over. Now, depending on your circumstances, you may want to use that money to pay down your debt, or save for a down payment for a house or for your retirement, or use for some perfectly legitimate expenses that would improve the quality of your life in some important way. But if you've got even a few dollars to spare, surely you're too thoughtful to spend them mindlessly.

Part of being a thoughtful consumer is unloading all that excess stuff you've accumulated, either by tossing it in the trash, recycling it, or donating it. The other part is making wiser buying choices in the future and thoughtfully sharing whatever extra cash you can spare. Maybe you've already got a favorite charity or two that you like to support; my list is just a suggestion to get you thinking. We all know that there's no shortage of worthy causes in this world.

Believe me, I understand the need for personal indulgences sometimes and I'd never suggest that we deny ourselves a reward for our hard work or just because we'd like an occasional treat. But if we pause for a moment before allowing ourselves that indulgence, we might realize that we'll get just as much satisfaction by making a donation as we would if we spent the money on ourselves.

There's even a good way to make cash donations to charity on-line while you're uncluttering. If you've discovered that you have some items that are worth selling on eBay, you can specify that all or part of your sale price be donated to any of a large number of non-profit groups. Check out the details on this link to Mission Fish, the clearinghouse organization that eBay uses to distribute your profits to the charity of your choice. It's a great way to unload unnecessary stuff and do some good at the same time. I've also used it to donate profits from eBay sales of my brand new artwork. It's very rewarding to create a work of art, sell it on-line and have the money go directly to charity.

Our choices as thoughtful consumers can allow us the joy of supporting causes we believe in, whether we'd like to help cure a disease that affects us or a loved one, help feed the hungry, keep the doors open to our neighborhood library, save an historical building in the heart of our town, donate a musical instrument to a child who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to experience the thrill of playing it, or any of a myriad of other possibilities.

And there's another joy that comes from living an uncluttered, thoughtful life: we're not so bogged down by stuff and the physical and psychological effort it requires from us just to get through our day, so we begin to feel truly free. When we're liberated from too much stuff, we're able to share not only our resources but our time, too, with our family, our friends, and perhaps by volunteering for one of those worthy causes we hold dear.

Less stuff, more time, more money, more generosity. Everybody wins. What could be better?

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Green is the New Black, Too

I've never been a big fan of guilt as a motivation to do the right thing. Obviously, sometimes it's helpful because most of us don't want to feel bad about ourselves and sorry for the troubles we've caused others, which is exactly how guilt makes us feel. Avoiding the possibility of feeling guilty can help moderate our personal choices.

But on a larger scale, it's often harder to use guilt as a motivator to change our behavior by telling us that the world at large will suffer somehow if we don't. In fact, it can be so difficult for most people to get anything other than an abstract handle on the suffering of the world that we pay much more attention to news about substance-abusing, emotionally damaged celebrities rather than "hard news" about war, poverty, and injustice. Partly I think this is because all that hard news can just seem overwhelmingly depressing, and partly it's because we may feel that one individual can't do much to change things anyway. Of course, I disagree with that position because every effort, no matter how small, can contribute to positive change -- otherwise why would I bother faithfully sending out the tiny voice of The Thoughtful Consumer amidst all the gazillions of blogs in the blogosphere?

I'm still convinced that the best motivator for large-scale change in people's behavior is making something cool. This is because our wonderful but flawed human race can be pretty darn shallow sometimes. Based on plenty of hard evidence proving without a doubt that's the case, advertisers regularly exploit our insecurities, our acquisitiveness, and our desire for status. They do a darn fine job of getting us to believe that we can make up for what we "lack" by simply purchasing whatever they're pushing, no matter how insignificant the product may seem to be. (Any fans of old television shows out there who appreciate the extremely witty "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman?" Mary obsessed over the floor polish she used on her kitchen floor; if the floor wasn't shiny enough, somehow she'd failed as a woman. The show was a parody, but parody only works when it's based in truth. Let's 'fess up: we're all mostly suckers for advertising.)

I made reference in a previous blog post to the rather ironic pronouncement in the fall 2006 Vogue magazine that it was no longer cool to be ostentatious, and in a post on April 4 I cited Seth Godin's clever phrase, "Zero is the New Black," referring to low-impact living on the planet as the current height of chic. Well, I succumbed again and purchased the May issue of Vogue (hey, I can be shallow, too) only to discover that a few pages are devoted to living "green."

Now, "green" in Vogue terms is not exactly the same shade of green that most of us mere mortals probably have in mind when we use the term, but any shade of green is a step in the right direction. For example, the Kips Bay 2007 Decorator Show House (worth $25 million after a "celebrated green real estate developer" did her thing) will be painted with Aura, an eco-friendly paint by Benjamin Moore. For her up-coming summer projects, a well-known event planner will be using LED lighting that uses less electricity. Celebutantes and "ladies who lunch" were, in fact, recently lunching at the American Museum of Natural History while hearing a lecture entitled, "Living Green in the Face of Global Climate Change." Vanity Fair took out a full-page ad promoting "a new kind of eco-living" -- "presented by Lexus." Okay, I drive a Honda Civic, but I'm still intrigued.

The point is that when wealthy fashion style-setters and eager trend-followers start to leap onto the green bandwagon, the rest of the developed world isn't far behind them. This is good news for the planet and for its inhabitants.

Maybe your effort at going green will be recycling all those old clothes you no longer wear by donating them to the neighborhood thrift shop. Maybe you'll purge papers and magazines to recycle, too. Maybe your new, simplified, less stuff-laden life will result in a less stuff-laden brain (I can guarantee this). Then you can think clearly about the products you do need to buy and figure out if there are some simple choices you can make that will be friendlier to the environment.

Less stuff equals living lean. Eco-consciousness makes you green. Vogue, the bible of the fashion set, has declared that's what's cool. So what could possibly be cooler than you, darling, when you're a lean, green, fashionable machine?

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob