The Post-Stuff Economy: Leading Green Business Talent to Successful Careers

Greetings from the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in Arlington, Virginia. It was here this past weekend that I met with the program’s Masters of Natural Resources graduates and discussed with them process points that they may follow to establish and build successful sustainability-focused careers.

The event was fantastic. And our thanks go out to all involved — especially Program Director Michael Mortimer and Operations Manager and alumna Jenn Truong — for creating such an amazing experience.

Here in the Ballston part of Arlington, Virginia, one is struck by how much this place has such a wonderful “sense of place.” But it has not always been that way for Ballston. During the early to mid-1980s, this Washington, D.C. suburb was, in both style and substance, unremarkable.

But to the credit of many including the elected leadership of Arlington County, Ballston got a fabulous makeover that now makes it a truly great place to live, work, and experience. And several of its buildings — including the one used by Virginia Tech — have achieved LEED Gold or Silver status.

One thing that strikes us about Ballston is the experience that it provides both Arlingtonians and visitors alike; sure, there are many fine places to shop. But there are even more places to dine al fresco, play, hang out, or enjoy nature.

In so many ways, Ballston is the epicenter of the post-stuff economy.

One of late comedian George Carlin’s most famous bits was about our obsession with our possessions. Back in the 1980s and 90s, we loved our stuff. And this bit confirmed it:

But in 2016, we don’t value stuff as we did 20 or 30 years ago. And we believe that the post-consumerism zeitgeist will empower talent that seek to begin or advance their green business careers.

Last week, the Washington Post published a story that asked: Why isn’t America shopping? It turns out, we’ve got too much stuff and too many retail outlets selling us more stuff.

There’s more to it than that: we now value our experiences more than our material goods. Our rate of savings is way up because we need to save more to spend. But we are spending more on experiences, namely, dining out and travel and leisure.

Macy’s Manhattan flagship in Herald Square. The department store chain experienced a revenue drop-off in its most recent quarter.

While the story noted that old school department store Macy’s experienced a revenue drop-off in its most-recent quarter, experiential marketers — such as health and beauty brands Ulta and Sephora — are doing exceptionally well.

In 2016, we value the experience of buying stuff more than the stuff itself.

“Gordon Gecko” gabbing away on his state-of-the-art-in-1987 Motorola brick phone.

Our Late 20th Century economy was built on crazed consumerism. And Wall Street’s “Gordon Gecko” was the poster child for greed and wretched excess. When the U.S. stock market began to soar in the last quarter of 1982, we went on a stuff-buying binge that lasted many years.

But in 2016, our consumer behavior has changed. Our earning power has dropped and we are more thoughtful about our purchases. And Millennials, now comprising the biggest part of our workforce, save more but also value great experience more than they do acquiring more stuff.

So how does this inform careers in sustainability? It turns out, considerably.

If the careers of the New Green Economy have a linchpin, it is that our talent serve to do less bad and strive to do more good than their counterparts in other non-green tracks. Our career opportunities are in the sectors that are poised to grow more than most others: clean energy, cleantech, resource and corporate sustainability, and corporate social responsibility. Further:

  • Many Fortune 1000 companies have enmeshed sustainability into their best practices. In doing so, they have returned billions of dollars to the financial bottom line;
  • Clean energy is now cost-competitive and solar, in particular, is booming;
  • According to E2, more talent now hold clean energy jobs — 2.5 million and counting — than work in real estate, agribusiness, or traditional energy, and;
  • Millennials are motivated most by purposeful work that helps the planet and people.

Our pivot from steroidal consumerism to conservation and experience will encourage more of us to live in work in places like Ballston that have such a profound sense of place — and — to build there and in places like it a purpose-driven workforce that helps scale our economy for the next 40 to 50 years.

Indeed, our best days lie ahead.

Update (May 23, 2016): Groupon channels the experience-over-more-stuff zeitgeist in its new commercial.

DAN SMOLEN is author of Tailoring the Green Suit: Empowering Yourself for an Executive Career in the New Green Economy and member of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). He is also Founder and Managing Director of The Green Suits, LLC, which provides talent recruitment, workforce planning, and success management to green business and social good enterprises.

Photo credits: RV towing helicopter, bobbispad.blogspot.com; “Stuff,” 1986, George Carlin, Home Box Office, Inc.; Macy’s, 2016, BusinessInsider.com; “Gordon Gecko on Brick Phone” from “Wall Street,” 1987, 20th Century Fox.

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