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A Human Relationship with Sustainability

Spotlight On: Oliver Pattenden, Anthropologist and Joint Head of Human Insights, Karmarama

An abstract image of the earth painted in blue and yellow
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Let’s stop talking about consumers by default

Sustainability is a concept humans have devised to capture and channel our responsibilities towards each other and the planet. Considered in this way, the practice of sustainability is neither new nor remarkable.

In their attempts to grapple with known and unknown futures, people have long considered biodiversity, resources, education, justice, and inequality, we just do so while citing the concept of sustainability rarely. Similarly, my career has always focused on sustainability, even when this association wasn’t explicit. Before joining this company, my work covered diverse fields of ethical contestation — from gender violence and educational inequality in South Africa through to environmental exploitation and degradation in Antarctica, as well as water and sanitation development in West Africa and sustainable tourism in Croatia. I’ve also helped organisations comprehend and respond to DE&I issues while finding a natural affinity with creative youth networks.

Across these varied aspects of the sustainability landscape, some familiar interests and debates arise regularly. Very often we encounter ontological questions concerning the extent to which people choose, or can believe the truthfulness of certain realities. Likewise, regularly there are epistemological dynamics concerning the extent to which various forms of knowledge are considered valuable and noteworthy.

Dynamics of structural inequality are never too far away either. These forces are not only economic but also political and sociological, revealing the hidden impacts of capitalism and colonialism in historical and present forms.

Interwoven throughout these seemingly lofty conceptual issues are people’s experiences of hope, empowerment, justice, and shame, amongst others. Humans are the only constant, always appearing as complex and simple entities at the same time. As we might look to think about the relationship between sustainability and innovation, in whatever form either concept may take, we can always start and end with humans and their relationship with the environment and each other. Taking my cue from phenomenology and existentialism, I also believe it helps to consider people’s experiences of the little things and their relationships with themselves.

Humans are the only constant, always appearing as complex and simple entities at the same time.

Throughout my time working on projects concerning sustainability at Karmarama and across Accenture Interactive more broadly, dynamics similar and identical to those I encountered before joining have continued to appear regularly. I’ve also noticed some noteworthy shifts in our shared sense of fluency and engagement with certain issues, especially those concerning natural environments and climates. Our work in this field has covered everything from price comparison websites and insurance companies, utilities and petrochemicals, public sector bodies, and philanthropic movements. Most often, I attempt to bring an anthropological sensibility to interdisciplinary inquiry and ideation, working with brilliant specialists and people who defy convention.

During one project, at the start of this year, we helped a large dairy company address the existential question facing an industry closely associated with climate change. Having previously sought to understand their ‘consumers’ through focus groups responding to stimulus materials, we looked at their situation differently — by considering the interplay between ‘Myself’, ‘Loved Ones’ and the ‘Wider World’ through dialogues with anthropologists specialising in food, sustainability and environments as well as marketing/consumer behaviour experts and policy analysts. By helping the client understand the importance of love, rituals, habits, embodiment, and identity in people’s relationships with dairy produce, we helped push strategic and creative resolutions forward in foreseen directions.

Rather than offer more mini case studies, in this forum, which sees me speaking to a mix of people I know already and a sea of names on Teams I do not recognise, I wanted to share some thoughts regarding the theme of this edition of the newsletter in the hope they might help other sustainability and innovation efforts.

The first is: please can we stop talking about consumers by default? When we talk about consumers in any field of activity, but especially when we’re addressing sustainability, we narrow our conceptual and creative focus to a thin aspect of the human experience; one that is always dependent on and to some extent implicated within global flows of capital. We know human beings are far more complex than their consumption. Not only are we consumers, but we are also citizens, both national and global, as well as families, colleagues, etc, etc. Every day people perform so many varied identities and encounter numerous obligations and ambitions that if we only focus on the idea of consumers and therefore consumption in our work, we will continue to miss countless opportunities to understand how we might create genuinely innovative solutions to our various crises.

When we talk about consumers in any field of activity, but especially when we’re addressing sustainability, we narrow our conceptual and creative focus to a thin aspect of the human experience; one that is always dependent on and to some extent implicated within global flows of capital.

The second thought I want to share is like the first in that it relates to a default position within sustainability projects that always serves to narrow the possibility for their success. As sustainability has increasingly become most closely associated with notions of climate change and environmentalism other aspects of our ethical and moral obligations and relationships with each other and the planet have taken a backseat, including some of those that I spoke about in the introduction to this piece. The problem with this shift is not one of favourites or hierarchies, but oversimplification. When we focus on one aspect of sustainability to the detriment of others, we limit our capacity to fully conceptualise the issues and circumstances at hand while narrowing the space for transformative and conceptual thinking during processes of ideation and creativity. Even if clients approach their brief without consideration for issues such as structural inequality or neo-colonialism, we should feel an obligation to consider these matters in our work, even if we must do so quietly or by using different terminologies. If we don’t, we’re innovating with half an eye open.

The third and final thought is an observation about companies’ enthusiasms for ‘helping people behave/consume more sustainability’. Within projects that start with this brief, it is inevitable there will be conversations about the extent to which people want this help, need it, or would welcome it from the client in question. The phrases ‘own house in order, ‘license to operate, ‘legitimacy’ and ‘behaviour change’ are exchanged with abandon. In these kinds of debates, I’m often struck by the unspoken and assumed superiority of people’s 1–2–1 relationship with brands and branded experiences. The concept of ‘culture’ or ‘sociality’ barely gets a look in. Instead of thinking about how clients might innovate to influence individuals’ behaviours, how might we think about shifting cultural and social norms to make it easier for people to behave sustainability while making it increasingly difficult for people and brands to behave otherwise? Of course, societies and cultures shift in response to the actions of numerous individuals, but these individuals never act in isolation of societies or cultures. In the space of sustainability, then, radical innovation will not materialise as the cumulative impact of billions of 1–2–1 interventions most easily. Instead, it will come to life as structural transformation — impacting multiple forms of ethical unevenness if conceptualised to do so in the first instance.

Written by Oliver Pattenden, Anthropologist and Joint Head of Human Insights at Karmarama

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