First we asked whether it was biodegradable. Then we inquired whether it was recyclable. Now, stretching toward a new consumer plateau of environmental consciousness, we may be asking whether we need it at all.
At least, that’s the signal from an unexpected source: a trendy clothing company.
In an astonishing advertisement in the current Utne Reader, the Esprit company asks the magazine’s 200,000 readers to put the brakes on conspicuous consumption.
The message in the essay-style advertisement, “A Plea for Responsible Consumption,” is that Americans buy too much and for the wrong reasons.
The Esprit folks, raising the flag for an “environmentally conscious style,” suggest it can be achieved “by simply asking yourself before you buy something (from us or any other company) whether this is something you really need. It could be you’ll buy more or less from us, but only what you need. . . .
“By changing the things that make us happy and buying less stuff, we can reduce the horrendous impact we have been placing on the environment,” the ad concludes. “We can buy for vital needs, not frivolous ego-gratifying needs.”
The ad acknowledges: “We know this is heresy in a growth economy, but frankly, if this kind of thinking doesn’t catch on quickly, we, like a plague of locusts, will devour all that’s left of the planet. We could make the decision to reduce our consumption, or the decision will soon be made for us.”
A retailer suggesting customers may not “need” their goods? Is this a harbinger of the future, or just the ultimate soft-sell, a clever merchandising gimmick by an innovative company that has always been ahead of the environmental curve?
(Esprit’s casual, no-fuss clothes traditionally have reflected its corporate ecological concerns; the 60-store company also has been in the news lately with the divorce proceedings between its co-founders, Susie and Douglas Tomkins).
Whichever the case, observers agree that the startling idea of buying less in an industry where “moving merchandise” has been the sacred imperative is unusual enough to warrant scrutiny for its implications of a major--or even minor--lifestyle change.
The assessments are mixed, but they verify that something is brewing.
Esprit crafted “a cutting edge ad” that is “perfectly in tune with emerging social values,” declared Harry Hiner, West Coast vice president of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman marketing research firm. “In years past, it would have been a wasted marketing effort, but it’s in tune today.”
The Yankelovich Monitor, an annual study of the social values of Americans, has shown a dramatic shift over the past few years from buying goods and services for conspicuous consumption to purchases that satisfy an “internal compass,” he said.
“The ad’s message doesn’t strike me as any way odd, (but) the fact that it’s coming from a merchandiser is rather ground-breaking,” he said.
Manhattan’s Marjorie Deane, a fashion industry analyst, was more cautious.
“Obviously, because I am in the fashion business, I can’t endorse the idea that we should all stop buying,” said Deane, whose Manhattan-based Tobe Report, a weekly merchandising analysis, reaches more than 5,000 retailers. “If everybody misinterpreted an ad like that, we could have flower children all over again.”
But excess can work both ways, she added: “I think people have realized already that the show-off attitude that prevailed during the Reagan era has gone underground. People are not standing around all overly-dressed. I think they are dressing more thoughtfully and not ashamed to say this is last year’s dress.” She thinks a new awareness of “thoughtful consumption” is very much in line with today’s thinking.
In contrast, the Roper Organization’s reports, which track across-the-board consumer attitude and behavior, don’t show a decline in materialism, said vice president Bickley Townsend: “In fact, money is assuming greater importance in peoples’ lives. Whether it’s greed or more an indication of declining buying power, I don’t know.” The Roper reports indicate that, more than ever, people value the things that money can buy.
Still, she finds the ad intriguing, possibly predictive: “We find that one segment of consumers, who are the opinion leaders and trend setters, have become more conscientious about the environment and nonmaterial things. I think the Esprit ad could be an indicator of a reassessment in values” for opinion leaders and trend-setters.
“It could be the sort of retailing equivalent of the savings and loan crisis,” she added. “People are seeing the fall of Donald Trump. To some extent, he may symbolize the fall of greed and materialistic values of the ‘80s, and it may be some kind of object lesson.
“Maybe Esprit has anticipated a whole new mood.”
At Esprit’s San Francisco headquarters, public relations manager Celeste Alleyne expects the Esprit model will be imitated by other apparel manufacturers.
“We’re not asking people to stop shopping,” she said. “We’re just saying, ‘Take a look around you, think twice and be careful about your environment because it’s the only one you have.’ We’ve always been a lifestyle company, one that cares for the environment, and we expect to continue in that direction.
“This specific ad is a one-time only ad,” she added, “and we chose the Utne Reader because we knew the people reading it would be attuned to the message we have.”
Eric Utne, the Utne Reader’s publisher, said the ad has attracted a lot of attention: “I think it’s pretty profound. They’re asking their customers to really evaluate the whole consumer ethic.”
The Utne Reader, which he started in 1984, is the “fastest growing general interest magazine in America,” and “I think Esprit was right to advertise with us because we think our readers are the opinion leaders of the baby boom,” Utne said, citing the magazine’s demographics of age, education, income, civic involvement and environmental activism. “Someone has described them as Yuppies Who Care.”
As for the Esprit ad, he thinks it’s a model for the future: “They are doing advertising that informs, rather than fans the flames of desire, and I think that’s what the emerging consumer and the changing mainstream want. Information, not hype.”
Beyond those first reviews, however, the importance of the Esprit ad as an environmental behavior indicator awaits measurement.
Will Americans start recycling clothes, along with bottles and newspapers? Can they expect the emergence of Consumers Anonymous support groups for addicts trying to break the shopping habit? Will there be the sort of green labels now being devised for supermarket products?
“I think it is astonishing that a major company has presented such an idea,” said Ernest Callenbach of Berkeley, whose 1975 classic “Ecotopia” described a Northern California “sustainable” society whose lifestyle included decorative but functional, ecologically appropriate wardrobes.
Callenbach, an environmental consultant for Elmwood Institute, a “green” think-tank, said this week he is working on a plan for restoration tax on products, based on the ecological damage their production causes; the revenues from such a tax would pay to restore the damage. Such taxes on books, for example, would be invested in “sustainable” forestry and in a universal paper recycling industry.
“And, when you look at the garment industry, you see a whole range of things that need to be mitigated, such as transportation and cotton mills and dye production,” he said. “People don’t realize how much energy clothing production takes.”
But in the long run, to meet Esprit’s ideal of responsible consumption, to preserve the continuity of natural cycles and processes, he said, “What we need to do, above all, is wear clothes that are durable and wear them for a long time.”