We need sustainable role models

Summary

These are our society’s role models, living the dream of countless schoolchildren. But the life they convey is not only unsustainable – it is increasingly unavailable.

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A burgeoning middle class in a world of seven billion people, all looking to spend cash on the same resource-intensive items, will soon find there is not enough to go around.

Sustainability consultant and former advertising executive Vicky Grinnell-Wright of Best Foot Forward recently founded the UK Dream programme, inspired by a movement in China. « About five years ago Peggy Liu started working on the ‘China Dream’, with the premise that the rise of the middle class is likely to reach 800 million [in China] sometime soon.

If they all pursue the ‘American Dream’ not only will we all be in catastrophic trouble but also there won’t be enough stuff to make the stuff to deliver that. With such a rapidly rising middle class wanting to spend money, how can you channel that in a way that is sustainable?

One way is by finding new role models, conveying a lifestyle that is both aspirational and sustainable. But do they exist? « I think they exist but sometimes they don’t help », suggests Alan Knight, sustainability director at BITC.

« A role model for a truly sustainable life is harder, » he says, « because the way we articulate it currently is too difficult for people and unobtainable, like Ben Law living in a forest … it’s an interesting story but most people will never do that. What they do is provoke a debate, but what they don’t do is get enough people to say: ‘I really wish I was like them’. »

At Marks & Spencer, the current role model of choice is Joanna Lumley. « They chose her for a reason », says Knight. « She’s a celeb that people admire. If M&S had advertised Shwopping with children cuddling a sapling, it would only reach a small proportion who respond to that type of communication. »

Richard Gillies, director of Plan A at M&S, says that Joanna Lumley was chosen for being « a cool and relevant role model … we have seen other examples…

Therein, says Gillies, lies a potential answer. Business may be even better positioned than celebrity to push sustainability into the mainstream – to become the ‘new normal': « It is less about criticising the role models we have today, and more about how we engage consumers, how we engage society, by creating goods and services that are better, more attractive, more accessible and more convenient. »

(Photo from: Getty Images by ©Michael Regan)

Read more on www.guardian.co.uk