“In the future companies face a balancing act…upholding their social and ethical responsibilities…and still delivering a profit”
An Interview on Meaningful Consumption and Time To Think
Q: How would you define Meaningful Consumption?
Wilkinson: This is an interesting question. Consumption was traditionally about consuming but meaningful consumption is more of an emotional transaction. It is something that makes you consider what you are buying into.
Q: Why is Meaningful Consumption so much in focus at the moment?
Wilkinson: There are several issues globally that are combining to give this a new focus. In the west the most important is the ecological one – worries about the ozone layer and the polar ice cap make us think about what it is we are buying and assess the ecological impact of our purchase.
Then there is the move back to ‘authentic living’. People want to know what it is they are consuming and look for traditional manufacturing methods, local tradespeople and traceability in products such as food. This trend is emerging across Western Europe – even in markets such as France, which never had the UK’s love of this type of heritage.
Q: In what ways do you think consumption is driven by consumer experience?
Wilkinson: We all lived through conspicuous consumption – and this trend is still very much in evidence in China and India – but in Western Europe and the US the stage beyond that has emerged. I think of it as selective extravagance. This means being very considered about every purchase and only choosing luxuries that fit your lifestyle and passions – be they barefoot tourism or collecting unusual objects. And people even further up the consumer chain are making a conscious decision to see how little they can consume. So for companies and brands the buzz word is ‘experiential’. Their challenge is to build an experience into the brand.
Q: Why do you think we have moved from product-focused consumption towards cultural consumption – and what are the key social drivers behind this shift?
Wilkinson: More widespread access to new technology is key. People have an ability to learn and gain access to cultural experiences – these are no longer just for the privileged. The example I would cite is Rapid Prototyping. Originally developed for architects, it is a fax machine that enables you to send through 3D material. Imagine the influence this will have when schoolrooms can access a perfect model of work by Picasso.
It’s also important to note the influence of Millenials, people born after 1984 who are far more attuned to new technology and are setting up their own communities via the internet. In contrast to what people say about the isolation caused by spending too much time on a computer, Millenials are truly collaborative. They use technology to access new friends around the globe and share cultural experiences.
Q: Who would you single out as leaders (both people and companies) in Meaningful Consumption?
Wilkinson: I’d say most leaders are coming out of the travel industry. For instance Journeys By Design, Ethiopia’s first community managed ethical travel group. This style of doing business is starting to influence mainstream brands. I’d also mention the anti-logo company Black Spot – ironically this non logo trainer is now a great logo! However, the fair trade message is still the same.
Q: What will the future impact of Meaningful Consumption be for brands, services and products?
Wilkinson: The brand mantra of the next decade will be assuring manufacturing standards and practices to ensure human rights. This is no longer a concern for the green elite but a global issue. The other big shift is towards empowerment – products and services need to impart knowledge, pass on education and enable self-actualisation.
Q: What lifestyle changes do you think will be the most important in years to come?
Wilkinson: Without a doubt the biggest impact will come from carbon trading. The first issue is how this is going to work. What are the tax implications and how will people react? I can also see a secondary ‘levelling’ impact. For instance, if a businessman who travels a lot has the same carbon points as a person on a Liverpool council estate who doesn’t travel, then they might do business. Carbon trading could be fascinating, both in the trading and in the equalising influences it fosters.
Q: What is the biggest challenge companies face in the future?
Wilkinson: They have a balancing act: upholding their social and ethical responsibilities in manufacturing/producing, educating their customers to act responsibly – and, of course, still delivering a profit.
Questions On: Time and Meaning…
Q: How has modern society changed your notions of time?
Wilkinson: Time is the same as it ever was. But it’s downtime that has changed our notions of time. We have less of it and that’s why we feel time to be at a premium.
Q: What is your definition of ‘quality time’?
Wilkinson: For me it’s getting away from pre-constructed information or anything designed to influence my mood. Even a short Tube journey is packed with messages or information. That’s why it feels so special to have a personal conversation with someone over dinner, or share a family meal.
Q: Why do people today feel they have less time?
Wilkinson: The Henley Centre’s research showed that people actually had more free time than ever before. What has changed is our ability to get to a relaxed state. Doing things – consuming media, writing or reading emails – is addictive. That is why true downtime is really hard to achieve – especially in urban environments.
Q: How do you feel the 24/7 culture has impacted on brands, products and services?
Wilkinson: I don’t think it has had a great impact as yet. Patterns are emerging in banking and other online service industries but we are not there yet. Other areas are showing more interesting developments. For instance, sleep culture is something we at Anterior:Insight have highlighted. A company called Nap is planning to put pods into airports so travellers can check in for a quick sleep. There’s also a prototype sleep drug called CX717 – the world’s first pill designed to replicate the refreshing effects of sleep on the brain while you’re wide awake.
Q: Convergence technology is supposed to save us time. Is this your perception?
Wilkinson: In general yes, technology has speeded up our lives. But in some respects I’m not sure the saving is always there. Something that might take ten minutes to write down on paper takes half an hour or longer if the computer crashes.
Q: Has technology improved our quality of life or made achieving work/leisure balance more stressful?
Wilkinson: It has undoubtedly made life better. For instance cross shifting has allowed people to get away from the city and still stay connected to their office. That has to be a life-enhancing development.
Q: Can you give us a speed conclusion on Time and Meaningful Consumption?
Wilkinson: Time to consider your actions and needs and to do the right thing for you and for those around you.
Interview: Questions by Kjaer Global for the Time to Think Conference (UK), August 2006
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Anne Lise is a futurist and keynote speaker working across the world