As global heating reaches boiling point, Andres Colmenares, co-director of IAM, asks how brands can address a global crisis of sociological imagination.
Imagine being the CEO of a valuable brand in one of the most profitable industries worldwide. Imagine that your sustainability agenda is driven by carbon offsetting. Then, imagine one day you wake up to the news that your country’s advertising watchdog has ruled that your carbon offsetting campaign is greenwashing, and a court orders your company to decrease emissions by 45% by 2030. Then, you’re invited to present your ‘net-zero by 2050’ plans at a high-profile climate conference and a young activist calls you out. What would you do?
As organisations including Greenpeace expose carbon offsets schemes as greenwashing, brands are facing the challenging task of rethinking their sustainability agendas, shifting them away from a toxic economic growth model in which nature, and humans, are reduced to mere resources for a limitless cycle of production–consumption.
The complex and large-scale consequences of this unsustainable model currently manifests in the interconnected economic crises of supply chains, energy prices and semiconductor production, reducing humans to resources, consumers or users. However, it’s also feeding a global crisis of sociological imagination—a concept defined by sociologist C. Wright Mills as the awareness of the relationship between personal experience and wider society.
At the core of these crises is a collective identity crisis. Who are we? Are we superheroes that can save the planet or the evil species who are killing it? Humanity is part of a vast, fragile and deeply beautiful living organism that we refer to as Earth, and therefore, our survival is interdependent on the health of the oceans, forests, non-human lives and the well-being of each of the 7.9 billion human beings.
Mindful brands should use this as an opportunity to repair the socio-ecological damage caused by decades of extractive user-centric practices – before a court forces them to do so. They can start by embracing the ancestral wisdom of Ubuntu philosophy that stands for the concept: ‘I am because we are’. In this philosophy, an individual is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world. They’re not a powerless consumer.
This ancient idea is at the heart of intercitizenships, a new word we are using at IAM. To us, it’s a thinking tool and collective proposal to reimagine our shared sense of identity as humans, and our common sense of belonging to Planet Earth. This is happening in the shadow of an unsustainable digital economy that is growing outside of an ecological framework; where billions of persons have been reduced to individualised consumers of digital technologies.
Ultimately, brands are stories; stories that are capable of making consumerism the unofficial religion of Westernised societies, but also of reshaping the behaviour of millions; transforming collective imagination into collective action to inspire more conscious life choices. Why not use that power to design solidarity-driven business models instead of greenwashing people’s minds with carbon offsets?
Why not use that power to design solidarity-driven business models instead of greenwashing people’s minds with carbon offsets?
The most valuable (and sustainable) brands (and businesses) of the coming decade will be those that contribute to global healing instead of global heating—which is technically a more correct way to refer to the changes in the energy balance of us, Planet Earth.
Andres Colmenares is the co-director of creative research lab IAM. On November 11, 2021, the 7th annual gathering for creative professionals looking to collectively envision sustainable futures for the internet(s) took place in Barcelona and online across Planet Earth.