(Originally published February 2012)
At what point do we as a country begin to talk about personal responsibility and consciousness as requirements for narrowing the divide between what our humanity wants versus the reality that exists around us? Apple products that must fit the production schedule of consumer demand by using inhumane working conditions, a financial system that requires debt to maintain living standards and government solvency, or an energy system that destroys the global environment ensuring the collapse of any oil dependent civilization. Each rely on consumers as the main driver but the right or necessity to consume is never called into question.
Jimmy Carter asked us to put on a sweater, he was the last leader to do so. Since that time, as our collective responsibility has decreased, our sense of victim hood (though very real) to governments, banks, and corporations has increased. Waiting for and petitioning large social institutions to solve our energy, financial, and social/moral crisis’ misses the point. Consumers are ultimately the largest driver of our current social-economic paradigm.
The current flap about working conditions in the Apple supply chain is the perfect pointer. Sure government is corrupt, banks are manipulative at a global scale, and old industrial corporations will lie, cheat, and lobby to perpetuate their fossilized business model but new innovative companies are paving the way to a bright future. Apple is held up as the darling of the new industrial economy that turns out creative, innovative, and seemingly magical products advancing human capacity and making a profit along the way. Apple puts effort towards ethical production practices, environmental stewardship, and production auditing. Consumers align with and pay a premium for Apple’s efforts.
The newly exposed underbelly of Apple’s supply chain has caused the conscious consumers Apple calls their base, to protest. Shocked and dismayed neo-hippies packing ipads and iphones are suddenly embarrassed. Amongst the protests, reporting, and calls for action, the basic assumption that consumers must have the newest Apple product on a 12 month schedule is never considered to be a part of the feedback loop. From what I understand of the reporting, the production conditions exist in large part as a logical symptom of feeding the 12 month consumer demand. Austere working conditions in China are nearly unavoidable when providing the consumer with the latest in Apple’s innovative magic.
What would happen if Apple consumers replaced their product every three years rather than 1 year? My apple macbook is 5 years old, still runs OSX Lion, so I know its possible. Apple wouldn’t be one of the most profitable companies in the world sitting on 100 billion in cash (with a ‘B’). The fever pitch of Chinese industrial expansion and the attending protested working conditions may not exist. The ripple effects through our service economy could show us what a house of cards we have built our lives around. Apple won’t suggest this idea, neither will the suppliers in China, retailers in America, governments reliant on the tax revenue, or Banks winning big supplying the debt to keep the whole ball rolling. The only one left, beside the reporters making the information feedback loop complete, is the consumer. The highest leverage point and your hand is on the lever, I mean wallet, I mean lever. The best part of this emerging narrative is that consumers want to be responsible, that’s why there are consumer petitions and when that doesn’t work consumer protests.
Consumers are humans, we want to breath real air, feel the pressure of real responsibility against our minds and bodies that tells us we are alive. Whether for a pet, child, faceless Chinese factory worker, or global environment, caring and acting responsibly means feeling needed and in this disjointed consumer society, we desperately want to feel needed.
There is one more underlying assumption that needs to be changed as we articulate a new narrative. Our global economic system assumes that growth is prosperity. If our houses, cars, and computers are not new the next year, individuals and societies are not growing. This is not true and now the opposite will provide for a more sustainable future. Slowing consumer growth does means increased prosperity when measured according to debt, global CO2 concentrations, worker health, and energy consumption. Yes protests from all financial sectors will be loud, this is a direct hit to the current, quarterly measured, status quo but I have a different time line that informs my behavior. I consider my prosperity to include quality living for me and following generations, not the spot price of gold, my credit score, or how many new Apple products I own.
The most basic assumption of the last 30 years must be articulated and replaced with a human narrative that steers behavior towards becoming more sustainable. These leaders will not be from the centralized social institutions that have been actively leading for the last century. Leadership now is de-centralized, coming from each of us as humans, conscious participants in our global community. Leadership from each of us will come from a vision we hold for sustainable future which we look forward to, not just for ourselves but for those that need us to be responsible, now and well into the future.
Leaders in a sustainable direction must reconsider the most fundamental blind spot and most basic assumption that has informed the last century of industrial expansion and articulate a new vision that is radically different. Growth does not equal prosperity. Prosperity equals prosperity. Consumers have power and responsibility. By so doing, we will regain our identity as citizens rather than consumers.