Category Archives: Green marketing

Is Netnography the Greener Marketing Research?

Revelation, Inc., a Portland, Oregon online marketing research company, has a big name that sets some big expectations.  I somehow got on their email list, and they asked if I wanted to see their latest report. It is called “Avoided Carbon Emissions from Online Immersive Research.

Hmmmm. That’s an interesting angle on online research-that it is good for the environment. They take the positioning pretty far, too. They have commissioned a scientific, math and formula filled paper that was prepared by “Fluid Market Strategies” that looks at the question. Fluid  is a Portland based consulting firm that specializes in energy services and sustainability consulting. You can receive it, too, just by inserting your email address into the appropriate box on their site.

Intriguing. The report compares using traditional in-person focus groups and their own online “immersive” research, which sounds like an online panel, similar to the setup that CommuniSpace has. (Revelation, please reveal the correct answer to me if I am wrong).

They went to some trouble to rigorously estimate the greenhouse gas (or GHG) emissions of the in-person focus group and subtract those from the same research  conducted using their immersive online software approach.

In person, you have things like transporting participants and researchers, using hotel space, using up food and energy moving around. Researcher and client travel accounted for the lion’s share of GHG emissions, 68 percent. With the online method, you have the use of the computer, the servers, the researchers, and participant’s use of energy. A whopping 98 percent of emissions came from the researchers’ use of servers. You can already see the difference.

They found that, with a large focus group (N= 20 participants), the in-person groups create almost 2.5 times as much GHG emissions than the online ones. Per project, they work it out to about one half of a metric ton of CO2 emissions per research project.

 How much is that? It is like:

  • canceling two typical plane trips; 
  • shutting down a typical 10,000 square foot office for one day;
  • or avoiding nine typical business trips (1,100 miles) by car.

Pretty interesting. That is per research project

I see no reason why netnography would be at least as efficient as this, when compared with in-person techniques such as ethnography (researcher travel), surveys (paper use, mail, energy in transportation), or focus groups.

Now, some negations. Of course, picking the number 20 for a focus group is way off. We’re usually talking 8-12 participants in a focus group. And moderators and business people do not always have to travel by air to get where they are going. And some applications (such as using virtual worlds) are very, even ridiculously energy-intensive. So there are some it-depends aspects to the conclusion that online always produces less carbon than offline research. But it is compelling nonetheless.

Think about it-run a major netnography instead of a bank of 20 focus group and you save yourself the carbon of forty plane trips. And, I think, in many cases you probably will end up with different and deeper insights.

Yet another great reason to consider netnography. It’s Green! Or, maybe (cynics, arise….), yet another great excuse for greenwashing…you be the judge.


Avatar Thoughts: Dances with Avatars in the Mist

avatar_neytiri.jpgWith the Academy Awards just around the corner, and Avatar up for nine Oscars, I wanted to share some reflections on that motion picture.

I thought that the movie provided a feast of metaphorical food for thought. First, please consider this light spoiler alert. I’m not intentionally revealing secret plot elements, but if you want to see it with completely fresh eyes, you should probably save reading this blog until after you’ve seen the movie.

All right, then…

A lot of people have written about the fairly obvious, low-hanging and perhaps heavy-handed ecological messages in the film (“And so the aliens [that's us] went back to their dying world…”). The story from the film has created a ton of discussion and conflict on the Internet, with accusations that it is racist (the dump blue-skinned savages), it is naïve (um, this is Hollywood), and it is colonialist (see two points above).

My take on it is a little different. I’ve decided to really emphasize the ethnography part of the move. And to analyze a bit of the ethnographic alliance-shifting that is a central part of its plot.

The movie concerns a future military-industrial enterprise’s use of a biological remote-control system to undertake human participant-observation of the Pandora planet’s intelligent tribal inhabitants.

Along with all the other engaging metaphors that it weaves together, I find Avatar to also be an extended meditation not only on colonialism but also on the anthropological practice of ethnography in a capitalist military-industrial culture.

As my friend, Diego Rinallo from Milan’s Bocconi University noted to me after the movie was over “Avatar is all about ethnography.” And so it is.

Among the many other things that it is, Avatar is a science fictional concretization of the anthropologist’s journey. There is an alien–in this case, a literally alien– culture that needs examination. There is a scientific observer, the accidental anthropologist and paraplegic Jake Sully, who must learn the language, rituals, and ways of a new culture. In this case, instead of Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski joining the Trobriand Islanders, it is Sully joining the blue-skinned, animist, and very Native American-seeming Na’vi.

The movie is about identity, interests, loyalties, and change. A major concern is the classic anthropological dilemma of “Going Native.”

This was the same theme, sort of, as Dance with Wolves, and Gorillas in the Mist. There it is, happening again, on the big screen. Amazingly, Sigourney Weaver plays the head ethnographers in both Gorillas and Avatar. She’s our anthropological role model!

The ethnographer is, himself or herself, an avatar of types. This is a theme I explore in a recent poem I submitted to the Journal of Business Research as an extended meditation on introspection and ethnography, a poem that explores this avatar topic of possessing multiple identities and feeling identity conflict.

So this movie inspired some thinking in me about what we do as anthropologists-for-hire.

Why are we doing what we do as corporate ethnographers? Would we work for Exxon? Would we work for a company that wanted to mine the Amazon rain forest? Would we work for banks in poor countries where people might not be able to afford the interest rates?

The film reveals the dark side of the scientific-academic enterprise, and the dark secret that, although knowledge is power, academics sell out their power to the military-industrial system. In this case, science is anthropology, and anthropology offer understanding in order to manipulate and destroy. The Company in this film wanted to learning the cultural ways of the Na’Vi people in order to manipulate them. Does this sound like cultural marketing and applied anthropology to anyone else?

avatar-tank.jpgOf course, in the movie, understanding wasn’t geared towards selling the natives things. Apparently the blue Na’Vi had no need of Coca Cola and blue jeans, they were an anti-consumerist culture. The movie was classic colonialism—get them off of their land, and take it and its resources. Drain it dry. Kill the land and kill a way of life.

One big realization that I had was when Jake Sulley came back from his time with the Na’vi and, at some point, he had to realize his subversion, he had to adjust the flow of information to the flow of interests.

That is, once he had decided to help the Na’vi, the natives, he had to now tell them about the weaknesses or weak points of the human encampment (or, in the movie, to take the literal and powerfully figurative action of smashing the remote viewing lens on the tractor destroyer). This sort of double-agent stuff is classic ethnographic conflict. But I wonder about its wider implication for our daily life.

So, if we are consumer ethnographers working in the public interest, where are our alliances? Do we need to rethink them?

What it could mean is that we need to look at our power-relationships-to the machine world or to a more naturally balanced world– and then think about how we can use the knowledge of one to begin to dismantle the other. This is an activist message that says that only by some sort of rigorous motion that first draws from inside the system, but then punishes that system and opens it up, can there be change. It is a revolutionary, not an evolutionary message. Not what Heath and Potter, or many other environmental activists would see. And climate change seems to offer one justification for that sort of revolutionary movement in a revolutionary Moment.

What does Jake Sulley do? In the story, he finally casts off his human form, as much as he possibly can. That means no more Coca Cola, no more beer, no more blue jeans or even old reruns of movies like Avatar. He’s back in the bush.

What happens to anthropologist Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist? She’s the sacrifice (and, there it is again, Sigourney is the sacrificial mother/boss in Avatar…weird).

What about Kevin Costner’s character, Dunbar, in Dancing with Wolves? He disappears into the wild at the end, presumably sacrificing himself for his Sioux friends. We assume that he is fully realized and integrated into the natural order. He now identifies more closely with “nature” than with the corrupt and destructive American society.

Because the move ends with this eye-opening move, it can not be satisfying. There are too many loose ends. This is a start, a beginning, rather than an ending.

So that’s where the movie offers up only a good tale and an uplifting inspirational message. However, that message is delivered in the most technologically-intensive manner possible. With all of its 3D IMAX computer simulation technology, the movies is of course much closer to being produced by the earth-razing techno-society of the Earth’s future than the arrows-and-fires civilization of the tribal Na’Vi.

I thought that, if this meditation on ethnography-as-industrial-power was a science fiction book, it would have held up extremely well. Its religiously-inspired plot of The Chosen One had much in common with Dune, Hyperion, and even with The Fifth Element and the Matrix, two other brilliant messianic SF movies.

As a parting note, it is also quite worth remarking upon that James Cameron hired USC Prof Paul Frommer to create an entirely new language for the film-something that had not been done since the Klingon language was devised by linguist Marc Okrand in 1984 for the third Star Trek movie.

These two languages, then, are the most recent distinct languages deliberately created by members of our species, and they were crated for remarkably similar reasons. It remains to see if the Na’Vi language will gain a fan community-based life of its own the way that the Klingon language has. I could certainly see this happening if there are sequels, adaptations, conventions, gatherings, and other media fan community activity around the film-something I would personally enjoy see unfolding. As a matter of fact, it seems like this movie is indeed the first in a trilogy. (I had purchased an Empire magazine last year that featured a story about the upcoming blockbuster Avatar; in the story, Cameron was reported to say this was the first of a trilogy; apparently, like Lucas and Star Wars, it had been planned this way all along.)

In the same way that Klingon has become a type of intentional, if not ironic, “ethnicity” according to cultural studies scholar Peter Chvany, that people adopt to explore some of their primitive warrior characteristics, so too could Na’Vi be a way to seek to reclaim some of the productive elements of primitivism that seems vitally missing from our current contemporary culture.

Anyone want to be the first to start their own local Na’Vi fan club? I’ll join. Let’s get blue and wild and talk difficult made-up languages. C’mon. It’ll be fun.

It’s also evident of the continual rise of blue skinned people (often proudly bald) that began with the Blue Man group in Chicago and this year appears to be crescendo-ing with Doctor Manhattan (in the Watchmen movie) and the graceful blue-skinned Na’Vi.

Yep. If there’s no fan club set up by October, I know what I’ll be wearing for Halloween.

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession, Part VII: Turning towards Deep Economics

Remember what your Mother taught you….

In the last few postings, I’ve been analyzing the economic crisis we all face. And I’ve been wondering why we are trying to stimulate a flagging, failing, flawed economy, without making significant changes in it–while we have a window of opportunity open to us. This is the final section.

These questions are fodder for thinkers and scholars around the world. I’ve long been a fan of Bill McKibben and his work on this front, and his new book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future is a useful start to this dialog.

I hope that McKibben’s book, and the work of others, can help to inspire a field of Deep Economics, based on a blending of the ideas of the Deep Ecologists who consider the non-human world to be valuable in and of itself.

Deep Ecology is “deep” because it brings a philosophical, and even spiritual sense to the endeavor of science, avoiding utilitarianism and consequentialist ethics in favor of a type of appreciation and even reverence for Life.

Deep ecology see Life as sacred, not only because it is useful, but because there is place deep within our psyches that knows that it is special, that as living beings we are all connected.

earth economy so deep?What would happen if we were to bring that sort of thinking fully into our lives? What would happen if we had a Deep Society, a Deep Economics, a Deep Marketing (could we?). What would change about:

  • Our work?
  • Our economy?
  • Our businesses?
  • Our academic studies and education system?
  • Our daily lives?
  • Our government?

It’s going to require all that we know. Anthropology, sociology, psychology, network analysis, environmental analysis, and economics.

What will happen when we bring it all together into something greater than what we are thinking, than what we know today, greater than what we are currently doing? What will happen when we envision and fully apprehend a Deep Society based upon Deep Principles, and implement it, act on it. Our challenge today is to build a truly different approach, to make a truly deep approach to our existence as social human beings, and sharers of a planet, real.

What will it be like? I’m hoping that we find out. And soon.

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession VI: Questioning “Growth” and “One Big Number”

Relative Size of Nation’s GDP

Globalization. Digitization. Green Consumerism. All of them, as we’ve read in the last few posts, reducing economic growth, as measured by our most popular measures. Driving us deeper and deeper into this deep recession.

What’s the problem? What’s the problem with the current solutions being offered by world governments like the G20 alliance? What’s the problem with stoking the economy, with massive Keynesian spending projects matched by huge debt and enormous deficits? With building the IMF into the overfunded, legitimizing cavalry?

The problem is we’re working with the same flawed system. We’re legitimizing it and patching it with bandaids while we pump it full of borrowed-from-our-future resources. We’re measuring growth in the same flawed ways. We’re reifying expenditures and consumption levels far, far, over their sustainable, or even long-term workable, levels. We’re using GNP and GDP as the One Big Number. One Number to Rule them all. One Number to Bind Them to a system.

There’s a big problem with that. And it requires us to look at the One Big Number and question it. And question it again.

“The world has changed and we must change with it.” Isn’t that what President Obama said in his inauguration speech? Well, I think that real change has to start with changes in what we’re measuring, with how we are keeping score.

Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product just aren’t doing the job anymore. Maybe we don’t need replace them entirely. But maybe we can supplement them, bring in something different. Or make them more subtle, less universal and totalized. Bring a little postmodern reflexive doubt into the economic realm, for once.

One of the best books I’ve read on this topic is by my York University colleague Peter Victor. Peter’s book is called “Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster (Advances in Ecological Economics).”

Prof. Victor talks about how we have gotten into this mindframe where “economic” “growth,” measured and defined in certain very rigid ways (what I’m calling the “One Big Number” problem) by those with entrenched interests (One Big Number is easier to Rule With, remember), has become the over-arching policy objective of countries around the world, the way that governments, corporations, teams, and individuals are assessed, and the way that resources become allocated. Economic Growth is actually a fairly new ideology, emerging only about a half century ago, and Peter shows how it has become rooted to the loaded ideology of the notion of ‘progress.’

Peter argues three points convincingly.

  1. First, that economic growth the way we’ve been doing it just isn’t sustainable in the long term. Period.
  2. Secondly, he repeats the established finding that economic growth and income growth doesn’t seem to lead to happiness. There’s an inverted U-relationship. If you’re destitute, increases in income increase happiness, to some point. After that point, happiness tails off. In my observations of people, I’d say this works fairly well on an individual level, too.
  3. Finally, he shows that economic growth doesn’t and probably won’t ever, eliminate poverty. It does, however, increase greenhouse gas emissions, and has lots of related consequences for the natural environment.

His work is related to the work by the Club of Rome, recent updated in The Limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, where we see that, eventually, growth stalls out, flattens, declines, and then major disruptions in the biosphere begin to play havoc with human life.

This thinking raises some extremely important questions. These are the kinds of ideological, paradigmatic questions that the recent G20 activism, that the cracks in the global financial accord should draw us towards.

These are “Second Chance” questions to try to get out system on a better path.

These questions show us how accounting (well, at least measurement) is a critical component of making the world a better place. They ask us:

  • What should we be focusing on?
  • What should we be measuring as well as financial growth?
  • How can we develop qualitatively as a society? What would that look like?
  • Can we measure global equality and opportunity, instead of residual measures like GDP?
  • Can we measure human happiness and welfare? Can we maximize it, while minimizing the impact on the environment?
  • Can we measure the health and stability of our communities?
  • What would a carbon-neutral economic measure look like?
  • What would a zero-impact on habitat destruction look like?
  • What would a sustainability measure, or set of measures, look like?
  • What are the contributions of mental health, optimism, joyfulness, and spirituality to these other measures? How would we factor them in?
  • What would business look like in such a world? What would marketing become?

We need thoughtful answers. And we need them soon.

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession V: The Impact on “Growth”

Economic Impact–watch out…run for cover!!!!

In the last few posts, I’ve laid out what I speculate may be three big differences between this recession and prior ones.

  • 1. Globalization. Although globalization has been going on since well before David Ricardo was potty-trained, we have had some pretty dramatic shifts in production and wealth over the last decade.
  • 2. Digitalization. Although technology has been allowing us to abstract concepts and ideas from the real world and share them in an immaterial way for millennia (the alphabet? the scroll?), information and communications technology advances of the last decade are changing the way that we relate to the physical world in unprecedented ways.
  • 3. Green Consumerism. Although Rachel Carson was already preaching to an eco-conscious choir in the 1960s, we’ve seen a mass diffusion of awareness in the last few years that is just beginning to manifest in a questioning of consumption habits, alongside some small changes, alongside a few bold government initiatives. Those changes could get a lot bigger fast.

As well, these changes all work together. Each one has the potential to accelerate the others.

So what do we have with these three trends in terms of their effect on “growth”–which is what the recession and depression terms are supposed to be capturing?

First, we have a world where the capital flows, the currency prices, and the employment rates are still in flux, still reflecting massive changes that have taken place at the level of vital services and things being produced and moved around, controlled and available.

If we have less production in high wage countries like the USA, Canada, and France, and more in low wage countries like China and India, it makes sense that, on the global stage, support services would, as a total number, be lower. The guy who is working in the plant in China, making less, is going to be spending less on his food, clothes, entertainment, escargot, cologne, and so on than the guy working in the plant in France. And all those support services are going to suffer. In Windsor Ontario, where the auto plants used to pump out cars, the people who used to work on the assembly lines can no longer afford to eat in restaurants, shop in the malls, or go to the movies the way they once did. Job losses aren’t isolated. It all trickles down.

That bespeaks continuing trouble and challenge for North America and Western Europe.

Next, we have the shift towards information technology increasing consumer power, reducing prices, and changing different types of consumption from physical to lower-cost virtual. That means lower prices at the cash register (which may be increasingly a disintermediating virtual cash register), and subsequent lower revenues. It means more opportunities for peer-to-peer “sharing,” of films, music, TV shows, books, and magazines too. It means less material needed to produce things. And all the service jobs associated with those material things start to disappear. All of this can lead (particularly if the industry required to support these immaterial forms of consumption is lower cost than the one required to support the former more matter-based form, and also if it, too is being globalized, see point #1 above) to reduced financial growth.

Finally, we have consumers questioning and potentially reducing consumption because of environmental concerns. Less stuff bought, smaller cars, more bikes on the road, more efficient light bulbs, less energy consumed–these have their economic ramification, and those ramification ramify (sorry) the more this green “movement” gathers momentum. Green means leaner living. And leaner living means lower revenues as well. In the aggregate, it means reduced financial growth.

Does anyone remember the book “Green Is Gold/Business Talking to Business About The Environmental Revolution“? For particular companies and individuals, maybe, but in aggregate? I really don’t think so. Not real green. Real green means less. Less consumption, less production, less for everyone. Sorry.

Doom and gloom? I don’t think so. I think we need to question the entire enterprise of measuring recession and depression and think in more subtle terms about what we’re doing and where we need to go and, in particular, what we define and gloss to ourselves as a civilization as “progress.”

No, I’m not done with this yet. Is anybody out there? Halloooo?

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession IV: Green Consumerism

Green Consumption

The third element in my little cogitative experiment that makes the current recession qualitatively different from past recessions is Green Consumerism.

By Green Consumerism I mean to point out that we’re living through a time where, finally, the average global consumer is fully aware of experts’ predictions of impending environmental catastrophe unless we make radical changes soon in our patterns of consumption (i.e., large parts of how we live). This awareness is currently almost unavoidable in North America, Oceania, Western Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. Not only that, but this awareness is starting to have impacts on the real world of consumption in these places.

Now, I’m not talking only about the “shift” to “green products and services.” The move from Hummers to Hybrids. The rise of organic food and homeopathic medicine. The dramatic substitution of recycled toilet paper for softer-than-soft Charmins (hey, if you’re a tree, that’s pretty dramatic). Yes, there are shifts, but can be to higher cost products. So, if I shift all of my food consumption to organic, although that technically would be a shift over to the greener side, it would also move up GDP–organic food is costlier to product and it costs more at the till. That’s not true of all green consumption. But when that happens, it can look like Green Marketing is just another scammy way to shake out a few more shekels from Mrs. Jane Consumer.

I’m focusing more on the kind of awareness that events like Earth Day, and maybe more specifically the Earth Hour event which was huge here in Toronto (we played Scrabble by candlelight in my house, cool…). It’s about an awareness of waste. A careful contemplation of what’s unnecessary. At Burning Man, we encourage each other to think about what we can do without. Earth Hour, and Green Consumerism in its wider sense, does something very similar.

On the ground level, because of changes like this, consumers–i.e., people– are becoming more cautious about conspicuous, mindless, and endlessly-increasing consumption. The average person, the average consumer, is beginning to wake up to the fact that their children are going to inherit a huge pile of garbage and problems rather than the planet full of possibilities that all of our ancestors up to this point were granted.

It’s a sobering thought. And we’re beginning to think it.

And I think it’s beginning, just beginning, to be reflected in shopping malls, and boutiques, and stores. Not only should we buy green, we should make do with less. Much less. Reusable shopping bags and hybrids are just the beginning. Think biking, walking, growing your own food, making your own clothes and music, repairing instead of replacing. Can anyone say ‘Permaculture lite?’ Multiplied across the global economy, what kind of impact would that have?

In the face of recession, some of us are saying “less is good.”

So what impact on the economy we have with these three trends: Globalization, Digitalization, and Green Consumerism? You can probably see where I’m going with this….

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession II: Globalization

Global financial shifts

These postings are about the current “deep” “recession.” As CNN reported yesterday, “the U.S. economy suffered its largest drop in 26 years during the fourth quarter.The nation’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic activity, fell at an annual rate of 6.3% during the final three months of 2008″ (see original story on Worldwide, similar, and worse, is being repeated. And the pain isn’t likely to end yet.

In this post, I’ll briefly discuss the first of three critically important factors that make this global recession different from past recessions, Globalization, which I defined loosely as continental shifts in capital flows.

The evidence is everywhere. Foreign investors own 45% of U.S. Treasuries, with Asian investors alone holding more than 30%. U.S. stocks made up 69% of the world market capitalization in 1970; today they make up 42%. And Western Europeans and North Americans are increasingly hiring programmers and designers from Asia and Eastern Europe. These include hiring “virtual personal assistants” on other continents to screen phone calls, pay bills, and even handle customers. One example is that the website hired two India-based reporters last year. Their assignment? To cover Pasadena city council meetings that are broadcast over the Web. Information tech and globalization obviously are intertwined in different ways such as these, although I discuss them separately for the sake of intelligibility. I’ll deal with infotech in my next post. So let’s turn to globalization.

Continental shifts in capital flows acknowledges that a lot of the productive labor has shifted to Asia, in particular, China and India (Thomas Freidman’s The World is Flat book has publicized this well-known trend). These major flows of capital — not only monetary, but human capital, the kind that creates innovations and brands, and even social capital — have been shifting radically for well over a decade with relatively little corresponding reaction at the level of markets and currency. If that’s true, then the shifts we have already seen might be moderate compared to the ones to come.

In other words, if North American car companies can’t build cars that global consumers want to drive and buy, then propping them up artificially only means that they’re going to come down harder when they do, eventually, fall. The United States and much of Western Europe is dependent upon a number of industries that are being similarly propped up. The market is beginning to reflect that. And, even as companies in these countries survive but find themselves with growing liabilities, they’re going to be spending much more of their capital servicing their increasing their debt rather than making investments in brands and innovation that will pay off into the future. If currency rates continue to decline, those foreign debts become harder and harder to service, for governments as well as companies.

On the ground level of consumers and consumption these shifts in capital manifest as unemployment and general belt-tightening. People lose their jobs in the Rust Belt, the support services that serve them fold, housing prices drop, tourism recedes, and so on. Government artificially stoking spending only works if the spending can be directed into areas that are going to create lasting jobs and redistribute capital away from its current configuration — the configuration that is at least partially causing these shifts.

That’s trend #1. Trend #2 is Informationalization, which I’ll talk about in the next post.