Extraordinary Experience #9: What is sustainable anyway?

Really, what is sustainable? How long are we talking? Are we talking years, decades or lifetimes? Many lifetimes, I hope.

A couple weeks ago I dinged Cameron Diaz for not being authentic in her sustainable behaviors. Since that time, I've been finalizing a speech for the Green Salon in Cincinnati next week and find the need to clarify. If what Cameron Diaz does is wrong, what is right? Which leads us back to the question of what is sustainable anyway? And, if we combine integrated marketing with sustainability to make, "Sustainable Integrated Marketing", what do we have now? An oxymoron?

We, as purveyors of design, brand, and marketing provide the catalyst for a consuming public. Our livelihoods are typically based on causing an accelerated consumption. Perhaps we must refocus to the right kind of consumption. This would fit with two of the three biblical words of the sustainable movement (reduce, reuse, recycle). But how do we (the collective we) address the need to reduce consumption and the use of resources?

This has perplexed me for some time. It has led me to thinking about this particular problem from a different perspective. You’ve likely seen Freakonomics and learned of the connection between crime rates falling nationally and Rowe v Wade? This is not intended to jump into the middle of that debate, but rather to notice the unexpected connection between socioeconomic patterns. Combined with the idea that not all historic reference points are correct, just because they’re historic, remember the line, “Adam Smith needs revision.”

With this in mind, take a leap with me on this theory.

Use better materials but accelerate consumption.

One: The economic engine of consumption is hard to turn off, but not as hard to accelerate. We know more about how to accelerate than we do about how to decelerate.

Two: The United States is a consumption-driven society, but the social structures in China, India and other nations are more production-driven. The patterns are there and these societies are moving in that direction as a middle class develops and consumption becomes the primary driver. It’s important that developing nations continue to develop, but knowing what we now know about sustainability, perhaps they can be encouraged not to make the same mistakes as the developed world.

Three: The more we use, the faster we burn through the planetary oil reserves and are required to find new more environmentally-friendly sources of energy.

Four: As humans, we learn from what we consume. If we knew what oil would do to the planet as an energy source, we may have changed directions back when it became the dominant source. We know more now and hopefully would apply our collective learning.

Five: The effort to push us to more consumption may just have the opposite effect. This might not be the immediate effect, but it could happen as we become more disgusted with ourselves. The result being a big consumption push, oil reserves find their end and we come together to find new energy sources.

There it is. Flying right in the face of REDUCE. Give it some thought and argue against it. I’d like to hear the perspectives.

Extraordinary Experience? Thinking about what is sustainable and when we are going to make real progress.

I ask this because I’ve been wondering: when does a landfill become as economically valuable as an oil field in our global society? Or when does a plastic water bottle (now known as waste) achieve its true value in the petroleum it contains?

Aaron Keller
Managing Principal,



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