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Ford sustainability is like recycling in Seatte
In Ford's push to equate the brand with sustainability, the motor company may be alienating the underachieving recycler.
Posted October 17, 2012
At Ford's media event this past summer, "Go Further with Ford" (invariably referred to by those in attendance as "Go Fordward with Ford"), there was something for everyone. Sessions about navigation, entertainment and communication technologies, about Ford's strategies in urban centers, about their approach to design, about their use of renewable materials, and about their various fuel efficiency technologies. Through all of these subjects, though, one central theme came through whatever the topic: sustainability. We're talking keyword: sustainability; hash tag: sustainability; commercial-a: sustainability; and sustainability-yo!

And the message about sustainability was something along the lines of (and I'm paraphrasing) "We're going to make sustainability so attractive, so cool, so sexy and beautiful, that everyone will be dying to be sustainable. We're going to create a narrative and a whole set of images around sustainable living that will make it clear that this is the life you've always wanted, a life of aesthetic pleasures and excitement and impossible levels of sustainable coolness. It will be a life to which you can aspire - and if you're wondering how to get there, well, buying one of our cars would be a great start."

I thought that, as far as it went, this was close to genius. Ford - and their partner, - is, in effect, saying: The people we want to reach are telling themselves, perhaps unconsciously, a certain kind of story about their lives. Let's figure out what that story is, what kind of story matters to them, and let's spin it out a little farther. Let's tell them that story, only our version will show them a vision of themselves that's only a little bit out of reach - and our products will help them get there. Then, they can use our products to help them tell that story to the world - the new story, with the new, idealized version of themselves driving an ideal Ford product.

Pretty smart, eh? Yes - as far as it goes. Because, of course, this particular story is not going to appeal to everyone. If this is the central story, what does that mean for trying to extend sustainable living to the large swaths of the Western populace who, for cultural, economic, geographic, historical, and many other reasons, are not moved by this particular aspirational vision? Especially if this vision is not only not meaningful to some, it's actively alienating?

I'm reminded of a conversation I had recently with my Aunt Linda, who at the time was visiting her daughter in Seattle. Aunt Linda and I do not have a tremendous amount in common, but that's why she can be so interesting to talk with. In this particular talk, she was telling me about Seattle and how much she loved it - except for one thing. "Everyone is completely in your face about recycling," she said. "If you even look like you're thinking about throwing away a water bottle, people converge on you. This barista who was one-third my age," she went on, "was lecturing me about the difference between different kinds of plastic. And the guy at the bakery gave me this superior talk about reusing the bag I already had instead of asking for a new one." Eventually, Aunt Linda said, she wanted nothing more than to storm through the streets tossing glass bottles and plastic grocery bags behind her in an ecstatic, one-woman parade of flaunted waste. But she is a respectable, middle-aged lady, so she refrained.

It's bizarre if you think about it. Recycling - like using less gasoline - is a common-sense thing to do. Using the same thing more than once instead of (1) using up more materials on a new thing and (2) having to find a place for the old thing? On a purely mathematical level, it's clearly sensible and prudent. You could have debates over the best way to do it, what kinds of resources to put into recycling processes, etc., but there's certainly no inherent reason to have a culture war over it.

Yet when Aunt Linda encountered all these cool skinny-jean-wearing hipsters with their multiple piercings and their right way to drink espresso and their ironic t-shirts, they made her feel like they were on one side and she was on the other. If they thought recycling was important - and more to the point, if they though she wasn't doing it enough or doing it right or just didn't feel about it the way she ought to - then recycling starts to seem like a them thing, and emphatically not a her thing.

The beautiful-people approach to marketing sustainability carries the same risk. If sustainable living becomes indelibly imbued with the cool tint of urban hipness, it will become a them thing. And if the image of them is one that's actively off-putting to a lot of other people, that tint becomes a taint on the whole idea of sustainable living. Thus making sustainability... well, unsustainable.
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Newsroom Notes
Ford sustainability is like recycling in Seatte

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Green, Automotive, Ford
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