Consumers are inundated with sustainable marketing ploys. From coffee cups to SUVs, "green" is ubiquitous. That's because it works— turning ads touting eco-friendly products into green dollar signs.
Yet, more and more consumers are abandoning the market system altogether. Dissatisfied with shallow promises, they're jumping ship in search of a more sustainable lifestyle in ecovillages. It's a phenomenon that intrigues marketers around the globe. With business on the line, it's no surprise.
“Worldwide, it’s the only reason that isn’t region specific when consumers decide to leave the market system,” Soonkwan Hong says of sustainability. “Consumers can escape the system, adopt anti-consumption lifestyles, for a variety of reasons: financial, political, economic, social. Consequently, some tension and conflict emerges between consumers and businesses. There is one cause that they can agree on, though: sustainability.”
Companies think they understand consumers’ desires and ideals. Surprisingly, when it comes to environmental motives, they don’t, and that’s causing an increasing number of escapees, Hong says. As an assistant professor of marketing, he’s fascinated with this disconnect—and aims to link environmental consumers with marketers so they might eventually rejoin the market system.
“Companies have to see what it’s like in the consumer’s shoes,” Hong says. “About a year and a half ago, I started talking about green consumption— conscious and conscientious consumption—with some colleagues. Consumers are becoming more aware of the consequences of consumerism, and thankfully businesses are too. But companies still don’t understand how the most environmentally conscious consumers make sense of their lives.”
Hong wanted to take an immersive approach to glean valuable insights. He needed a place to start, a place to investigate the links among consumers, companies, and policy makers. “We found Global Ecovillage Network, and it worked perfectly,” he says. “It’s a group of all sorts of alternative, environmentally conscious communities around the world. Communes, co-ops, co-housing, ecovillages, permacultures—ideal places to research what sustainability and conscious consumerism actually mean.”
There were already plenty of theories about what those concepts meant to both sides, but Hong wanted to hear stories, record emotions, and see first-hand how sustainable consumption practices play out in ecovillages.
So he packed his bags and headed to “Ecovillage at Ithaca,” in New York.
The city proper isn’t all that different from Houghton, he explains. Ithaca (home to Cornell University) sits on the shores of Cayuga Lake and lays at the bottom of a few-hundred-feet-deep ravine. The city itself is built into the hillside with streets running up and down the slopes. Unlike Houghton, though, a vibrant community of nearly 250 ecovillage residents lies a few miles from the heart of downtown— which Hong was eager to get to know. “I went in with a ‘grounded theory’ approach,” he says. “My research didn’t start with a hypothesis. Some serendipity, maybe, but no prescribed theories. Just ethnographic research and the hope of developing connections.”
He spent weeks in Ithaca, studying the residents’ lives and their challenges— all while recording what he saw. Then he took his research even farther.
“This project needed to be multi-sited, multi-cultural,” he says. “I’ve traveled to ecovillages around the world—Belfast, Maine; Turkey; France; Germany—to avoid a limited view of the subject and the socio-politico-cultural conditions you’d see in just one setting.”
Traveling from country to country has allowed him to move beyond the micro-issues each community has (from a heated debate in one village about a ban on outdoor cats to the unappealing aesthetics of ultra-energy-conserving building materials in another) to macro trends and values shared among all eco-minded communities. Although his research is far from over, Hong says he’s already seen common threads in each community he’s studied—threads that he will compare and contrast to those of Asian communities in the near future.
One trait he’s witnessed in every location he’s visited is a resounding agreement to share. Hong thinks companies will have to respond to this communal lifestyle and embrace ever-shifting ideals and practices of sustainability in their own approaches.
The idea of community—communal living—penetrates all aspects of life in these villages, Hong explains. “First and foremost, these people share space.
There are no walls, no fences. But they also share time and resources. In Ithaca, for example, everyone contributes at least four hours per week to community work. Cleaning garbage, making repairs, working in the community garden, cooking, or doing dishes after community meals . . . anything, really.
“I began this project wanting to know how the concept of sustainability manifests in different communities,” he says. “The United States has gone through an important shift in the past 50 years. After the World Wars, consumption was a virtue. It drove growth and prosperity. In the 80s, saving became a virtue. From the 90s to early 2000, green lifestyle became a luxury status symbol. Now, conscientious consumption is becoming a requirement. This trend can be found in other developed countries, too.”
No matter where you are on the globe, the seemingly utopian sustainable lifestyle is an arduous and elusive ideal to achieve, Hong says. Since the very concept of sustainability is a fluid target, ebbing and flowing with changes in ethics and technology, “no one has lived a truly sustainable life. There’s a lot of friction in trying to create something that’s never existed before.” “Based on my work, I’ve coined a new term: ‘technology of lifestyle.’ The lifestyle they try to embody requires design, execution, performance, maintenance, and engineering.” A marketer’s dream-come-true, as long as they can tap into the needs of this niche way of life.
One German ecovillage in Hong’s study recently installed composting toilets, “which are remarkable. They’re environmentally friendly, sustainable. They save hundreds of gallons of water that would normally be flushed away. There’s no smell, no mess, nothing to see. Free organic fertilizer for the community’s gardens. It makes sense. But only a few companies make these kinds of toilets. Why? There’s a demand.”
Hong thinks businesses believe that they can’t make money if they’re making giant leaps in green technology. But his research and notes, he says, prove otherwise.
“We need to reconnect consumers with companies. Provide useful information and facilitate healthy compromise between ecovillagers and policy makers. The oscillating meaning of sustainability is what divides consumers and companies. We need to come up with ways to benefit both parties that are informed by the way ecovillagers live— find some common ground. Businesses are going to be so amazed by how these people live.”
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.