A year less throw-away
Jan Gooding sets out the thinking behind her resolutions to buy once, buy less and repair more
So here we are - in a new year, and one that offers the possibility of less time spent on crisis management and more time rebuilding. This is when we have to find the energy and imagination to live up to last year’s heady proclamations that we wanted to ‘build back better’.
Old habits die hard, even when we will have had a year of the almost complete unravelling of our economy, working and social behaviour and our relationship with our European neighbours. The pull to ‘get back to normal’ will be profound. I have found myself pondering on how to continue to keep feeding my own resilience and appetite for change.
Sources of inspiration
One strategy is to read books recommended as sources of inspiration from people I know and rate. Linda Aspey, a ‘Time to Think’ Faculty coach, brought my attention to ‘Active Hope’, written by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in 2012. You have to admit the title is pretty much a mantra in its own right. But what I was attracted to is their framework of ‘three big stories of our time’. All of which are happening simultaneously.
- Business as usual: This is the story that governments and business want us to trust in them. That there is nothing basically wrong that a bit more economic growth and technology can’t sort out soon. It is the powerful default setting of the last century. Even post the pandemic, the pull of this narrative will be strong because it is nurtured by our current systems of commerce and governance.
- The Great Unravelling: In this story, worsening climate change is only one of several huge problems which show the world is falling apart, and it’s too late to save it. It can be overwhelming and make us feel helpless or complacent - ultimately discouraging us from making change because there’s no point.
- The Great Turning: This story is already happening in many ways across the world and describes a turning to sustainability, fairness and shared resources. It is this third narrative that encourages us to act and believe we can make a difference. As a natural optimist, it’s the one that I find myself drawn towards.
We can each do our bit regardless
In spite of its inherent complacency, it is possible to reduce or stop the damage caused by ‘business as usual’ by making changes to our own lifestyle.
As well as participating in the campaigns that encourage governments and business to change the system. We can all agree how striking it was how much got done at speed as we went into lockdown. The same can happen again as we come out of it and examine every aspect of how we do business.
Finding new language
On New Year’s Day I went for a walk near Leith Hill in Surrey. Stomping past a little row of cottages I was struck by a sign from Hamptons attached to a garden gate which proclaimed, ‘Buy Me’.
We are used to signs that say, ‘For Sale’. So, the difference in language was eye catching. But more than that. It was a message clearly inviting me to do something.
"That’s clever," I thought as I stopped to take a picture. As I walked on, I wondered what we need to say differently in our future marketing ‘calls to action’ to prompt different behaviour? How do we start to normalise the idea of buying things that have been made to last rather than use and throw away in the very language we use?
Throwing less away
This question led to my discovery of a website called ‘Buy Me Once’ that was launched in 2016.
The idea is simple. They only sell long-lasting products that they have curated and are prepared to stand behind. They claim that ‘to ensure everything is made to last, they examine the products themselves, their manufacturing story, and develop meaningful relationships with the makers’.
Indeed, the founder, Tara Button has written a book appropriately entitled ‘A Life less throwaway: the lost art of buying for life’.
A quick browse of the website revealed that cast iron frying pans are a big seller, Dualit toasters feature, and there is even a reclaimed fire hose wallet that caught my eye.
Reviews show that it’s a hard promise to live-up-to and the service can be a bit hit and miss. But what a brilliant attitude to have embedded at the heart of this brand’s purpose.
Keeping brands for longer
I wonder how many brand owners are even asking themselves the question as to whether they could live up to the standard of a lifetime of service?
What does that mean for business models with regard to repair and rental opportunities? How do we make it easy for customers to upgrade, return, reuse and mend what they have already bought?
At BT, British Gas and Aviva we were constantly trying to make the case for the value of lifetime customer loyalty. We were always up against the financial world of quarterly revenue reporting where the addiction to new sales runs deep.
Nowadays, we are going to have to learn how to make the argument a different way. Built in obsolescence is just not acceptable anymore.
We have to stop encouraging people to buy things that won’t last. And as producers, we need to regard ourselves responsible for the disposal of those things once they have become redundant.
Preparing to pay more
As I have highlighted in a previous article, John Lewis is seeking to be a leader in the emerging ‘Made to Last’ market.
I have since found that there is already a made-to-last.co.uk website where you can buy ‘sustainable products made in Britain’.
It encourages an attitude to pricing, which reflects the longevity of their products and claims only to offer things which have high utility. Or as they put it ‘no nodding dogs or dancing flowers here’.
Signalling quality and utility
Again, it’s easy to criticise but I’m not sure that a two-year guarantee on a saucepan signals ‘made to last’ that strongly.
Then again, the saucepan in question was made of spun iron by the Netherton Foundry in Shropshire, which certainly implies craftsmanship and the potential for future repair.
However, it all has to start somewhere. And what is striking about both of these online retailers is that they don’t sell things that aren’t essential and are trying to make sure everything is made sustainably and to a quality standard. With all the implications that has for paying more and buying less often.
Making brand resolutions for 2021
Much is made on New Year’s resolutions and the fact that most don’t last beyond the third Monday of January. But I like the ritual of drawing a line and trying to do better.
I have never heard a brand offer up some New Year’s Resolutions for improvement. For those brand owners who share my ambition to be part of the story of ‘The Great Turning’ – what would your brand resolutions be?
I am aiming to ‘buy once, buy less and repair more’.
Perhaps mantras for the year I am more likely to keep than my usual - ‘swear once, eat less and exercise more’.
Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo, and Unilever. She is an executive coach, the chair of PAMCo, Given (London), the president of the Market Research Society, and the former chair of Stonewall. She writes for Mediatel News each month.