Words Helene Jeune
Illustration Alicja Biala
This is a section of the article Closer than Consumption - Intrinsic Value in Sustainable Communication featured in our sixth issue on Materiality. You can read the full article here
"Cultural change can take time – it can also happen very quickly" - European topic center
A group of young schoolchildren form part of an experiment. They sit around a table full of colorful pens and paper. They are asked to write or draw what they want from Santa Claus; quickly and without hesitation they note down all their wishes: a new bicycle, a guitar, computer games. The children are then asked to write or draw what they wish for from their parents. Thoughtfully and after a long pause they note down their wishes: spending more time with them, hugging them, and playing games with their parents. Change of scene: a mother, looking stunned; another woman with tears rolling down her cheeks; parents laughing openheartedly when hearing their child’s wishes.
The scene described above is from an IKEA promotion video from Spain that went viral on social media. Its viral effect can be explained by the following: First of all, it’s rare for a large retail company to promote immaterial and intrinsic values (spending more quality time together) rather than material ones. The video asks viewers to reflect on how they prioritize their time. The advertisement is thus thought-provoking in a western cultural context, where material consumption dominates and where marketing campaigns mainly emphasize the product and urge people to consume more.
The IKEA video has also gone viral for a second reason. New tendencies in society, reflecting critically on the nature of consumption, are on the rise - tendencies that aspire to and support a focus on intrinsic values. Several movements and concepts have emerged recently, one of which is the slow movement: slow food, slow fashion, and slow living. Slowness is about taking one’s time, putting care and effort into activities such as growing one’s own food, cooking, making and re-making products as well as celebrating everyday activities.
Another tendency is the maker movement. The maker movement consists of individuals and groups who build small so-called maker-spaces to remake and ‘hack’ products through collaborative sharing. Such maker spaces are not driven by profit, but by the urge to strengthen learning opportunities and bolster communities. This movement can be seen as a reaction to planned obsolescence and throwaway culture. Neither of the two movements is necessarily concerned with sustainability, but rather can be seen as reactions to the prevalent disconnection between people and material culture.
However exciting these tendencies are, they only affect few subcultures and consumer groups with specific socio-economic qualities. They only scratch the surface of the overall consumption paradigm that dominates western society today. Our current production/consumption system is still in large part unsustainable and taxes the earth’s resources and the health of people, animals, and the environment. Conventional marketing and communication keep our unsustainable consumer culture going by continuously focusing on extrinsic values and wasteful behaviors.
But what does it take then to challenge consumer culture and direct people’s behavior towards a more sustainable direction? There is obviously not a simple answer to how to provoke such a shift, as it will entail a systemic approach involving many different stakeholders. The aims of this article however are to look at this question from a communication and marketing perspective and examine new framing of communicating sustainability.
A definition of intrinsic and extrinsic values should firstly be addressed and in addition the link between intrinsic values and materiality should be examined in order to fully grasp what influences and drives consumer behavior today.
Defining intrinsic values
Intrinsic values can be defined as values that are an end in themselves. Caring for others (people, animals and nature), for instance, is an intrinsic value. Caring is also about caring for material objects that are valued for their utility, aesthetic qualities, emotional value, or symbolic role. Other examples of intrinsic values include building strong relations and communities, expressing oneself through the arts and connecting to spiritual domains. Such values are often linked to the creative, imaginative, ethical, and spiritual spheres.
Extrinsic values can be defined as the opposite. For instance, producing material objects that are aimed at creating status or power over others, as a way of achieving self-esteem. These are objects that are both functional and positional including consumer goods such as cars, electronic gadgets, and designer products.
Materiality is not superficial
An immediate and convenient distinction is to associate intrinsic with immateriality, extrinsic with materiality. But this would disregard important aspects of what it means to be human and what drives consumer behavior. Our relationship with material products are not extrinsic per se. Caring for and taking the time to make and remake material products, as seen within the slow and the maker movements, are expressions of intrinsic values. It is also about reclaiming the right to express oneself as a co-designer and producer of products, rejecting one’s position as a passive consumer left to obey the planned obsolescence of products.
Materiality is not necessarily superficial; caring for materials is a way of expressing one’s identity and culture and has been an integral part of human behavior since the beginning of time. Materiality may connect us to emotions, aesthetics, and spirituality, encompassing real needs of belonging, and caring. Materiality is therefore not in opposition to intrinsic values. Understanding our relations to material goods and how to restore such connection is essential for communicating intrinsic values.
To read on about sections on about sustainable communication messages and how to re-frame those click here