Would we buy less, if the symbolic meaning of a product was better understood? Yes!

Although I work in the field of sustainability and specifcially sustainable consumption and production patterns, I still caught myself to buy new things occassionally. Sometimes that was when I felt I needed something new, when I felt “bored”, or in a bad mood, when I wanted distraction, or when I felt I deserved a little reward, etc.

What I came to realize is that most of these goods did not last long with me and they also did not make me happy. Products that indeed made me happy, where those products that I chose to buy over weeks or sometimes (in the case of a leather bag) for months.

How did I stop buying stuff I didn’t need?

It happened that I learned about the psychoanalyst “Gustav Carl Jung”, who used symbolism to interpret his patients unconcious motives or desires. Within symbolism, colours, forms, and various patterns can be analyzed to understand ones own feelings, but also meanings and their biases that either suppress or support a decision (un)conciously.

Because I was curious to understand my own buying motives, I tried to integrate a psychoanayltical persepctive into my buying decisions. Therefore, I followed four steps, when I was about to buy high-heels, that I didn’t need. In doing so, I dissolved the meaning of the high-heels and also learned that the meaning, these high-heels emboddied, had nothing to do with the heels themselves that day, but my own (un)concious challanges and mood. By thinking about these (un)concious motives now more often, I am drastically reducing my buying behaviour and focus on other challanges these goods unconciously represent for me.

1.Why do I need this product ?

[High heels make me taller, and I am not as tall as other people. However, sometimes I perceive taller people as more powerwful.]

2. Where does that perception come from?

[ I was often told that I am not tall enough for a German and when I was taller I felt this observations was less mentioned. Because of that being taller made me feel more powerful. ]

3. Why did being tall matter that day or in that moment?

[I realized that I didn’t share an idea in a meeting that day. Because I didn’t, I missed out a powerful opportunity, which my team but also I could have beneffitted from. ]

4. What does my own analysis mean to me?

[I must have unconciously thought that by buying something that makes me feel tall , I would feel more more powerful. However, there is no relation between these heels and my work situation, and instead of buying these heels, I will work on sharing my ideas more often to empower myself and my team. ].

How can external costs of consumption be equated with external costs of production? – An economic-psychoanalytical perspective

The traditional business model equates production costs with revenues and therefore measures success based on the profits created. In doing so, most business models neglect their external costs of production. These are costs that relate to pollution or other forms of destruction and are often not accounted for. Business models that do not account for these external costs of production, likely run risk of market failure in the long term. A consequence is that neither business, nor planet, nor consumer will benefit in the future.

Increases in production come at an expense of
resources and well-being that is worth
more than the products produced. It also
implies that an undesirable balance of
quantities known as utility and disutility
occur. Utility is the level of satisfaction of the population’s needs and wants. Disutility refers to the sacrifices made necessary by increasing production and consumption, such as labor, loss of leisure, depletion of resources, exposure to pollution (Daly, 1990)

External cost of consumption?

Climate change and also climate awarness have been increasing steadily, particular since Fridays for Future. “We must act now, our planet is on fire, system change is needed” are some of the phrases that cover media. While these phrases demand companies, governments to change systems, they externalize individual repsonsibility and hence individual and collective cost of consumption. These are cost produced because of a (subconcious) desire for consumption and lifestyle choices. Because of that system change as demanded now, misses a sustainable point of view. That is a view in which “external cost of consumption” need to be internalized by consumers.

How can external costs of production be internalized?

Businesses can transition towards more sustainable business models and because of that reduce their external costs of production. That can happen if unsustainable materials are swopped with more sustainable materials (think about a plastic straw being swapped with a bamboo straw), if a company promotes the re-use of products or offers recycling opportunities (and so much more). However, swopping one thing with the other, or continue producing at the same speed, does not necessarily lead to more sustainable business models. Instead current production problems shift to other production processes. Because of that, long term business sustainabiltiy might fail.

For sustainable business models to take place in the long term, the role of consumers, the way they engage, behave and hence, want to purchase or not and how needs to change as well.

What are external costs of consumption and how can they be internalized?

Humans aren’t static. Humans like other species evolve and adjust to changes. “Survival of the fittest” – in evolutionary terms. If adoption does not occur, the survival of a species is at risk. To adopt and to change, we adjust, we make ourselves appeal to others by creating images, to become part of a group, to subconciously influence our own survival. However, much of such behaviours , think about dressing a certain way, or looking a certain way to be accepted by a group, does not relate to survival anymore – it is instinctional and therefore (unconciously) culturally influenced. Such behaviours therefore stimulate external costs of consumption [Evolutionary desire for change and adaptation, while such a change and adaptation is not need but rather socially constructed path-dependent]

External costs of consumption can hence be internalized, if individual and collective awarness increases towards unconcious behaviour and lifestyles. Where does a constant desire for changes deprive from? What purpose does a change fullfill? Who is this change done for? Who does one desire to desire back and because of that adjust towards a certain lifestyle , look or behaviour and therefore changes? What meaning do changes in choices have? Where should subconcious evolutionary need for change and adoptation stop? Where is the point of maximum utility for happiness reached and hence, the possibility to create an equilibrium between internalized external costs of consumption and production?

Do we need hair dye to impress others? Do we need new phones to take better pictures? Do we need make up? For who? Who are we, when we don’t change who we are or appear to be?

References

Campbell, A. (2000). Cultural identity as a social construct. Intercultural Education11(1), 31-39.

Graham, C. (2005). The economics of happiness. World economics6(3), 41-55.

Harte, M. J. (1995). Ecology, sustainability, and environment as capital. Ecological economics15(2), 157-164.

Hedman, J., & Kalling, T. (2003). The business model concept: theoretical underpinnings and empirical illustrations. European journal of information systems12(1), 49-59.

Hollan, D. (2000). Constructivist models of mind, contemporary psychoanalysis, and the development of culture theory. American Anthropologist102(3), 538-550.

Lüdeke-Freund, F., Carroux, S., Joyce, A., Massa, L., & Breuer, H. (2018). The sustainable business model pattern taxonomy—45 patterns to support sustainability-oriented business model innovation. Sustainable Production and Consumption15, 145-162.

Thompson, S. A., & Loveland, J. M. (2015). Integrating identity and consumption: An identity investment theory. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice23(3), 235-253.

The role of early attachment in consumption patterns – a public health perspective

In 2015, I conducted public-health related research into the consequence of child complex trauma on the brain. The goal of my research was to develop an activity guide for lay people that could help reduce these consequences on the brain. To conduct the research, I interviewed a range of practitioners includig; psychologists, psychiatrists & neurologists in Southen California, USA. Besides that, I also also merged into the literature world on brain development and the role of attachment/ relationships in child development.

After finalizing my reserach and presenting the outcomes to “Court Appointed Special Advocates“, I realized that how we are nurtured, the way we are loved and cared for has one of the greatest impacts on how we later behave in life. It impacts how we form, build and maintain relationships, how we communicate with each other and how meaning is created within ourselves and the world around us.

The capacity to love is at the core of the success of humankind. The reason we’ve survived on this planet is that we’ve been able to form and maintain effective groups. Isolated and disconnected, we are vulnerable. In community, we can protect one another, cooperatively hunt and gather, share with the dependents of our family, our clan. Relation glue keeps our species alive, and love is the relationa superglue. Perry & Operah, 2021, p. 77

Healthy attachement can be formed in multiple ways and directions; parents, grandparents, friends, co-workers, communities

What influence does attachement have on our neurological development?

When a baby is born, it enters the world with a specific number of neurons. These neurons then form into neural networks that predefine how we view and engage in this world later on. Because the brain develops “bottom- up” (see Figure 2: Brain chart), the way in which neural networks are formed from infant age pre-define later developments in the higher regions of the brain. It defines how these regions are connected and how resiliant our behaviour will be towards challanges such as stress, disagreements or changes (think about private/work relationships or within ourselves).

How these neural networks develop differs for individuals. If a baby grows up in an attuned and loving environment, where its needs are being met emotionally and physcially, neuron-connections will form that are based on “healthy, self-regulatory and resilient” developments. If a baby grows up in a stressfull environment or an environment in which it was neglected, continuesly stressed or only its basic needs were fullfilled, the brain develops in such a way that the functions of upper brain regions can be impaired. Such impairment can be illustrated in difficulties such as “self-regulation and resiliance towards stresses, or ability to reason”. It may also impair the ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships.

Brain map and sypmtoms (Source: Bruce Perry, http://www.Child Trauma.org, Ann-Cathrin Joest, Research Report, 2015)

In adult life, such dysregulation within the adult and the adults relationship can be displayed in a range of behaviours (see Figure 2: Brainchart and related dysfunctional symptom). Someone who grew up in an environment through which healthy neurological networks developed in all four brain regions, will be more likely to view a challange as something “natural”, something that is not a threat. However, someone who has difficulties with self-regulation may view a daily challange as a threat and therefore involuntarily shuts down the more complex region of the brain responsible for reasoning and arguing (cortex-region). In doing so, the more primative functions of the brain are actived (Brainstem, Diencephalon[Midbrain]), those that support survival. While these functions possibly helped a child to survive, these functions do not serve as an adult anymore, think about someone quick to respond agressively or without thinking or someone yelling, swearing , leaving etc.

How does neural development and attachement relate to sustainable behaviour?

At my my current job, I am engaged in the development of sustainable and circular business models. I try to answer questions such as “How can sustainable business models reduce interest in consumption? And why do people consume so much? How can products create intrinsic meaning and how can such meaning be translated in a society that currently appears to seeks meaning in an access of consumption ? ” .

For so long, I could not cearly think about the answers until I began reading the book “What happenned to you? Conversations on Trauma, resilience and healing” by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. It was that book that reminded me on my research on neurodevelopment and healthy attachment, that I realized many answers can be found in “dysregulations and early (un)healthy attachement“. That the more dysregulation exists within ourselves and the less healthy attachements we formed as an infant or child, the less meaning we create within ourselves and relationships. The more likely we seek satisfaction in extrinsic activities, ways of behaving and acting [unconciously] to regulate an intrinsic need (we may not be aware of). So I believe that -love / instrinsic love- is the cure to much of the sustainability debates we face today. Love and early healthy attachements, that nurture, love that supports resiliance (within brain structures) and supports curiosity for positive change. Love -that type of glue that lasts longer then the short term satisfaction from addiction such as overeating and consumption.

The challange with activating our reward circuits is that the pleasure fades. The feeling of reward is short-lived. Think how long the pleasure of eating a potato chips last. A few seconds. Then you want another. Same with a hit of nicotine from a cigarette. Or even the smile of a loved one. It feels so good in the moment, and we can recall it and get a little pleasure, but the intenses sense of reward fades. So each day we are pulled to refill our reward bucket. The healthiest way to do this is through relationships. Connectedness regulates and rewards us. Perry & Operah, 2021, p. 64.

Moving forward?

For a sustainable society, to thrive as individual and thus, the collective, I believe that we must put greater emphasizes on healthy developments and community, identify healthy meaning within the individual that can translate into the collective and the other way round. However, how can such a society be created, if more hours are worked, if cost of living are increasing and if global inequalities persist?

References:

Winfrey, O., & Perry, B. D. (2021). What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Flatiron Books.

Joest, A. (2015). Consequences on Complex trauma on the brain. Reserach Report. Windesheim Honours College & Court Appointed Special Advocates, Orange County, California.

Its not about sustainable plastic- but the system embedded around the product

Every day tonnes of plastic are being used, produced and exposed. We all know that this system is called a linear system, with catastrophs for people and the environment. Now, there are ciruclar principles that aim at reducing plastic waste, by focusing on the recycability of the material, or the substitution of it by as much as possible.

Some initiatives are popping up much more in stores and I can see more brands advertising that their products are made with recycled ocean plastics or other recycled materials. On a first look that sounds great, because it means that we are avoiding the use of fossil fuels to create new bottles or other plastic based materials. It also means that industries working with waste problems and because of that support environmental actions.

On the second look, it does not sound sustainable. Taking ocean waste in the long term, will leave industries in a so called “lock-in”. It means their infrastructure may be build up to center around the need for specific waste products. For that to happen specific types waste must always occur in a specific quantity. This does not only leave the industry locked-in but also potentially increases the desire for waste generation. It also makes consumers believe that their product purchase is “green”, whilst it is not. Much recycled plastics products, such as rubber soles, or far worse, textiles made from recycled plastics, run off, and turn microplastics back into the environment.

Not all new sustainable systems, are sustainable by design. A transition must take place that is just, and well thought after for its long-term negative effects and possible opportunities.

Now, we could demolish plastics, but again not all plastics is bad. Some plastic materials can last very long and some of its material features might not compete with other material. What I like about it, is its ability to sustain. However, recycling requires a lot of energy and again, potentially nothing can be recycled forever and each product has its own footprint.

Much more that needs to be looked at is the system. Why are plastic based products produced? What industry do they encompoass? Who is the main target group of that plastic based content and why do they benefit from that product? What makes proudcers sell this product and what sustainable value is delivered with it?

Systems are complex ! They are interdependent and connected. One input leads to another output and one change, effects another change. Curious to learn more? Message me!

What good does it make, if Coca Cola and other industries recycle their plastics, when the fact that people are increasingly addicted to sugar, promotes such an industry to begin with? Why needing to order take-home food, wrapped in plastic, when the real problem is people working too much and potentially having too little time to cook? Why needing a range of plastic-based clothes for the many different occasions, when a smaller selection had done so well in the past? Why needing to substitute plastic straws, with other materials, when straws were long no nessecity? Why needing the many plastic- based cooking devices to cut vegetable in all sorts of imaginatory forms, when a knife had done so well for so long.

Many products are promoted and consumed based on desire. But, desire often does not last. What lasts is something that has deeply rooted meaning – products that support a function, products that satisfy a long-term need.

Sustainability and the self

Recently, sustainability has been associated a lot to a green economy, an economy that is CO2 neutral up to CO2 negative. A CO2 neutral economy can happen, if carbon is captured during the production, usetime and end of life of a product. Most efficient are therefore products that are made from biological materials only, like a bamboo straw. A bamboo straw can be cut of the original bamboo plant, dried, treated, sold and used. The CO2 print hereby varies between CO2 negative up to positive, depending on the treatment, shipments and other processes involved.

The real CO2 print becomes more difficult for products that are processed heavily and consist of multiple product components like a shoe or jacket or many other basic products like hair dye and toys for kids. Many of these products consist of synthetic materials or materials that do not biodigrade at the end of their life. To make these products more ecological or more specific CO2 – sustainable, different type of processes might be used or product materials might be replaced with others i.e. plastic toys with wood toys.

So much stuff to rent. Why actually?

Regardless of the business model, consumption often continues to be promoted. Such an example is a “sustainable” business model in which consumers are encouraged to buy an ecological product such as a bamboo straw, but do not know whether the bamboo is harvested in respect to its necessarily growth time. Another example is a buisness model that makes you want to rent or lease products, although you never needed them before to begin with (i.e. expensive clothes or toys).

Why should the self be more recognized in the current sustainability agenda?

The self-concept is a general term used to refer to how someone thinks about, evaluates or perceives themselves. To be aware of oneself is to have a concept of oneself.

Baumeister (1999) provides the following self-concept definition:

“The individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is”.

Carl Rogers (1959) believes that the self-concept has three different components:

• The view you have of yourself (self-image)

• How much value you place on yourself (self-esteem or self-worth)

• What you wish you were really like (ideal-self)

The impact of consumption on the self

Regardless, why or what we consume, it often relates to us – of course it does, since we consume it. However, media, advertisment etc. often distracts us from our true self and therefore encourage a desire to take on an identity by consuming something that does not reflect our true self. Our attention shifts towards a “fictive ideal-self”. An example is wanting to look like a celebrity , someone on advertisment, etc and therefore buying new clothes, dying hair or buying a product to align more with the desired persons’ trait. However, we are not that person, we are ourselves. We will never be that person and likewise, that person will never be us.

Desire for the fictive ideal supports a society less satisfied

Often, we are influenced by media, by friends, culture and societys’ expectations how we should be, what we should do, how we should look like and how we should behave. Many impulses that distract us from who we really are and want to be. Impulses that often lead to greater levels of dissatsifaction as we struggle to think about whether what we have and how we are is enough, or if we don’t need more or changes to be fullfilled.

After the point of consumption , and once realized that the image we created with the idea of the fictive ideal of us, stopped satisfying, the cycle of consumption, re-enters. In addition, other mental health problems might arise, because an image created does not align with the image of one-self. Think about advertisement that rewards or promotes white-caucasion skin types or even hollywood that (can) promote cultural stereotypes. What happens is that a society is created that does not thrive, but a society with wish-full thinking that imagines to thrive with a product that supports an idenittiy or part of it not true to themselves. That can happen, when buying or renting or changing something, that does not actually make happy.

An example is advertisement that illustrates a white rich man with a huge house and a loving wife. The image might create the perception that because of his white skin, a demanding job and a huge house his wife loves him. Because of that, one with darker skin might want to have whiter skin, wants to buy a house etc. In doing so the connection to the real-self gets lost and in doing so also the opportunity to identify success and happinnes for themselves (small job, free time, happinness to attract happinnes)

How can the true self be promoted more in the current sustainability agenda?

Feet are made for walking, jackets made for protection, blankets used to protect from cold, hair care products made to nurture them, body cream to make our skin less dry, to protect it. Food is made to keep us healthy, to connect us to others. Other products are made for comfort, help us sleep, help to support us. Many products weren’t made to sell a look or an image, but because of a fundamental function they support(ed).

A sustainability society or a sustainable industrial agenda, therefore needs to emphasize more to promote functionality over an image sold and a society that allowes for the production of healthy products, that are kept and not consumed to be trashed. This is possible if the self is satisfied with what it consumes. Therefore, products should provide a supporting function, align with the consumers true feelings and desires and likewise be accessible to a wide range of customers i.e. through product/market targeted business models (i.e. rental of healthy product to students, elderlies etc.). Doing so will allow society to thrive, be more happy, be more inclusive and to create an ideal image of the self, while also saving much of that CO2 .

Who cares whether you have bold or gray hair? Imagine time spent worrying , money spend on hair dressors vs. time spend on something fun and money spend to support that fun activity 😀

Resources/ Inspirations

Delmas, M. A., & Burbano, V. C. (2011). The drivers of greenwashing. California management review54(1), 64-87.

Fein, S., & Spencer, S. J. (1997). Prejudice as self-image maintenance: Affirming the self through derogating others. Journal of personality and Social Psychology73(1), 31.

Frosh, S. (1991). Identity crisis: Modernity, psychoanalysis and the self. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Levänen, J., Uusitalo, V., Härri, A., Kareinen, E., & Linnanen, L. (2021). Innovative recycling or extended use? Comparing the global warming potential of different ownership and end-of-life scenarios for textiles. Environmental Research Letters16(5), 054069.

Muller, J. (1985). Lacan’s mirror stage. Psychoanalytic Inquiry5(2), 233-252.

Velenturf, A. P., & Purnell, P. (2021). Principles for a sustainable circular economy. Sustainable Production and Consumption27, 1437-1457.