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Authenticity, Responsibility and Sustainability, the Drivers of a New Prosperity

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Simonetta Carbonaro, Christian Votava
JULY 14 /15, 2009 EMPA Building, St.Gallen, Switzerland
Key-note Speech:
Authenticity, Responsibility and Sustainability,
the Drivers of a New Prosperity
Prof. Simonetta Carbonaro, Dr. Christian Votava
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let’s get one thing straight: catastrophes are catastrophic only for transient life on
this planet – like human beings, because our planet Earth, unlike us, is the product of
as many as five billion years of natural catastrophes. In fact, the environmental
pressure that we have been imposing on the planet over the last two-three hundred
years represents just one of its many disasters.
It really would be wrong to want to reduce the topic or nature of sustainability to the
environment or ecological systems. In fact, we must make an effort to expand our
systemic view to encompass three independent but interactively operating systems –
to wit
-the social systems with all of their social and cultural players, such as the economy,
science, politics – but also the arts...
- the personal system in which each individual has the capability of holding
responsibility - and
- the ecological – or environmental – system as the habitat of mankind.
One can only be able to locate the key to appropriate, sustainable actions in the
interplay of these three systems, which – together - have the capability of rescuing
humanity from a nearly pre-ordained extinction.
But today, the term “sustainability” is being used both widely and in an inflationary
sense. It stands for the preservation of any system. We are for instance supposed to
understand “sustainable development” only as the continuation of our Western
development model, which can only be sustained on a basis of constant material
growth. In order to preserve this development, we have meanwhile begun to
understand that we simply must take certain constraints into account – such as our
environment and the upholding of social justice.
The three-pillar model of sustainability, proposed by John Elkington, thus simply
describes the periodic trade-offs of our economic actions. But there are no
indications as to how we are meant to resolve these conflicts of objectives. And so -
at best – such a model of sustainable development can only arrive at compromises,
but certainly not at winners. In the worst – and currently the most likely – case, there
is likely to be one big loser: Us. Humanity.
And yet, ladies and gentlemen, there is also hope. Today’s economic crisis does not
correspond to the recession phase of a normal economic cycle. Rather, we find
ourselves today in a profound upheaval of our Western Industrial and Affluent
Societies. This upheaval began slowly - some 30 years ago - and expanded in steps
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with every crisis. Today, we find ourselves in a socially intermediate stage in which
that – in which we have long had faith in - has collapsed. But that - in which we might
trust in the future - has not yet gained shape or definition.
In order to understand the forces driving this social change to a new understanding of
prosperity, we need to first confront the dynamic of the early industrial 19th Century.
It was by means of this development model, based on standardization, economies of
scale and efficiency driven mentality that - for the first time ever - the economic
performance of humanity – represented by the gross domestic product – began to
grow more quickly than the global population.
The rise of the affluent society and the faith in economic growth
Within only 250 years, The GDP grew from an estimated mere 600 $ per capita at
that time to about 6.600 $ per person today. This enormous growth spurt which is
actually still going on, indicates that at that time, after the homo sapiens sapiens, a
new type of human being was born: the homo modernicus,.
Our homo modernicus is a rationally-thinking offspring of the Enlightenment. He is a
free and democratic Man, who shows his solidarity with others and is guided by the
values of the French Revolution. He is an ingenious being, who made the Industrial
Revolution. He is a pragmatic Man who grasps the economic dimensions of reality
and knows his way around consumer economy. And finally, this homo modernicus is
also an exuberant Man, who threw himself into the globalization project with all the
exuberance of youth in order to be able to keep up with the exponential trend of
economic growth at compound annual growth rates. But he also went beyond his
goal of harvesting and correctly managing the profit of the real economy and
launched himself into the hazard of the speculative financial markets.
According to general economic knowledge, the economic growth of the modern age,
which has kept up for nearly two centuries now, is a factor touching on self –
supporting processes, which are based on two main tenets:
With regard to the supply side, growth made it possible to invest in research and
development, which produced significant technological innovations until now. This led
to new products and more efficient production processes which, in and of
themselves, reinforced further growth. That is why productivity today is 20 times that
of 1820. In the eyes of economists technology is thus the true driving force of growth.
They rely on technological progress to solve the repercussions of any environmental
pressure and do not see any incompatibility between economic growth and
environmental protection.
On the demand side, growth created an extraordinary improvement in the standard of
living in the industrialised countries and led to the development of our present
consumer society, which is itself an important mainspring of growth. For traditional
economists our concept of well-being, as well as the social, civil and cultural
development of societies, is therefore inextricably linked to economic growth.
The gap between economic growth and prosperity
More than forty years ago, in one of his speeches, Robert Kennedy was already
questioning the gross national product as a suitable indicator of prosperity when he
said: ”…Our gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and
ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors
and the jails for those who break them. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear
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warhead…It counts television programs, which glorify violence in order to sell toys to
our children… Yet the gross national product… does not include the beauty of our
poetry… the intelligence of our public debate… It measures everything, in short,
except that which makes life worthwhile…”.
It will come as no surprise that the equation linking economic growth and public
happiness has today being repealed - not by moralists or anti-capitalist activists - but
by liberal economists such as Lord Richard Layard. There is scientific proof that – in
economically developed countries the perception of wellbeing decreases after the
acquisition of a certain level of material wealth linked to economic growth.
According to the findings of psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, we
are presently moving from an economy based on the strive for material wealth to an
economy lead by the pursuit of happiness”. In such an economy, those goods that
are valued most highly only have a significance within communities and are not
exchangeable, cannot be reproduced or cannot be replaced by others, like for
example security, peace, friendship, time, culture, knowledge or simply truthfulness
and honesty.
Those people-centered aspirations are the platform of our future economy, but they
have not really been taken into consideration in macro-economics to date. Until
today, more than 30 different indicators have been developed in which the subject of
prosperity has been assessed in different ways. The most interesting one for the
consumer society is the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW). It shows
that from the 70s onward the contribution of economic growth to prosperity has
declined in all the industrialised countries. Today economists generally agree that a
steadily growing portion of the GDP consists of the repair and maintenance of our
societies. Such a portion of our economic growth is leaving prosperity out in the cold.
The British Government advisor, Sir Nicholas Stern, has evaluated the impact of
climate change on GDP. In his report, which was published in 2006 and got
confirmed by a McKinsey study at the end of January this year, the costs of climate
change would amount to as much as 20 % of the global combined GDP if we do not
commence immediate countermeasures. Costs for a necessary reduction of green-
house gases, however, were estimated at approximately 1% - 2% of the global GDP.
For the stimulus of their economy, many countries of the world have and still are
budgeting much higher expenditures! Many experts although are nurturing serious
doubts about the fact that those stimulus packages will take us out of the crisis.
However, those same experts do not have any patent remedy either. We have thus
to admit that macroeconomics is still unable to describe the effect of the many and
dissimilar national economic and political measures on complex and interlinked
systems like our global economy. Nor can it predict the reaction time to modifying
impulses within such systems. That is why, Ladies and Gentlemen, we must be very
much aware of the fact that thirty years ago we entered into the adventure of
deregulation, liberalization and globalization with a stirring declaration of faith but
without any rudder. Even today, with all our economic stimulus packages, we are still
navigating on sight!
The faith in technological progress
We should not only question if and how economic growth is really contributing to our
well-being today, we should also take a much closer look at the concept of
technology as the driving force of growth and progress. On one hand it’s true that
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technology has already proven many catastrophic predictions wrong. In the past, for
example, we thought demographic growth was going to throw us back into the dark
ages, but increases in agricultural productivity have managed to solve the problem.
Too bad that this same technological “solution” is also one of the factors that
increases environmental pressure and will probably create the next generation of
The advocates of “natural capitalism” claim that if technological progress could
provide enough free energy by exploiting all forms of renewable resources, then we
will have achieved heaven on earth. We would have built up a kind of perpetual
production machine, a happy, everlasting world, fuelled by all kind of renewable
resources. It is a world where the economy is in perfect harmony with all ecosystems,
a world in tune with all imaginable consumerist lifestyles and a world in which we no
longer need to question neither our economic system, nor the quantity of material
“things” that we need for our pursuit of happiness.
Let us imagine for just a second that this vision can come true after we will have fixed
our actual global economic crisis, before climate change becomes irreversible and
before we run out of fossil fuels. Let us envision a world of tomorrow in which an
endless availability of energy, an unlimited access to resources, and the
development of all re-cycling techniques and “cradle-to-cradle” design system, based
on the precept that there is no real end for any object we manufacture, just
“reincarnation”, would make the unlimited production of material things feasible.
Ladies and gentlemen, I think that even if this were to happen, we would still end up
“hitting the wall” simply because the infinite growth of “things” would be unsustainable
and incompatible not only because it will impinge the quality of our life, but also divert
us from the essence of our human endeavour, which is about the construction of the
meaning of life.
The fact is that we cannot just consider our physical environment. We also need to
take into account our habitat, and our habits, meaning the totality of our living space
and life-styles - in which the psychological dimension of space and time occupy a
central position. Our space and our time are also limited and they are also - in some
sense - non-renewable resources. They should thus be handled with care and be an
integral component of our deliberations on economic development and environmental
pressure. The issue of sustainability, ladies and gentlemen, certainly implies a
technological challenge, but also an anthropological one, meaning an existential and
ethical concern. And both of these facets of sustainability are closely correlated to
each other and have to be viewed on equal terms.
The new life style of sober hapiness
It is a truism that people respond very differently to the economic, social and
environmental pressures they are exposed to, depending on where they live. On the
other side of our planet, we have new hopes for prosperity and for the achievement
of a Western life-style – a hope that might collapse due to the world economic crises.
On this side of our planet, we see the end of the dream of constantly growing
material prosperity. This was the dream of Mr. and Ms. Everyman when they were –
quite recently – still identifying themselves as members of an increasingly wealthy
middle class.
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For them, the Damocles sword of a next energy crisis and the soaring costs of basic
foods, their children’s education, and of health care has become a serious problem.
They do not care about whether prosperity is measured by one index or another.
They only notice that the bursting of the speculative bubbles has also left deep holes
in their own pockets and that, in the meantime, planet Earth has become as small as
their own flat and suddenly, everything is somehow interconnected.
They have understood that the so-called BRIC countries have awakened and are
hoovering up energy, raw materials and jobs by manufacturing cheap products for
the whole world. Of course, Mr. and Ms. Everyman have noticed with their own daily
purchasing habits that these cheap products are what have made it possible to more
or less uphold their standard of living, despite the drop in real income - until recently.
But their employer's "headcount reduction measures" showed them very clearly just
how much these foreign cheap articles production sites impact the domestic industry.
But they also realised, how much their jobs depend on those fast developing
countries’ markets, too.
Thus, the life of Mr. and Ms. Everyman has changed all of a sudden and quite
unexpectedly. Concerns about their standard of living, their pensions and their jobs
are added to private crises, which are accelerated by the decline of the traditional
family model and the dissolution of obsolete gender roles.
In view of the economic, social and environmental turbulences of our time, our
previous life style, aimed at material, ephemerally hedonistic and irrationally
entertaining consumption, can no longer provide the security they desperately need
today. What was so self-evident until recently now seems remarkably unreasonable.
We should thus not be astonished that consumers have become more shopping
reluctant. They are less and less impressed by the advertising campaigns and turn
their attention increasingly to the cost-benefit ratio of what they eventually are still
ready to buy. That is why they flock to discount shops, into factory outlets of all kinds
or private label retailers like IKEA, Zara or H&M, which all manage to offer premium
quality at discount prices. And their only luxury is a private item, a little something
that is very special and unique, that is clean and fair however, very probably
handcrafted, something that makes sense and that is able to tell the story of its
tradition and origin. No extravagances. After the excesses and exaggerations of the
past decades, when they helped to keep the ”hedonistic treadmill” in motion, rather
like hamsters, they began to discover what I call ”the sober happiness” as a new
The new significance of consumption
Naturally, consumption also remains associated with the act of reaching for an object
of desire. However, our research results clearly show that consumers are no longer
fascinated with the ways and means that consumption manifests itself today. They
prefer the sober and the moderate to the blatant and hype, the extraordinary
dimensions of normality to the excesses of extravagancy, the creative and
unexpected re-interpretations of tradition rather than the vernacular folklore. Shortly
said: they feel much more drawn to the aesthetics of ethics.
On the past we knew this changed attitude towards consumption from politicized
niche groups, later it developed into slow food, slow life, slow fashion movements,
and more recently market researcher are identifying it as the new market segment of
the so called LOHAS that refers to people striving for a healthy and sustainable
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lifestyle. The new thing is that today this change in attitude can be found amongst a
steadily increasing number of mainstream consumers in our saturated markets. It is
thus becoming a socio-cultural flow and not just a new market trend.
It is starting to stretch across all social classes and across all generations. It is as if,
after all of the hullabaloo of too much, too many, too tempting “offers, bargains,
points-of-sale and advertising messages” aiming always and exclusively at their
purse while making use of the most extravagant marketing means, consumers are
now asking for a time-out.
We all know that consumers have become more mature, they are more competent
and more demanding. But we also have to take into consideration that they have – all
of a sudden - also become much more critical. They also want to look behind things
in order to evaluate the world of consumerism and they want to be able to come to
grips with it. This critical attitude of consumers is not directed against consumption
per se, but is - much more - the expression of the consumers' need to develop their
own individual viewpoint and position towards the various brands, retailers and the
products that they will eventually be evaluating, choosing and purchasing.
We must not understand that as an abstract, ideological, ethical transformation of
consumption but rather as a substantiation of peoples’ new motivations and values
orientation that gets expressed via the act of consumption. It is the logical
consequence of the new social and ecological sense of responsibility held by more
and more consumers.
The principle of responsibility, ladies and gentlemen, heralds the start of a new era in
the history of consumption. If - instead of viewing society as an abstract entity on
which the individual can hardly have any impact - we see society as a community
defined by the interaction of individual deeds, then even the most ordinary daily event
- like shopping - will contain social relevance. In this new “WE- society” the sense of
responsibility transforms consumption into an active, conscious and self-determined
gesture and it connects consumption with an economic purpose which not only gives
meaning to our own lives, but which also establishes a relationship to all other people
in our society and the environment.
The new consumption connects an economic purpose with a sense of responsibility
towards society, environment and our future. Only this synthesis between the
interests of our economy and those of our civilization will be able to generate growth
in the future.
New production realities: From mass market to a mass of markets
As you may already be aware, Ladies and Gentlemen, there is much more going on
in our societies than we might imagine. People are in fact not waiting for
macroeconomist and world politicians to fix the problem of our crises ridden
economies. People are already doing their part. They want to make sense, to make a
difference. They are already starting to explore new systems to work, to consume
and to live together in a more meaningful and sustainable way. They are starting to
organize their own lives differently. They act. They show by doing so, that there are
other ways to live a good life without at the same time threatening nature, other
people, or their own inner peace.
In Italy for example there are people who only buy product that have a very special
vitamin. It is called vitamin ”L”. The “L” stands for legality and it designates for
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example products from cooperatives, which explicitly do not support the Mafia and to
which the Italian state provides with land confiscated from the organized crime.
Some people join together to form peaceful armies armed with crochet hooks and
knitting equipment in order to join the collective adventure of the DIY in one of these
Knitting Cafes that are sprouting out like mushrooms in our cities worldwide. In those
few square meters of freedom they gather together not only for revitalize the old
model of self-supply but also to spread their knitted graffitis that are meant to give a
gentler and colourful touch to our grey city streets.
Other are organizing themselves in second-hand neighbourhood ateliers for the re-
design of second-hand garments or they gather together with a few bottles of wine
and pile in to a living room loads of their old but still nice clothing and organise so
called swap parties, which seems to be the ultimate shopping experience of green
Or they like to buy in those apparel shops where they can bring back their used
garments for being re-cycled, or even more interesting, where their used clothes get
sold on commission. This is the very smart case of Filippa K in Sweden, that last
year opened in its own apparel stores a shop in shop for Filippa K second-hand
clothes. By doing so, Filippa Knutsson is stating the high quality and timeless design
of her collections, and at the same time creating a healthy antidote to fast fashion.
Today more and more companies can make good business with good business also
because more and more people share information about shops, brands, goods, and
services via internet sites and web-blogs or they form consumers’ purchasing groups
in order to be able to acquire certain authentic, original, ethnic, pure, biological,
traditional or typical products directly from their producers.
This is also the reason of the dramatic increase of successful new businesses based
on ateliers and workshop production. Unlike industrial manufacturers, these types of
producers commit themselves to the making of specific niche products.
An interesting label in my country is the ”0 KM” label. As you may know, this label
usually stands for carbon-free products that haven’t been imported from far-away
countries. But there is a certain amount of irony when “0 Km” stands for products that
are manufactured in the only place with the lowest possible rate of mobility: that is, in
prison. And there are more of these products than you can imagine. I will quote only
one: the fashion label cdsb, for example. People are buying these garments not only
because cdsb is the favorite brand of one of the most famous Italian rock singer, but
also because it is a social enterprise that concretely and creatively helps prisoners in
their rehabilitation process. And last but not least cdsb is possibly the only Italian
fashion brand where you can be 100% certain that it really IS ”made in Italy”.
It would be wrong to regard all these niche suppliers as a direct threat to the
industrial mass market because they will never be a substitute for them. That would
be a step backward and perhaps only desirable to a few representatives of the ideas
of neo-pauperism. However, with their top quality or very special and unique products
they represent an inspiration and an ongoing challenge to the industrial mass-
manufactured range of goods. This could lead to new consumption scenarios and
fascinating forms of symbiosis of “class and mass”. Seen from an economic point of
view, this new generation of artisanal niche suppliers will not only become more
significant in terms of turnover, they will also become an important motor of
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employment for our post-industrial societies, especially because their business model
is NOT based on economies of scale.
However, we cannot allow ourselves to envision the production facilities of these new
niche suppliers as romantic arts and craft facilities without any kind of technology. On
the contrary! These new producers, in spite of the fact that they see themselves as
enlightened post-industrial artisans and regard their craft also as an art, have
become real experts in the employment and use of small, flexible and hi-tech
machinery which has meanwhile become accessible and affordable for every DIY
And, like every good artist, they know how to sell themselves. They make contracts
with local retailers and even department stores, which are beginning to open up for
such niche products because they have understood the importance of including
excellence in their own range of products.
But they use the internet and its viral power as their preferred sales and - above all -
communications channel. They are masters of the art of mouth-to-mouth propaganda
using blogs, video blogs and, recently cell phone twitter-sites and make sure that
people are able to discuss their products, principles and production methods in
specifically themed forums. As Chris Anderson has highlighted in his book "The
Long Tail", the internet is an integral component of the niche provider's business
strategy because it turns masses of markets into a virtual mass market for products
that are either innovative, unique or of excellent quality.
The new importance of intrinsic quality and real quality
Like every marketplace, the world wide web is also a place to exchange information
and opinions. Therefore, it is also a place for people to socialize and educate
themselves to become critical and responsible consumers. It enables them to
sharpen their awareness of quality and price, to appreciate and to rate brands and
also provides sites – or advise about "the right places" to purchase certain goods.
Today's consumers are not on their own or isolated any longer, like they used to be.
They are able to exchange their newly acquired knowledge and expertise with others
and they can form alliances for smart and responsible consumption.
And since consumers are now closely linked with each other, the darker aspects of
the value chain are also very easily revealed. That is why the intrinsic, the inherent
quality of products is - in itself - a precondition for the purchase decision, which must
be fulfilled. Product quality is now back in the news and spotlight specifically – but
not only – because of the several scandals, which shocked the public and forced the
topic of product quality and corporate social responsibility back into the focus of
attention. All the scandals, which also occurred in the low price sector, have quite
plainly revealed to consumers the risks of the ”low-cost-at-any-price” strategy. They
are now starting to think seriously about the ”high costs of low cost”.
But one must pay attention to not reduce quality only to its rational dimensions. There
are also emotional, individual and, even more important, collective factors that
influence consumers’ perception and comprehension of quality. In our research for
various international corporations we were able to identify 4 relevant values sites and
12 fields of action that define a new “socio-cultural model of consumption”. Our
model illustrates the bandwidth of consumer shopping motivations today and shows
that people are looking to link their purchasing gesture with their philosophy of life,
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they seek for wellbeing, but also with their need of trust and relationship with the
brands and their product and services offer.
The driving forces of cultural transformation
Ladies and Gentlemen, the last act of the odyssey of consumption has begun:
Ulysses returns to Ithaca. As Ulysses did after his long wandering, consumers, too -
after all the deceptions, the disappointments and transient seductions - are searching
for tranquillity, the sense of a safe harbour today where things are just authentic.
This need for a greater and real value of a good, and here I mean values which are
not only added, but intrinsic to the goods, is closely linked to another basic human
need, namely the need to grow, the need to invent oneself again and again.
However, only those things that have meaning to us, broaden our horizon and
stimulate us to keep on rising above our own personal limits are the things that we
will buy.
After the economy of needs and the economy of wishes, the economy of momentous
significance and meaningfulness has been rung in. Such a paradigm-shift requires a
social transformation: from the actual culture of consumption focused on the
possession of ephemeral things to a new culture of consumption not only linked to
sustainable strategies of production, durability, recycling, waste management, and
promotion but also linked to a new culture of consumption based on the principle that
we should consume “less but of the best”. I am talking about a new consumption
culture, because culture plays a central role for such a deep transformation. Culture
can in fact constantly create new realities, integrating some and excluding others.
And by doing so, its „invisible hand“ leads human cooperation and interaction
towards sustainable lifestyles and a new understanding of prosperity.
This is why consumption could become a medium for delivering social and also
political statements, that can soliciting new ways of life, new ways of thinking by
debates and nudging the process that could help us shifting from a consumption
culture based on material values to a consumption culture of significance and
That means a culture that is able to convert the paradigm of the quantity of material
goods ‘we need to need’ into the paradigm of their quality. A culture that establishes
a link between our way of consuming and a fair and equitable distribution of wealth in
the world. It is a culture that does not demonize material goods, but that is based on
what is essential and that transforms the superfluous things of our consumer world
into goods of intangible yet priceless worth. And it is a culture that frees itself from
the dictatorship of fast-ever-changing-lifestyle-driven consumption by suggesting new
models of a good life. In brief: It is a culture that -by challenging the zeitgeist -
spreads the seeds of a new prosperity and a new faith in the future. A culture that
reconciles the world we are living in with the planet we are living on.
Responsibility, Ladies and Gentlemen, is at first an individual stance, but each
individual takes his sense of responsibility into any societal subsystem he is part of,
like for instance the company he runs or works for. This is what will provoke the next
paradigm shift in companies’ self-understanding, since they would start to consider
themselves not only as part of economy, but also as part of society. They will then
understand their role of co-agents in the ongoing cultural transformation also as a
strategic task for creating the market of the future.
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History has already witnessed cultural and social movements that have dramatically
changed the stream of time like Christianity, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment.
All transformation emerges from that which distinguishes our species from all others:
our human mind and spirit.
In the construction of such an “Economy of Significance and Meaningfulness”, we
should also start to regard designers and artists as powerful change agents. Their
ability to transform objects, bodies, behaviours and events has been mainly used for
exclusive commercial and marketing goals in the last decades. We have been
forgetting that they can also be the authors of scenarios that benefits sustainable
practice has been neglected. Today more than ever they are asked to use their
creativity to spark public imagination through their interpretations of what a good,
clean and fair culture of living would look and feel like for the people of this planet.
They – and not the technocrats – can really involve people emotionally and provide
models to help us all to re-imagine the future. They are the ones that are designing
the vision of our future.
Designing sustainability
Let me take some example from fashion to clarify how designers can be not only a
highly sensitive seismograph of socio-cultural changes but also give impetus to
societal transformation.
Fashion design as a driving force of change
For those of you who can think back that far - It was at the beginning of the 1970ies:
Vivienne Westwood entered the scene with her rebel fashion creations, expressing
the spirit of a new generation of young people and supporting their anti establishment
cultural revolution. Or think to Katherine Hamnett and her pioneering role in
conceiving fashion as a political, ecological and social equity driver. And in the late
70ies, Armani was not just inventing the prêt-a-porter. He was much more designing
the new, emancipated and possibly also post-feministic woman, who strode with
head held high into a working world largely occupied by men and masculinity.
In the 80ies Rei Kawakubo by challenging the established notions of beauty she
created with her black, dark gray, and white austere deconstructed garments a kind
of anti-fashion statement.
And my favourite artist, Martin Margiela, who revolted against the luxurious fashion
world by creating the strongest aesthetics of recycles hand-made garments and
transforming them into haute couture.
It is true that those designers didn’t change the flow of history, but they have posed
profound questions about our ways of life, about the fashion system intended as the
luxury of senseless excess and last but not least they have been nudging cultural
And today? Under the technocratic and short-sighted direction of the marketing
departments, today’s fashion designers are just marketing agents of the apparel
industry. There is no real distinction between fashion business and apparel business.
Both businesse are prisoners of the strategy of “mass prestige” also referred as
“masstige”. This strategy means bringing past dreams of luxury and the dream world
of trendy life-styles to the masses and – in particular - to the many newly affluent
people of the emerging countries. Revitalizing old fashion and old life-styles does not
require much sensitivity nor originality. As a consequence fashion designers have
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lost sight of their artistic creative talent and the apparel industry has lost its reservoir
of cultural messages to be transferred into the mainstream product offer.
Today, everyone has just started to copy everyone. Zara’s designers copy Armani
and Chanel, the new hordes of Chinese designers copy H&M and the luxury brands
copy old Asian and Chinese heritage and transform it into a trendy exotic fashionism.
And by so doing, fashion has just become fashion and repetitively refers to itself
instead of nourishing our cultures and contributing to the evolution of our civilizations.
Fashion has been losing its strong symbolism, its systems of signs and signifiers, its
meaning and its messages. Miles of cloth are getting swallowed up by the rhetoric of
fashion emptiness. And Fashion is starting to go out of Fashion at rocket speed.
But this, ladies and gentlemen, could also be a tremendous chance for a restart!
Today a new generation of artists, designers and cultural activists are working on the
design of a new notion of prosperity. They are many, they are bold, they have taken
action and they are redesigning not only design, the arts and artisanship. They are
socially innovative, they are capable of reflexivity and they are ready to apply their
design thinking to the next challenge: the design of change.
As I tried to express at the beginning of my speech, the challenge of sustainability
implies a systemic approach. Sustainability is sustainable if it is built-in to each and
every element of the value chain, or – as I prefer to call it – the “value net” of
production, distribution , consumption and post-consumption .
But all that is not enough. It is necessary but not sufficient, because people today call
for much more than just ecological, economic and socially sustainable products.
They are looking for products that also can deliver a message for the ecology of their
mind and of their spirit. Products that express their ethos through a powerful
aesthetic impact. That means products with a strong cultural message that show us
the journey towards what a new prosperity might mean, a journey that can reconcile
us with a future we thought they had lost.
Ladies and gentlemen, the move towards sustainability is what customers are
already expecting from us today. But the real challenge is to recompose the different
pieces of the sustainability mosaic into a significant and beautiful whole. The
entrepreneurs who will be able to design that to be lived in vision, will not only be part
of that cultural transformation that is already underway, but they will be the leaders of
the next and actually the last growth phase of the consumer economy, since the
economy of meaningfulness and significance will be the only economy which is at the
same time sustainable and allows for unlimited growth.
Ladies and gentlemen, the move towards sustainability is what customers are
already expecting from us today. But the real challenge is to recompose the different
pieces of the sustainability mosaic into a significant and beautiful whole. The
entrepreneurs who will be able to design that to be lived in vision, will not only be part
of that cultural transformation that is already underway, but they will be the leaders of
the next and actually the last growth phase of the consumer economy, since the
economy of meaningfulness and significance will be the only economy which is at the
same time sustainable and will allow us a TRULY unlimited growth.
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