One Stroke of an Oar

Last Wednesday I had lunch with my friend Roz Savage.  Roz is an ocean rower.  She’s rowed the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans—solo.  Roz rows to raise awareness for the environment and cleaner oceans.  After Oxford she was a management consultant in London, when she decided her way of life wasn’t contributing to the well being of the planet or to her own soul.  She asked herself, “How can one person change the world?”  The answer was one stroke of an oar at a time.

It’s impossible to conclude anything other than the oceans are beyond real repair.  The rate of pollution, from garbage to chemicals, to thermal warming, combined with environmental abominations such as Japanese bottom scraping or BP oil rigs or the Exxon Valdez, all vastly outstrip the oceans’ ability to heal themselves.

Roz has rowed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area estimated to be twice the size of Hawaii with a weight of 100 million tons.  The Patch consists of submerged plastics, chemical sludge and debris trapped in the currents of the North Pacific.  The issue isn’t whether this vast area can ever be cleaned up—it can’t; the issue is what changes must occur in the commercial world to stop the proliferation of these pollutants in the first place. (We could elect more Republicans and hasten the dying process.)

What I find so depressing, and where marketing plays a significant role, is that for every one Roz Savage, there’s Exxon, P&G, Dow, BHP…the global list goes on and on.  Think for a moment about the amount of garbage, apart from recycling, the average household accumulates every day of the year. Think of entire industries such as cosmetics where packaging far exceeds product size.  Packaging that goes straight from the shelf to the garbage bin.   Happy Meal toys that capture a child’s attention for about fifteen minutes and have life spans of centuries.  Old tires, broken surfboards, dolls, nylon stockings, condoms.  They’ll be with us forever.

We live in a commercial, materialistic society.  Status is mostly pegged on things we own.  It’s too late to change this.   Entire industries are built on this premise.  Entire industries support the industries that build the products that we crave: law, accounting, consulting, advertising, marketing.  Everyone is responsible.

So where does charge start?  Do we need individually wrapped slices of the most ordinary cheese?  Do we boycott Kraft?  Do we stop shopping at Safeway?  Do we opt out of consumer society?

The most pervasive criticism of advertising is that it’s created to sell unneeded products to unsuspecting people.  Elementary school students are taught to distrust what they hear in ads.  Proponents argue that consumers are free to buy or not buy whatever they choose.  Advertising only makes people aware of a product’s existence and availability.  Yet any practitioner knows that this is only a partial truth.  The objective of advertising is to persuade someone to do something through a variety of tried and true creative means: emotion, sex, status markers, hope.  Elaborate methodologies have been developed to evaluate advertising effectiveness, down to analyzing second by second every word in a television commercial or tracking click-through, bounce rates, site navigation among many web metrics.   We know an awful lot about what motivates a consumer to make a particular purchase.

How many of us can become another Roz Savage?  Become a crusader for the environment, for the planet?  Probably not very many of us.  But what if everyone did just one thing every day to take a stand: chose an unpackaged brand over a packaged one; printed two-sided copies (or never print at all); took public transportation to work; let manufacturers know that their practices are unacceptable; let advertisers know that their ads are false, misleading or ethically questionable when they are.  Buy products from environmentally committed companies such as Seventh Generation.

Those of us who get paid to create the marketing strategies and advertising and social media campaigns need to apply our own personal standards to our professional activity.  This could mean fewer, or different, clients; less money.  My own standards might have been necessarily low by my career choice, but only once—my first account assignment– did I feel compromised by working to support a highly questionable product: cholesterol-free New Age Cheese from Anderson-Clayton Foods.  Coming in four “flavors,” these slices lacked any semblance of taste, were filled with artificial ingredients and when melted shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp.  In this case, consumers voted with their feet and the product failed.  So there is hope yet.  I should add, however, that my second account assignment was as the Assistant AE on P&G’s blockbuster product, Rely Tampons–of Toxic Shock Syndrome fame.  You heard right.

Meanwhile, we can all make a difference and support Roz’s mission for a cleaner environment and maybe help save the oceans of the world.  Check out her site:

And bring your own bag the next time you go to the grocery store.

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