2001’s Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff), based on the dark and funny comic book by Daniel Clowes, offers up a perfect example of a modern romantic notion of a perfect and unobtainable past. When we look forward in time, through science fiction mostly, popular culture portrays a dystopia of environmental and/or social justice. Pop-culture is littered with that particular view. The future is always dark matter. When we look back – not in a historical look – but in a “longing” we recall a simple time that wasn’t. Past is a remembered perfection that we use to contrast a sense of modern fucked-upness. This is the case with both the movie Ghost World and sustainability.
Ghost World opens (though I think the scenes actually work better of read as flash forwards after she has embraced a musical past that is further away than 70’s punk) with Enid played by a richman’s Christina Ricci Thora Birch, dancing to a, perhaps imagined, 60’s tune. Clips of a dance party from the same era cut in and out, placing her perfectly out of place – she is living in the wrong time. Modern products looking to appeal to the pastoral past or eco-nostalgia play this same game – their packaging is throw-back, their sugar is throw-back, they are new version of an old, happier, more authentic self. I question all marketing, especially marketing that claims to be authentic. The antidote is this.
Enid is graduating high school, that special coming of age moment – the cusp of adulthood but not. Hip Hop performers at the graduation, rhyme “graduation” with “now we’re members of the general population.” High School is a special, safe place and Enid and her fellow classmates are being thrust in to adult life – a life akin to prison Gen-Pop. If brooding, punk Enid represents that dark side of modernity pining for a pastoral perfect past dance party, then her friend Scarlett Johansson – the most unconvincing slacker ever – represents light and hope of a brighter future. ScarJo is excited by the prospect of a job and an apartment. Enid continues to want to fuck around with the past, so much so that she sleeps with Steve Buscemi. Not a young Steve Buscemi either (he would have been 43 during filming). His age is off-putting, but to Enid, his age is a way to recapture the past. He introduced her to the blues. Her musical taste moves from the Buzzcocks (a near past) to the blues of Skip James (a distant past.) The further back she goes, the more authentic she feels the experience. And this is a core value to the consumption of brands, products and concepts that claim to be sustainable. in many ways, what they are buying is a promise of wholesome goodness the way it was. Or rather, they way we are told to remember it.
Last month, I attended Sustainable Brands in Detroit. Sustainable Brands is a gathering the largest collection of brands looking to tell their brand stories and strategies, be inspired by each other and pat each other on the back. “Authenticity” was a common strategy mentioned this and last year. I have attended four Sustainable Brand conferences, starting in 2011 when it was held in Monterey California – perhaps the least sustainable place to hold a sustainability conference. But, strategically, it was the right place to have the conference as it attracted members the influential higher-class of brands and celebrity. In 2017, they chose Detroit. Part of this choice was because, I assume, Detroit is a better representation of The Authentic. Detroit is in the process of telling its story of rebirth from a shining mecca of mechanization, to a dystopian ghost city, to a returning of industry.
I had a friend named Pete in a college Creative Writing class argue that you could write a story in the present tense and in the first person. We argued that you could not both be living the story and telling the story at the same time. Of course, Lovecraft did it all the time. And that is exactly what Detroit is doing. They are marketing their comeback tale while they are coming back. In contracts to sudden fiction, Detroit is writing sudden non-fiction. Detroit was a genius move on Sustainable Brands part. The content of Authenticity was delivered inside the context of Authenticity happening.
Consumer confidence has dropped for many major brands based on they way they behave, talk to or even treat their stakeholders (employees, suppliers, customers, earth). Once strategy to rebuild that trust is to brand themselves as somehow sustainable. Either that or to actually become more sustainable. Both work equally well in the short term. There were both varieties at sustainable brands. Both varieties can employ the strategy of the throw-back brand to accomplish this.
Enid knows the power of cultivating the past for present value. She enters into a record store wearing her tartan plaid skirt, combat boots and newly died green hair.
Store Manager: “Oh, man didn’t anyone tell you? Punk rock is over.”
Enid: “I know it’s over, asshole.”
Store Manager: Want to fuck up the system? Go to business school. That’s what i’m going to do. Get a job at some, like, big corporation and fuck things up from the inside.”
Enid: “You know i’m not even trying to….”
Store Manager: Yeah, yeah, yeah,.”
Enid: “Go die.”
Store Manager: “Get a job.”
Enid: It’s not like i’m some modern punk, It’s obviously a 1970 original punk rock look.”
This reminds me of a not-famous interview with Billy Joe from Green Day. The interviewer asked him “What’s Punk?” Billy Joe kicked over a trash can. The interview kicked over another trashcan. Billy Joe said “that’s not punk, now that’s trendy.” This might not have happened. It’s a myth.
The Store Manager’s strategy is to make a difference from the inside the system. I think that is fool’s progress. I used to have a blog called Sustainability Punks. Each week it profiled someone in the environmental of social justice space that was a gadfly for positive change. It’s tagline: Fucking Shit Up For Good. It was not about insiders, it was about outsiders.
Anyway, Enid’s is a kind of manufactured punk based on an authentic punk. A simulacrum, maybe but at the very least a simulation and not The Thing. That she admits this is what makes her authentic or very strategic – like the brands at Sustainable Brands. Caught, she runs home, starts listening to the Buzzcock, switches to Skip James vinyl that Buscemi recommended, and dies her hair black again.
In 2001, when Ghost World was released, green marketing was a reaction strategy to counter bad PR. It was an early response to the distrust mentioned above, specifically in the energy and oil space. The Exxon Valdez disaster was in 1989 and solar and wind were getting more traction. As a Freshman in college, I remember urging my mom to cut up her Exxon gas card – very Enid of me. In one scene, Enid and her father are eating dinner and in the background there is a television commercial playing for an oil company. The images are of marshes rich with birds, of fields covered in flowers, of people playing in the pristine outdoors. The voice over is classic.
“Is it crazy for an oil company to think about the environmental? We don’t think so….If we all work together we can make this planet a pretty nice place to live…preserving the splendor of nature to make the world a more livable place for everyone….”
The tagline at the end of the T.V. spot is: Solutions for People. People for Solution. Very Soylent Green.
Many years ago, in a reaction to what I felt was a vapid trend of the overly romantic nostalgic and romantic of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Reports, we developed website that would generate a CSR report title for you. It was a bit of a poke in the eye of sustainable platitudes. Much of the language randomly generated by that snarky website, is used in the voice over in that commercial. It returned options like:
Better World for Blue Marble.
Green Pastures for The Next Generation.
A Promise of People Before Profit.
Platitudes Packaged for Purpose.
Things We Did for A Good Life.
Note: As I am writing this, Trump has announced that we (the U.S.) are leaving the Paris Climate Accord. And I was struck with this long-form commercial/documentary as I was researching for this essay. It is a Shell Oil plea for us to take Climate Change seriously from 1991.
It likely felt like a safe message then, I’d love to see them do it again now. In there early 2000s, companies could pick and choose where they stood on issues, and how loud to make that voice. During Sustainable Brands this year, it seemed very clear that those days are over. Corporate America, particularly those who stand up on stage at Sustainable Brands, can no longer sit on the side lines. The theme of Sustainable Brands this year was “The Good Life.” And, of course, their were plenty of research partners who engaged consumers to define the Good Life. Two different research projects returned remarkably similar, but not remarkably shocking results. Consumers around the globe defined the Good Life in the following terms:
- Financial Freedom (not wealth, but lack of stress)
- Healthy Body and Planet
- Quality Relationships
To me, the Good Life is one word: Happiness.
We are off course, then forced to define “Happy.” And then, of course, Zizek crashes in on us:
“Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.”
Brands trying to help us become happy by giving us goods and services that create environmental and social value (as opposed to robbing those things from us), sounds amazing. Creating happiness is their new strategy. This, perhaps, is more frightening than the dystopia future painted by science fiction. Actually, it is the same thing. Coca-Cola has been selling happiness since they branded Santa Clause.
But of course, Enid’s own grasping for The Authentic will cost her her relationship with ScarJo. ScarJo could tolerate it when she went through her ”old lady phase” but no longer when she went through her Buscemi phase.
To close the film we see Enid once again dressed as an old lady. Her costume has gone from curated authentic 70s punk to little old lady as she waits for a but to take her nowhere. A vintage bus pulls up, she climbs aboard. I like to think she travels back in time to whatever she thinks was so great about the past. And that she finds, like Zizek warned, that “If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid.” That’s what sustainable brands (the concept, not the conference) want you to do.