Black Friday and the Bhutan Dream

Early bird gets the worm?

Last week I had the privilege of traveling to Bangkok to deliver a keynote at a conference on Sustainable Consumption and Production. Aside from shaking things up with an unconventional speech, I also learned more about how the European Union is funding more than 50 projects in countries across Asia through the SWITCH Asia Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production. One of the projects I have become familiar with called the “China Dream”. On my way back to Bhutan it was impressed upon me once again that the Bhutan Dream appears to involve aspirations of consumption, evidenced by a monk importing three LCD televisions. Is there an alternative?

The China Dream project, run by the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) takes the challenge of consumption head on. Instead of exploring how to make the things we consume less bad, this project is tackling the intricacies of our aspirations. Why should Chinese citizens aspire to an unsustainable American Dream, one built on a model of consumption and growth? Would it not be more appropriate to have aspirations based on local culture and values?

This ambitious project aims to do just this, bringing together balance, flow and respect for a “harmonious” vision. The project has two specific objectives, to shape social norms by creating and seeding a visual lexicon for the new China Dream, and to guide consumer behaviour by introducing local policies. The shaping of culture and aspirations is substantially more difficult than making individual products incrementally more green, but it also promises the highest room for improvement for those that can influence and shape it.

In China this means engaging marketing and communications companies to send more sustainable messages to the Chinese citizen consumers about what’s hot and what’s not, and then backing those up with policies to help influence them. Imagine advertisements showing role models stepping off of high-speed trains, rather than out of European cars, people eating tofu and mushrooms rather than steak, or shoppers looking at the energy consumption of appliances they buy, rather than just size or colour. Delivered properly and professionally, these messages have the potential to influence China’s demand for products and services in the largest market in the world.

In the United States this week, the lessons are particularly poignant, as today is Thanksgiving Day and tomorrow is the largest shopping day of the year. It has become known as Black Friday, as it is the single day when many retailers are able to crawl back to profitability through cutthroat sales. In 2011, Black Friday retail sales amounted to some $400 billion in the US.

Meanwhile, there is an undercurrent of grass roots and NGO movements against the excesses of Black Friday. This movement, started by Adbusters 15 years ago, has been pushing for the day after Thanksgiving to be honored as Buy Nothing Day, encouraging consumers to boycott the sales and consumerism being promoted. While not buying something on sale, when you will need to buy it anyway might be extreme, some websites such as Triple Pundit are promoting guidelines for responsible shopping. These include offering experiences as gifts, or embracing the sharing economy.

View from the window of the exciting landing in Paro

Enough to be thankful for?

So what does the American Dream and the China Dream have to with Bhutan? A Bhutan Dream will not be a carbon copy of the American Dream, or the Indian Dream that sis imported through television programming. Given the rapid domestic growth leading to increases in consumerism, Bhutan has an opportunity to explore and define aspirations that are uniquely Bhutanese. This is not to say that consumerism in Bhutan should be blindly stifled, but rather that consumption in line with cultural values, the Middle Path and Gross National Happiness.

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