The American Dream: A belief that anyone, regardless of their background, can achieve their own version of success. And throughout our history, we've celebrated the values of individualism, independence and unbridled growth. It's our calling card. However, over the last century these ideals and values that are fundamental to American culture have shifted.
"The reality is that it’s brand marketers and Madison Avenue that actually created the culture that we now live in," said KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Brands. "Somehow or another, we transformed citizens to consumers, and we became, basically, a commodity that is being seen oftentimes as part of an economic machine rather than actually as humans."
The resource demands and the unintended consequences driving our culture of consumption is unsustainable. In fact, some estimates show that for everyone on earth to live the American dream, it would take the resources of five earths. Simply put, there are limits to growth. And as a result, today's consumers are starting to realign on what really matters.
"We are, as a society, beginning to recognize that lives that are full of balance and simplicity and connection to people and the environment are really the things that make life worth living," Vikoren Skrzyniarz said. "Consumers today are much more aware of the impact that the brands that they do business with have in the world — positively and negatively. Brands sit at the center of the economic system, and they have the opportunity to exercise influence over the use of business resources, over supply chain norms and behaviors, but, also, they obviously influence culture."
Cultural Change And The 'New Normal'
American culture hasn't always been like this, though. What we now consider normal may not be normal at all. From consumption habits to climate change our brains aren't keen enough to notice these changes over time.
"The way that the brain is essentially evolved is to habituate to things that are either slowly changing or not changing at all," said Dr. Indre Viskontas, a cognitive neuroscientist and author. "But the problem is that we then shift what is acceptable. Our threshold of what is an acceptable situation moves, and we call this Shifting Baseline Syndrome. So all of a sudden what was O.K. yesterday was not O.K. 10 years ago. And this is really problematic for climate change because at some point there is going to a tipping point, and it's not just going to be that it's 110 degrees in Florida, it's going to be there's no Miami."
The American Dream is facing a similar tipping point with consumers redefining what it means to live a good life. Now more than ever, we have a better understanding of the interconnectedness of the products we buy and their impact on our health, community and planet.
"The common narrative at the time around the turn of the century was the business as the enemy and that governments and NGOs were going to save us," Vikoren Skrzyniarz said. "Looking around the world and realizing that businesses and institutions are actually best equipped to innovate the solutions to our future, if you think about it, it's just a design constraint. Using all of the power of innovation that companies have and all the points of influence to impact the shape of our world around us, it's actually super, super exciting. And one of the things that we're struggling with, culturally, is the complexity of the world around us. A company like Planet Labs — who is giving us a view that is more integrated and holistic — helps us make sense of the world around us.
Planet is an Earth-imaging company that designs, builds and operates their own satellites using space to help life on Earth. Today, over 150 of their tiny "doves" collect one-and-a-half million images daily, helping people to make better decisions in real time. And this is just one of many innovative global companies that's part of the Sustainable Brands community.
For the past 15 years the team at Sustainable Brands has been focused on redefining what it means to live a good life. They found that a majority of Americans believe brands can help them live more meaningful lives. Yet, two-thirds don't believe companies are currently providing products to help them do so. In order to help close that gap, Sustainable Brands has been collaborating with hundreds of public and private organizations to help implement their Brand Transformation Roadmap.
"For us, you know, a brand is first who you are, what you do and how you do it and then how you talk about it," Vikoren Skrzyniarz said. "Effectively what we're doing is creating a business transformation journey."
From supply chain and employee engagement to product innovation and marketing strategy, the roadmap allows any company to self-assess against five core characteristics that are essential to ensure a sustainable future.
"The Brand Transformation Roadmap is a way to simplify the conversation internally for business," Vikoren Skrzyniarz said. "Next for us is creating a lifestyle transformation roadmap that does the same thing for us for consumers."
This recalibration of the American dream will be a multigenerational shift from how we live our lives down to the products we choose. And much of this change will place consumers and corporations at the center, aiming to positively influence everything from local economies to our planet's ecosystems.