If products could talk – what would they say?

If products could talk - T-shirtPeople around the world want a plasma TV lifestyle and the paradox is that it is the demand for these lifestyles that is putting the planet under so much at risk.  Part of living sustainable lifestyles is making sure that we source, produce, use and dispose of products (in their widest sense) in a sustainable way.  So that’s why I ask companies ‘what would you say if your products could talk?’  Would they be proud or embarrassed?  How many heroes are there in your product story and how many villains?  “If products could talk” includes two case studies – brass door knobs and oil sands.

Imagine a familiar environment for many business people, the corporate conference. You are a delegate and the chair announces: “And the next speaker is …,” and much to your surprise the chair introduces one of your products. This time the talk has a specific theme, “And the product will talk about its impact on people and the environment.” How would you being feeling now?  Excited and proud because you know the story is going to be good, or embarrassed or overwhelmed with gut wrenching worry because you are concerned about how truthful the product will be. Maybe you will be curious, but nonetheless anxious because even you don’t know the story.

I have successfully used this metaphor at the start of many of my presentations. The essence is simple, if you don’t know, you don’t care. This logic was taught to me on my very first day at B&Q. Bill Whiting, my boss, experienced this dilemma first hand. It was 1990 and a journalist asked him, “where does your tropical wood came from?” His honest answer was, “I don’t know,” and the journalist’s reply was,  “if you don’t know, you don’t care”. The point is as relevant today as it was then.

Product stories have been bread and butter for environmental and business journalists for years. The formula is simple, compelling and most importantly, not wholly unreasonable. Making a negative link between an environmental or human problem in some remote corner of the world with a product we use in our lives and highlighting the retailer or brand that sold the product, is welcome fodder for the media. Some journalists might choose to blame them, but that is often overkill.  Just asking the retailer whether they know of the situation and were doing something about it, is enough. If they weren’t aware they look exposed and if they did know, but still had not taken action, at best they look insincere and at worse, complicit.

Primark, Marks and Spencer, Wal-Mart and IKEA are just a few brands whose pyjamas, rugs or other products have been linked with child labour in Bangladesh, Turkey or elsewhere.

B&Q, Home Depot, or Harrods have been linked with tropical deforestation whilst the diamonds in the ring on your finger might, some will claim, run with the blood of the conflicts funded by their mining.

Many stories have a common pattern. Villains start the story with the upper hand, all looks bad and then over time the heroes win through. Some heroes were always heroes and sometimes it is the villain that becomes the hero, but the story has a happy ending.

This product story approach drove the thinking at B&Q. Bill Whiting was an ex-journalist, so he intuitively saw the logic of the product story approach. With my scientific training (rather than marketing) I was in search of the story but with a deeper focus on cause and effect, wider implications and even the solution. One B&Q story is told, not through the lens of the product but how it unfolded for me, as I, with the support of Bill Whiting, started to unpick it for B&Q. Then I close on one more story about the oil sands of Alberta.