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How String Bags Can Save the World

by Jeremy Bullmore

Frog image

Malcolm and Trinny never turn on their central heating until late November – and then only on a very low setting. Sometimes the setting is so low that the heating never comes on at all. They recycle everything – even the things they’ve recycled before. Small scraps of soap are boiled together to make re-usable bars. Old bits of string are kept in one drawer, old rubber bands in another. They’ve bought no new paperclips since 1982. They haven’t flown anywhere for 12 years: their last treat together was a cycling holiday in the Lake District. They forbade their children from joining the school skiing trip, use low-powered, low-energy light bulbs in all rooms, disconnected the interior light in their fridge and have sold their petrol-powered lawn mower and bought a goat instead. They’re saving up for solar panels.

Malcolm and Trinny happen to live in Britain but there are Malcolm and Trinny equivalents all over the developed world. They are model citizens. Unfortunately, however, they are not yet role models.

It may never have been thought cool to be an enthusiastic believer in conspicuous consumption; but sadly, so far, it’s even less cool to be an enthusiastic practitioner of conspicuous frugality.

If many, many millions of people are to be persuaded to modify the ingrained behaviour of the last two hundred years – and urgently – the best of modern marketing will need to execute a 180ยบ turn.

Marketing works best when it goes with the grain of human nature. It’s no part of normal human nature to welcome restraint, discomfort and self-denial. We may grudgingly accept the scientific facts about climate change and energy exhaustion – but that, of itself, won’t convert us to lives of abstinence. A sense of responsibility, however sincere, won’t be enough. If we’re to change, and change quickly, we’ll need to be shown the alternatives; and the alternatives will need to have their own attractions.

You can threaten children with dire consequences if they don’t clean their teeth. And it will help. But give them a toothbrush with a Chompy the Caterpillar handle and some multi-coloured toothpaste and you’ve begun to make tooth-cleaning more than just a resented necessity. You’ve begun to make it attractive. You’ve begun to go with the grain.

There are already encouraging signs that the venerable string bag is in for a grand renaissance. Since the plastic carrier bag became the ultimate symbol of environmental vandalism, guilt-ridden shoppers have been searching for alternatives. Some are capacious enough, some are light enough, some are bio-degradable enough, some are re-usable enough: but so far, only the string bag has emerged as all those things – and chic with it. Made from organic cotton, coming in jaunty colours, it expands to accept extraordinary quantities of shopping; then scrunches up into a tiny ball to fit pocket or handbag. String bag enthusiasts are already boasting about their string bags on the internet. String bags represent not deprivation but liberation. String bags go with the grain of human nature.

The string bag model must be the one that industrial societies follow from now on. Of course it will be important to continue to emphasise the inevitable and terminal consequences of reckless consumption and the essential need for change. Real concern, personal responsibility – even fear – will have important parts to play. Malcolm and Trinny will continue, nobly, to do more than their share. But human ingenuity (the very same ingenuity that landed us in this mess in the first place) has a new and urgent task: it must first invent, and then present, alternative sources of energy, alternative products, alternative ways of doing things that we willingly adopt not just because of their failure to pollute but also because of their ability to give us an alternative pleasure.

The scale of change that’s needed, in the time that’s still available, can be achieved only if it carries us cheerfully with it. It will be proper marketing’s most important test.

Jeremy Bullmore is a member of WPP’s Advisory Board, following a career at JWT as head of the creative department and, from 1976 to 1987, Chairman. From 1981 to 1987, he was Chairman of the Advertising Association.