Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Natural, or Not?

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The UMass "Applied Marketing for the Green Industry" students registering for the "Women in Naturals Panel and Networking Event."

It was a spontaneous trip, especially for an in-debt college student. Invited by Seed to Shelf: Marketing for Sustainability President, and University of Massachusetts lecturer Cynthia Barstow, I was part of a group of students who headed down to Baltimore, MD for the Natural Products Expo East 2007. Held in the heart of the waterfront city at the Baltimore Convention Center, the expo showcased 1,790 exhibits, representing all sides of the natural and organic industry.

Seed to Shelf: Marketing for Sustainability
President and UMass Amherst teacher Cynthia
Barstow enjoying the food and conversation
at the "Women in Naturals Panel and Networking
I am currently enrolled in a course at UMass titled “Applied Marketing for the Green Industry.” With a professional instructor (Barstow) and other energized students, I have been introduced to the business world, which to my great surprise actually has something to do with sustainability. Varying from fair trade restaurants to recycled wood surfboard fins, my classmates and I have begun marketing plans for our very own products. An opportunity to observe and communicate with green industry professionals, buyers, entrepreneurs, and fellow consumers at the Expo East was an event that
needed to be utilized. There were the success stories, their competitors, innovative new developments, and of course, the products and people who knew nothing about the foundation of the movement.

I must admit the samples were great. I spent twice as much time packing up my suitcase going than coming due to the five large canvas bags I crammed to the top with free products. Divided into supplements, bath and beauty products, food and drink, plus the new creation section upstairs, I spent hours on tired feet, moving back and forth between the booths, collecting. My favorite things were just sitting there on display shelves, waiting for hungry hands to grab them, love them and buy them! I found part of myself completely turned on. And the other part, disgusted by what I saw. I am an advocate of “going green,” I study “Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development” in college, I support fair trade, organics, social justice, and am always thinking about ways to make my ecological footprint a size smaller. I buy expensive Dr. Hauschka skincare products because why on earth would I want to rub chemicals onto my skin? I think about global warming, economic disparity, pesticides on crops, in the water we drink, and in the air we breathe. I think about landfills of trash, trees being cut down in the rainforest, and carbon emissions. I spend so much time letting my thoughts pull me down and pick me up. Where are we in this quest for sustainability? Some are believers of going backwards, giving up what we have created in order to simplify our lives. And it makes sense! If we didn’t build strip malls, process food, or let manufactures pump out shiny new cars every hour, there would a lot less damage done to this planet. Unfortunately, I began to see the expo as a contributor to this mess. Over 25,000 people went home with hundreds of free samples, all wrapped up in their individual packages. Over 25,000 people went home, back to hotel rooms, stomachs full of food that came on toothpicks or scooped into a miniature plate. The journey of the toothpicks and the miniature plates was a short one. From package to trash, they went un-recycled along with the cups, forks, napkins, plastic bags, brochures, product guides, convention center maps, and the list goes on and on.

Again, I will admit the samples were great. I will not deny that I am a consumer. I am won over by a good marketing strategy. The newest fashions excite me and probably always will. I love my skincare products, my chemical-free shampoo and conditioner, and my baking soda deodorant. Yet, in the deep, deep, mental models of sustainability, do I really need that “stuff”? The physical answer is no. Human survival does not need papaya or tea tree or lemongrass scented soap. But I need it. The things I spend my money on define who I am. So here I am, in a room bustling with people and products everywhere I look and I have no idea why I am there. I thought sustainability was about small town farms and coffee shops, reusing plastic bags and mason jars, not investing in multi-million dollar companies, no matter the fact that their product is organic. What is this, a fad, a trend, or a lifestyle and perspective? I could go on and on, between sustainability indicating a step backwards or a step forwards. Let me tell you the process is exhausting. The more time I spend worrying about the future of sustainability, I miss out on what is going on right now. We are part of a society that thrives on accomplishment and maybe I shouldn’t be ashamed of that. The point is that there is no right and no wrong. We are all different people and our experiences influence our perspectives and our beliefs. Instead of trying to find a balance between two of my own perspectives and beliefs, I need to come clean with understanding that this is me. It is ok to be confused, to love what I see but evaluate its flaws at the same time.

In the case of the Natural Products Expo East 2007, this is exactly what I will take away. People are doing great things, making great things, and voicing themselves to the rest of us, the concerned, environmentally and socially aware citizens. Even so, I think we can do better, and better than better. We can change every structure ever created in this world to make it work the way we want, and we can use what we have, what we know, and what we love, to help us along the way. Everyone is allowed to participate in his or her own way because honestly, what good comes from being negative? I have forgiven myself for being this consumer, easily sucked into the deadly, corrupt marketplace. Or is it? This world of business, the investing, the banking, the advertising, it defines our generation. No matter what, we are moving forward in the sustainability revolution, and by all means, let’s invite everyone to contribute their own.

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One of my many meals at Expo East. This one in particular was courtesy of the Women in Naturals Panel and Networking Event

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