A few weeks ago I saw a photo of a newborn posted on LinkedIn by the founder of an ad-tech company. The child was barely an hour old and already his digital life had begun. Sharenting -- when parents overshare photos and stories about their children on social media -- is upsetting a lot of children. They didn’t ask for the digital attention, it’s thrust upon them. Think about it, their privacy is compromised by those whom they rely on the most to protect it: their parents.
I’m as guilty as anyone of Sharenting; my kids frequently ask me not to put videos of them goofing off on Facebook. We’re in a brave new world and the collective-we, society, are only just now beginning to realize what the endgame is after 20 years of always-on connectedness.
That endgame? Digital burnout -- oversharing and over-consumption of digital content-- has become a recurring theme on our show over the past few weeks. This wasn’t by design; Brian and I didn’t set out to identify brands that seek to address digital burnout by promoting life’s simple pleasures. But as it happens, enabling people to find joy in everyday life is, well, a thing among our recent guests, which we find super interesting.
As a podcaster focused on retail and startups, my platform and my audience are the greatest tools I have to create real, lasting change in the world.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, our job at Future Commerce isn’t to predict the future. We see our mission as providing entrepreneurs and retail executives with tools and insights to help them shape their own futures, and a trend we see emerging is the desire to get back to the basics of life.
We believe that commerce is the global connector that brings together disparate groups of people. We also believe that entrepreneurship is the tool for creating upward mobility amongst the working class here in the United States. Therefore, as a podcaster focused on retail and startups, my platform and my audience are the greatest tools I have to create real, lasting change in the world.
The Anti-Social Platform
It all began when Jeremy King, CTO first of Walmart and now Pinterest appeared on our show. Jeremy led the technology investment which helped the M&A strategy driven by Marc Lore at Walmart.com. Marc’s strategy was to turn Walmart into a modern retail powerhouse by acquiring more digitally native brands, learn from them, then apply those learnings to Walmart’s internal strategy. Our guest Jeremy King was instrumental in making it all work from a technology-perspective. As CTO for one of the world’s largest marketplaces, Jeremy’s focus was on finding ways to prompt consumers to buy more.
Then he joined Pinterest and his priorities shifted. Pinterest, he says, isn’t a social media platform, although users can share content if they so choose. Rather, Pinterest is a discovery platform, a place where users can find inspiration for the way they live their lives. Looking for a modest but thoroughly enjoyable vacation? A straightforward, if not “Instagramable” recipe for dinner? Ideas for freshening up the living room without spending a lot of money? Pinterest wants to help.
Unlike social media platforms, Pinterest has zero interest in keeping people stuck in a dopamine-fueled scroll-cycle. The purpose of its machine-visioning AI, open-source format, personalization engine and other high tech advancements is to foster real-world interactions and build communities. In other words, shut down the computer, invite some friends over to cook and share a meal. As a digital media company, Pinterest’s attitude is rather extraordinary.
Hottest New Consumer Trend: Social Awareness
A few weeks later, we invited Emily Singer, former Marketing Manager at Alma and current Founder of the Chips + Dips newsletter to be on the show. Emily is a consumer brand analyst who follows companies that eschew mindless consumerism and opt to create durable products instead. Originally Emily wanted work in digital media but found that the industry wasn’t particularly writer-friendly. To her dismay, she learned that digital media companies want quickly written clickbait, not the highly researched articles she prefers to write. So she switched to marketing, which she realized was another form of storytelling.
She launched Chips + Dips so that she could tell even deeper stories about brands and the consumers who support them. If you’ve ever doubted the existence of consumers who want to shop their values then you need to subscribe to Emily’s newsletter. She offers undeniable evidence that a new consumer archetype is emerging, one who demands a lot more from a brand than cheap items that no one is supposed to value much (you get what you pay for, right?). These are the consumers who recognize fast fashion as the environmental nightmare it is. They want to shop from brands who pay a living wage to their employees, open their supply chains to scrutiny, and invest in sustainable business practices.
Emily sees modern brands who cater to the sensibility of the modern consumer as falling into one of two buckets: those, like Outdoor Voices, which are community-driven, meaning they engage with people in real life through events and user-generated content. The other is all the education-backed brands with a conscience, like Everlane and Patagonia. These brands make you feel good about your purchases.
Building brands that are sustainable isn’t easy. As Emily explains, it requires founders to be extremely thoughtful when raising capital, a topic we’ve been thinking a lot about lately. If you want to change the world through sustainable manufacturing you need capital. Lots of it. Those who have it -- VC and angel investors -- want to see high growth and clear exits. Do they always have the patience and appetite to bring about the change consumers clearly want? Doubtful.
Most recently we invited Nick Ling and Emmett Shine, founders of Gin Lane and now Pattern Brands. As Gin Laners, Nick and Emmett created the brand identity for DTC powerhouse brands like Harry’s, Hims, Hers, and Stadium Goods.
Like Jeremy and Emily, they thought long and hard about the role that attention-grabbing and highly addictive digital media played in their lives. As they thought about what comes after Gin Lane, they found that it all came down to how they wanted to live their lives. Nick was recently engaged, other people in their company were beginning to start families. They wanted time to enjoy their lives, and that deep-seated desire led them to launch Pattern Brands, which they describe as, “a multi-brand consumer goods owned and operated under one roof, with each of its brands working together toward mission: To help our generation find more enjoyment in daily life.”
Pattern Brands is focused on consumers who, like Nick and Emmett, are just entering their thirties. They were born into a recession, grew up with climate change as a constant backdrop, and worst of all, with technology that is ever-present and ever demanding. “Pattern is a reaction to all of those stresses,” Nick explained. “It’s about rediscovering enjoyment, which is pertinent to our generation.”
More than anything else, Nick and Emmett hope to convince their customers that there’s more to life than being online. They’d like to see us replace our digital habits with new joyful life patterns, like cooking with friends or making breakfast for the kids before they head off to school. It’s no accident that the first brand they’ll roll out is Equal Parts(launched today), a site for cookware and recipes. They plan on donating 1% of all Equal Parts revenue to causes they believe in and whose values they share.
A Radical Shift Back to Basics
Jeremy, Emily, Nick, and Emmett are part of a fundamental shift in our economy, but it’s not just the young upstarts who are advocating for change. On August 19, the Business Roundtable released a statement, signed by 200 household mega brands, that says it’s time to redefine the purpose of a corporation. Up until a few weeks ago, shareholder value was the Holy Grail, and all activities and initiatives undertaken by a company needed to maximize it. Growth must come at any cost (and oh the costs this dear old world of ours has paid!).
Now the Business Roundtable places shareholder value as priority number five, behind delivering value to customers, investing in employees, dealing fairly and ethically with suppliers and respecting the environment. Of course, there are those who say that shareholder value increases when companies focus on things like their customers and the environment, and I can see the wisdom in that. As numerous DTC founders remind us, consumers reward businesses who share their values with sustained loyalty.
Still, why now? And will it last? I’m not sure this shift would have come about without our collective burnout over media, the relentless news cycle, of the fresh horrors we face when we pick up our phones in the morning. People like Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, implore us to step away from our devices -- just as Pattern Brands wants us to do. It’s rather telling that the very people who brought us smartphones and wearable devices won’t let their own children get near a screen.
Whether or not these values take hold and redefine our economy remains to be seen. Consumer spending is considered a critical barometer of economic growth; can we learn to judge success by the degree to which products are well made as opposed to how frequently they’re purchased? Planned obsolescence has been a cornerstone of our economy since the end of World War II. And it knows no bounds: in a biotech research report, Goldman Sachs questioned whether actually curing people was a good business model. Wrote analyst Salveen Richter: “The potential to deliver ‘one-shot cures’ is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically-engineered cell therapy, and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies.” If human wellbeing can be sacrificed in the name of profits what, if anything, is sacred?
And yet, even Apple, the subject of Sue Williams’ harrowing documentary Death by Design, signed the Business Roundtable document and is changing its tune. Apple was once the king of planned obsolescence, forbidding consumers to do anything with its products, including changing an iPhone battery so they can get more years of use out of it. The company bitterly fought Right to Repair initiatives in California, telling lawmakers that “consumers could hurt themselves attempting to repair their own devices.” But just last month, Apple launched an Independent Repair Provider Program, giving independent repair businesses access to the same Apple parts, tools, training, repair manuals, and diagnostics as Apple Authorized Service Providers. Apple's investment into healthcare and its new focus on privacy are also inspiring me to change my tune.
So maybe my prediction that Apple would die in 2019 was spot-on, after all? Apple isn't the Apple we used to know.
Maybe, just maybe, our economy will return to one in which products are designed with repairability in mind. If that happens, maybe the many shuttered storefronts that once housed repair shops, tailors and fixers of all stripes will reopen, breathing life back into local economies everywhere. And maybe that will become an important economic indicator touted by economists and reported on by journalists.
The Guardian recently published a series of intimate photos of the Obamas, including one of the former president wearing his “lucky” shoes, which he had resoled many times.
It's gonna take time
It took decades to kill the local, repairable economy, to convince consumers that it’s in their best interests to ignore their neighbor’s bakeries and dress shops and patronize global brands instead, with their fast fashion and cheap goods. Even if that meant killing their local downtowns and destroying multi-generational locally-owned businesses. It took decades to change consumer behavior, and it will take just as long to pivot back. But it has to start somewhere, so why not with us? Why not with companies like Pattern Brands?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to shut down this computer so that my wife and I can get dinner on the table.