The Importance of Being Cool

In this month’s edition of AdBusters, the self-proclaimed ‘Journal of the Mental Environment’ and a magazine dear to cultural and political activists, the hipster was declared to be “The Dead End of Western Civilization” (that’s hipster in its American sense of ‘scene-kid’, rather than the popular ’90s trouser cut).

The author of the article lamented our generation’s inability to produce a meaningful counter culture, claiming instead that all hipsters have done is to appropriate the styles, values and symbols that went before and rework them into an unthreatening and disingenuous hybrid.

Now, I’ll hold my hand up and admit to being one of the AdBusters faithful, but I think this is not only wrong but self-defeating. Granted, it falls in line with a fairly standard radical left-wing doctrine: culture can never be truly be subversive any more, because as soon as anything genuinely subversive comes along it is appropriated by the capitalist machine, and sold back to the hordes of thirsty consumers in a new form which mimics the style but without the substance, thus diffusing all potential threats to the stability of capitalism itself.

Blaming this on our desire to be cool though is like blaming a religious conflict on someone’s desire to be a good Christian: the problem lies not in the intention but in other processes surrounding it. Due to their objections to the millions, even billions of dollars spent by large corporations on publicity campaigns, to the thousands of hours which advertising executives spend dreaming up the next marketing scheme to give their brand ‘meaning and identity’, and due to the very valid objection that most of this money and time is devoted to selling us things we don’t need, too many young radicals have mistakenly become opposed to the idea of cool itself.

As an ideological stance, being anti-cool has about as much chance of success as being anti-electricity. You can embrace it on an individual level, but it’s just never going to catch on. Look at any time period over the last, say, two thousand years and you can identify evolving trend-cycles, be it in art, music, clothing, architecture, even scholarly learning, whereby a new idea or method is first created by a few pioneers at the periphery, gradually adopted by others, eventually accepted into the mainstream and finally, in some cases, phased out as it is replaced by the next trend. The word ‘cool’ may be a twentieth-century invention but the concept is far from it.

Rather than trying to row upstream then, how about if we could go with the current but steer the boat in the right direction? Maybe the most productive use of energy is not to rail against the tyranny of cool but to make what we see as cool coincide with what is right for the planet.

Since the 60s, the environmental movement has been strongly tied to hippy culture. At its inception, as with any subculture, it was important for adherents to adopt styles which would mark them out from other social groups – in the case of hippies, the long hair and flowing garments which would distinguish them from both the suits, shirts and professional attire of those in the ‘square’ world and the jeans, leather jackets and greased hair of the rockers. During its creation the positioning of the movement as outside of mainstream culture served an important purpose, but many years on it has left the stereotype of the unkempt, fashion-challenged environmentalist unhelpfully marked on the collective consciousness.

Today there is no reason that those who care about the environment should be obliged to renounce fashion, and more to the point, there is no reason that what is commendably green and cutting-edge cool should be a contradiction. In fact, the world of fashion and design already abounds with proofs that the two spheres can overlap. Probably the most famous (though not necessarily the best) example is the designer Anya Hindmarsh’s ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag’. Although the bags themselves became somewhat overhyped, selling out globally and later being resold at greatly inflated prices on eBay, the message was trumpeted across the world: re-useable canvas bags COOL, polluting plastic bags UNCOOL.

There are many other versions of the same phenomenon, though none of them have achieved the same degree of mega-stardom. Take Freitag, a Swiss company that makes great looking bags from old truck tarpaulins (the big sheets of vinyl plastic stretched over the side of lorries), bike tubes and seatbelts. Because they only ever use recovered materials, no two bags will ever look the same, and by buying one you’re putting to use material that would otherwise be scrapped – very cool.

The branding of the Fairtrade movement also provides a great example of putting the tips and tricks of marketing firms to better use. The fairtrade logo is instantly recognisable, a swirling, stylised black figure with arm raised (presumably) in solidarity with the world’s workers. Numerous adverts and campaigns – some centrally funded, some grassroots – have helped create widespread awareness of the Fairtrade mark and what it stands for, developing what within the corporate sphere would be called a ‘brand identity’. Faitrade chocolate, or coffee, or clothing, now says something about you as a person: that not only do you consume, but you care. A triumph of branding if ever there was one.

Whilst various processes are working to make it cool to do the right thing, the same thing is starting to happen in reverse. Around the turn of the century, 4x4s were the status symbol for the rich and famous; now they are widely regarded (at least in the UK) as a selfish extravagance which indicates that the owner couldn’t care less about the welfare of those around him or her, and ever more celebrities are turning to hybrid cars. Even David Cameron never misses an opportunity to be photographed riding his bike to work, and why? Because zero carbon emissions = maximum cool points.

‘Cool’ is a notoriously fickle mistress, and how to harness it is a problem which advertising executives around the world are paid obscene sums to answer. However, the great thing about cool is that it is not something that can just be imposed from the top down. Though corporations selling any product have an interest in trying to make people want what they sell, they must also try to sell people what they want. Consumer demand is a powerful force, and if we can incorporate ideas about sustainability, energy efficiency and environmental design into the very definition of what we want from a product, then the whole field of product design will begin to change.

So how to do it? Well, more concretely, if you ever have to make a choice between two similar products, use environmental impact as your deciding criterion. If you see a gadget that provides a neat solution to one of the many problems relating to efficiency, waste, pollution etc., buy it – you’ll probably be saving yourself money in the long run anyway. Buy a bike, or more specifically buy a bike that looks great, so that other people will want one too. Pick up clothes from vintage shops, and if someone compliments you on them make sure you let them know where they came from; even better, learn to alter your own clothes and you can transform any found fabrics into a one-off garment. In short, display all of your green credentials with pride and others will start to do the same.

The revolutionary idea of our generation could be to take environmentalism and re-imagine it as something which is no longer an ‘alternative lifestyle choice’ but just as much part of the fabric of youth culture as a cameraphone or an ipod. Within the next 10 years we need a generation of young people that consider pollution and wastefulness as not just bad for the environment, but criminally un-hip; where kids show off not about how much they spend on things but how little. Those making the cultural waves will be those that varnish their environmentalism with a coat of hipsterdom, activists far more likely to wear ties than tie-dye.

If you’re still not convinced by all that, then just try repeating to yourself ten times every day: bikes are cooler than cars, re-used is cooler than new, and Natalie Portman only wears vegan shoes. Fact.

Corin Faife

3 Comments on this post.
  • richard
    9 December 2008 at 08:39
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  • richard
    9 December 2008 at 08:41
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    Oops – missed the closing html tag in the first comment. Please delete it. Should have read:

    “Nice article – saw a link over on Twitter from Carrotmob.

    “It’s worth reading Heath and Potter’s excellent book The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed for a more complicated version of the challenge you’re trying to resist. I’m on board with most of what you’re recommending, but this is where eco-chic comes from, which is just a different form of over-consumption.”

  • Sam
    21 February 2009 at 15:09
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    Just thought I’d post a relevant article with a twist about why Being Cool Isn’t Green:

    “….being “cool” incurs a similar marginal social cost of supply onto others. People “less cool” will have to pay for the conveniences of someone “cooler”. When someone is cool, they are essentially cutting in society’s line to gain premium access to valuable resources, such as the attention of the opposite gender, admiration of peers, etc.”

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