Dec 26, 2008

Blue is still the new green, a year later

Posted by: Marian Salzman In: environment| globalization| trendspotting

I originally wrote this more than a year ago, for Psychologies (U.K.). But when I re-read it, it feels more true than ever, and I wanted to share it.

What’s the new New? Things change so fast now, and old certainties are quickly overturned. In response, we’ve all latched on to “X is the new Y”, a catchy formula to flag up whichever latest whatever is replacing the previous whatever else. So, for example, we have “Smart is the new sexy”, “Fifty is the new 30” and “Google is the new Microsoft”. It’s a cute formula that spread from the fashion industry (“Grey is the new black”).

As a trend spotter, I find it interesting that the phrasing has caught on so widely. But it’s also a shame—it’s now used so casually that I hesitate to invoke it to denote a serious shift that really warrants the term, such as the subject at hand here. “Blue is the new green” is no fashion statement—it’s much more than that. And it goes a lot further than the craze for blue that I was flagging up in the late ’90s (think Bluetooth, Apple’s Bondi Blue iMac, American Express’s Blue card).

“Blue is the new green” sums up the emerging new spirit of good-citizen ethics.

Back in 1960s Europe, red was the colour of revolution, of feisty youth with an urge to kick against the crusty, fusty, play-it-safe postwar order. If you were a young person with a conscience, the left was your home and red was your colour. Eventually the bullying and repression occurring in the Soviet Union, the disaster of Mao in China and their massive pollution brought red into disrepute. The environment became the new cause, and green evolved into the signature colour of out-of-the-mainstream, ethically minded young people. From the 1980s onward, green was the new red.

Green was a bigger vision than red, with a higher (and less tainted) cause than class warfare. It embraced jungles and wetlands and owls and dolphins as well as people. But even green has come to feel too limited. It’s now a subset of blue.

Look at nature documentaries, the consumer agenda-setters of environmentalism. One of the first big natural history series of the 21st century was The Blue Planet, produced by the BBC in conjunction with the Discovery Channel. It explored the oceans, which cover two-thirds of the planet. It put the notion of “environment” into a much larger context than the sort of nature with which most people come into contact. It played to audiences that were increasingly familiar with satellite images of weather systems sweeping in from the blue of the seas.

Then in August 2005, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in the United States got people thinking about the environment on a bigger scale. Politicians and programmers started taking a serious interest in far-off glaciers and ice sheets, and the media were full of images of blue-white ice framed by clear blue skies and icy blue sea. Climate change has quickly become the driver of Environmentalism 2.0, and consumers all over the world understand that climate is all about the seas and the sky—both blue. It has become a much bigger political and consumer issue than Environmentalism 1.0, which was about issues such as deforestation, the ozone layer, pollution and biodiversity.

Almost unconsciously it seems, organisations and tastemakers have been tuning in to this colour shift. Mercedes-Benz has patented its latest emissions-reducing technology for diesel as “Bluetec.” In the U.K., environmental specialists are favouring blue graphics and terminology, such as Level Blue Limited (a sustainability & environmental management services provider). In France, the “Pavillon Bleu” (blue flag) is awarded to towns and pleasure ports that meet all-round environmental standards, and the Blue Plan is a French-based project working toward a sustainable future for the Mediterranean.

Somehow, “blue” terminology and graphics seem to suggest environmental responsibility in a more contemporary and credible way than “green”. It’s as if “green” became too strongly associated with the “beards and sandals” ethos of earlier environmentalism and with “greenwashed” brands going through the motions of environmentalism. By contrast, “blue” has no associations with “tree huggers”, nor with the clumsy branding of corporations jumping on the green bandwagon. Now corporations embracing environmentalism can adopt “blue” without fear of being accused of “greenwash”.

There are other factors that make blue such a trigger of good feelings in Europe. Blue is the colour of the summer skies that millions of Northern Europeans long for through endless, cloudy winters; it’s the colour of the warm Southern seas they flock to in the millions. It’s associated with honesty and rationality and high ethical standards. And perhaps less front-of-mind, it’s the colour of the EU flag (hence the mooted “Blue Card” system modelled on the American Green Card system).

Blue consciousness take the impulses of green thinking out of single-issue niches and brings them together under a bigger umbrella of all-round ethical aspirations. The strange thing is that this symbolism is now widely recognised without yet being overtly identified. Nobody refers to someone as being “very blue,” and no company needs (yet) fear being accused of “bluewash”.

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