The Quick & Dirty: We Are The 1 Percent

A protester holds a sign during Occupy Wall Street, the arguable start of the ‘1 percent’ mantra.

It started with a simple question from a good friend of mine considering a new job: “What do you think of Walmart?” My immediate instinct was to say how much I love looking at photos of Walmart people. But that made me stop and think a little – why are we amused by Walmart people? The answer is very simple, because we think we are better than them.

We wouldn’t be caught dead at Walmart. Not with its cheap stuff and people that look like they just stepped out of some apocalyptic comic book scene. We can point and laugh at them because they are just not cool. They are just not as bright. Not as smart. Not hip. Like us.

But this isn’t a piece about defending Walmart. Yes, it is noble that the company has a simple philosophy of getting the cheapest goods to the poorest Americans as close to their homes as possible. Or as its original mission statement said — “To give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people.” Simple and to the point. A social good baked into their mission. More on that another day.

The reason why we are amused is because we are the 1 percent. We in sustainability or even broader strategy or communications might not all be in the financial 1 percent (but close or very fast getting there), but we are almost all part of the intellectual 1 percent. That 1 percent who believe we see all the problems of the world very clearly and the answers almost as clearly.

We fall in love with the brands that are so cool at making the world a better place and oh so revolutionary in how they hug a tree. Did I mention how “innovative” those companies are? Or any other word that is part of our ‘disruptive’ vocabulary?

We hold up the brand examples of changing the world and argue that if only more companies could be like this. But we forget that these companies are not there for the people of this earth but for the 1 percent like us. We go shopping at Patagonia because we can afford it. Not only can we afford the clothes, but we can also afford the time to actually go out into nature for a run or a holiday. We are the ones who buy a Tesla because we can afford it and it makes us look cool. We eat the nutritional food that comes so nicely packaged. We are the ones.

These companies serve us — the 1 percent. They do not serve the majority.

We are the ones who tell our clients to do sustainability reports because it measures their impact. And, we are the ones who throw the stones when those impacts don’t measure up to our expectations. If only every client could be like Patagonia. Or sell cool nutritional stuff instead of fast-food burgers. Because, you know, that’s what we eat.

We tell our clients to target those who can move their brands forward fast — the influencers. These are the people in the know. They go to the cool places. They tweet. They blog. Sorry, vlog. They speak at TED, have cool parties at SXSW and hang out with the other hipsters at Burning Man. You know — they are the others among us in the 1 percent. They are more people like us.

You see the problem with all of this?

We create solutions for the 1 percent. We think it is cool that Patagonia says it doesn’t want to grow any more and don’t for a minute stop to think what that means for the 99 percent excluded from the conversation. We cater to people like us.

No one working two jobs is going to SXSW. No one who lost their home during the “crisis” (even the word is so 1 percent) is going to hang out with us at Burning Man.

No one watching Nascar is going to watch a TED talk.

Of course we feel so proud of telling people we sometimes shop at Walmart or eat at McDonald’s because it gives us some street cred and shows how connected we are to “the people.” But we know that it is not really our scene. We say it almost as an embarrassment.

You want to change the world? Then focus on the world. Stop being the cool kid. Stop being the Kim Kardashian of sustainability. Start being here. Start with where people go to live and survive. Start looking at the world through the eyes of someone just trying to get through today. The majority of people aren’t bad and don’t live horrible lives. They aren’t in jail or suffering from extreme poverty. The majority of people are just living life, trying to catch a breath in between jobs, kids and homework. We in the 1 percent even have a luxury name for it — work-life balance. The majority of people just have a bit of life when they aren’t working.

Stop judging. We aren’t better than them. We don’t have some magical insight into life that makes us better. We aren’t any better. And please, be honest with yourself — you think you are better.

Start changing the world by looking at the world. By being part of the world. Go shop at Walmart. Go buy a Big Mac — hey, they have salads now. Go drive a Chevy truck. Go live in the suburbs. Go and be part of humanity. Enjoy it for what it is — deeply flawed, silly and human. Start looking at what makes them tick. What makes us tick.

Ask yourself the simple question from their perspective — why should they give a shit? Whether it is climate change or corporate responsibility. Solar power or sustainability. Poverty or purpose. Water or waste. Fair trade or faith. So often the majority of people simply don’t have the luxury to reflect on these things. Of course they also want a better world — for them and for all of us. But they just live life. Their life. We are consumed by the luxury of the 1 percent while they are consumed by life. With everything thrown at them, they don’t need another preacher. Another wise ass telling them what is good and what is cool. Oh wait, you don’t even talk to them. You just talk about them.

I know, I am doing the “them” vs. “us” thing right here while talking against it. But I hope you will forgive me for generalizing while trying to make the point that what is “normal” isn’t the life of us (the 1 percent) but a different world all together. We have to understand that to create the change we as a world desperately need. We need to stop being cute and exclusive in how we view the world and what is right and wrong.

We aren’t any better when we think and act the way we do. We want fair trade coffee, and they simply want a coffee. We want vegan and hand-crafted, while they simply want a meal. We want an electric car, while they just want transportation. We want LEED-certified buildings, while they just want a home.

When do we become we? All of us?

You can still do the cool stuff but the ratio will change: 10 percent on the cool people and cool stuff. Remember, influencers are there to influence and not the actual target – so don’t spend all your time on them. Vlog, VR and PR to your heart’s content. Tweet at the 1 percent. And then step back into the world and remember that less than 10 percent of people in the U.S. use Twitter. VR is a reality far away from the lives of everyday people. SXSW is only to their benefit if you buy food off their food truck. And not the cool truck either.

Yes we are the 1 percent. And that is fine. Just don’t live in the 1 percent bubble.

Image credit: Flickr/David Shankbone