LOHAS – the new avant-garde?

LOHAS is an acronym that stands for Lifestyle Health and Safety and is a term used by researchers to describe the trend for certain categories of people to pursue a way of living that nurtures every aspect of their physical and spiritual wellbeing. This is such a powerful contemporary idea that even the many people who may not recognise the term can identify with the principles it describes and may even see it as some sort of global environmental movement. Its critics view it as a pure marketing gimmick, aimed at salving the consciences of high earners. But what's the truth?

According to a study from the Natural Marketing Institute in Harleyville USA, ...

... as many as 15 per cent of Americans, 19 per cent of Europeans and 25 per cent of Canadians are now willing to pay as much as a fifth more for products that are manufactured sustainably. As many as 80 per cent of those surveyed expressed a general willingness to buy green products.

The early signs of the LOHAS movement were unmistakeable in the middle of the last decade. It was evident in the growing interest in factors such as sustainability, ecology and social consciousness and an all round focus on green energy and a range of environmental concepts that have captured the imagination in almost every aspect of our domestic, social and working lives.
According to a study from the Natural Marketing Institute in Harleyville USA, as many as 15 per cent of Americans, 19 per cent of Europeans and 25 per cent of Canadians are now willing to pay a fifth more for products manufactured sustainably. As many as 80 per cent of those surveyed expressed a general willingness to buy green products.
The market segments served by LOHAS relevant products is now very broad, encompassing food, building materials, energy, office equipment, stationery, medical and health products, financial services and even tourism.
This marks the movement out in stark contrast to the organic movement of the 1980s which came garbed in dungarees and hand knitted sweaters to establish its new greener lifestyle in the heart of society, free of the enduring taint of the subculture but marked out by its missionary zeal and grim health food stores. Nowadays, the lifestyle has established a new, broader consensus with consumers. Whether it has done this consciously or unconsciously is open to debate, but it now finds its role models in Vogue.
Media from across the political spectrum now embrace the LOHAS movement in some form, many enthusiastically even while maintaining their own reservations and frustration with the pace of change. So far little research has been carried out to closely define the meanings, complexities and contradiction inherent in the LOHAS movement, so what can we say about what it is exactly?

A lifestyle without peer pressure
You won’t find any sign of an official association for LOHAS anywhere on the Internet although you will find sites such as lohas.com or lohas.de which can give the impression of one.
The American site www.lohas.com states: “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) describes an estimated $290 billion U.S. marketplace for goods and services focused on health, the environment, social justice, personal development and sustainable living. The consumers attracted to this market represent a sizable group in this country. Approximately 13-19% percent of the adults in the U.S. are currently considered LOHAS Consumers.”
It might also have carried on to state some of the other defining characteristics of the movement. It is a movement driven by the economy. No placards, no demonstrations, no proselytising. Instead it is determined by targeted sustainable consumption and the production of sustainable products which aim to preserve the ecology of the Earth or at least make the World a little better.

What are its origins?
The sociologist Paul H Ray and the psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson published a book in 2001 called Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing The World which summarised a series of conclusions the authors had drawn from their research into the cultural mores of people across the US in the preceding years.
Their core observation was that there now existed a new corporate structure whose values fell between hedonism and materials, the product of which was a new tribe called ‘Cultural Creatives’. According to Ray and Anderson these people are more likely to read and buy significantly more books than the average American. They watch less television purely because they do not like the majority of the shows and are concerned at the quality of news coverage. They reject both advertising and children’s programmes. Cultural Creatives actively engage in art and culture as both amateurs and professionals. In their quest for authenticity, they reject poor quality and disposable products as well as brand loyalty.
At the same time as Ray and Anderson were defining this social grouping, the New York Times columnist David Brooks published his book ‘Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class And How They Got There’. He derived the term Bobo as a portmanteau of the words bourgeois and bohemian and described Bobos as the new social elite formed of people who were idealistic, quietly materialistic, focussed, creative and who worked in the heart of social, cultural and political life.
Nevertheless, it was the Cultural Creatives who became the darlings of sociologists and trend researchers because they believed they better represented the response to underlying social attitudes. Even Brooks conceded that he had made a rare attempt to define what constituted an upper class in the US. And, as is often the case, the cultural pipeline that runs beneath the Atlantic meant that these people were soon to be found in Europe.

Of post-material epicures and the new leisure & luxury class
The Future Institute in Hofheim, Germany was founded by one of the country’s mos famous futurologists Matthias Horx. It is now a renowned and influential think tank, defining and forecasting trends across Europe. In 2004 it carried out a survey that mirrored the results of Ray and Anderson although it had no knowledge of their work. The study of leisure activities created a typology of users which bore striking similarities to the one established in the US. Specifically it highlighted a new class
of people which it defined as the ‘New Luxury Leisure Class’.
In 2007, the researchers Eike Wenzel and Christian Anja Kirig from the Future Institute carried out a targeted study of this group, which was becoming of growing interest to marketers. For their definition of LOHAS, they relied heavily on the earlier research. This definition saw the typical LOHAS person as healthy, environmentally conscious and focussed on leading an ethical lifestyle.
One of their favourite third places is out shopping. Consumption plays an important role in their lives and lifestyles although they conspicuously avoid being labelled as marketing victims. They eschew overly conspicuous consumption. They may be focussed on pleasure and leisure but their attitudes are markedly different to those of 1980s hedonists. The authors of the report identify their key traits as morally hedonistic, post-materialistic, spiritual, sceptical of media and generally interested in culture, wellness, self-actualisation and health.
According to the research, the LOHAS lifestyle represents the avant-garde of the 21st Century because it resolves the seemingly contradictory demands for sustainability and pleasure, environmental awareness and a focus on self fulfilment. According to the Future Institute, their attitudes and buying behaviour will shape the economy for at least the next twenty years.
They will maintain this degree of influence through their sophisticated use of the internet. Even a cursory search reveals that there are numerous websites now dedicated to their chief concerns for strategic consumption and sustainability. Many of these approaches are characteristic of classic modern marketing except that there is an unmistakeable emphasis on the LOHAS core philosophy of consumption that is both ecologically and socially acceptable.

Individualistic consumption is now used as a road to self-improvement and to salve the consciences of those in pursuit of a new type of luxurious and carefree lifestyle.
Kathrin Hartmann, Philosopher and Journalist

A good conscience as status symbol?
However it is within this approach to consumption as a way of saving the world that the main criticism of the LOHAS movement resides. One of the main critics is Kathrin Hartmann who in her 2009 book ‘End of the Fairy Tale’ wrote: ‘The biggest obstacle for the LOHAS lifestyle environmentalists to overcome is undoubtedly the core principle that the problems that have been caused by bad capitalism can be solved by good capitalism. What they are forgetting is that the capitalist system, that thrives on new forms of consumption, views them primarily as customers.’
Hartmann first worked as a journalist for the Frankfurter Rundschau and NEON magazine and is now engaged as a philosopher and commentator. She doubts the credentials of the LOHAS movement and the seriousness of any attempts to redefine consumption as green, claiming that LOHAS is first and foremost an aesthetic choice. Individualistic consumption is no better or worse than any other form of self-improvement and is equally focussed on squaring a good conscience with an opulent lifestyle. Hartmann also thinks that LOHAS falls prey to greenwash rather too easily and inadvertently helps large organisations to destroy rather than preserve the environment.
Hartmann also has little time for the phenomenon of urban gentrification which she believes is down to the acquisition of old parts of cities by a wealthy elite who move in and displace the original dwellers who cannot afford the higher rents that are associated with the influx of richer residents. This development is apparent in cities around the world.
Hartmann’s conclusion is that it is impossible to expect certain lifestyles to be compatible with sustainability and other ethical considerations. However she reserves her true ire for the depoliticisation of the LOHAS movement which expresses no democratic desire for change beyond the well intentioned desire to reduce certain types of consumption.
Recently she has found support for her ideas from many sources, including in a recent opinion piece from the social entrepreneur Sina Trinkwalder published in the left leaning TAZ newspaper in Germany last November. In the article, Trinkwalder wrote: ‘Once conceived as an entirely alternative lifestyle, the LOHAS movement now consists of nothing more than a superficial and trendy fad. It has spawned an army of consultants and contractors whose aim is to market the ethical and ecological avant-garde lifestyle to the jet set.’
There are arguments for and against the principles espoused by the LOHAS movement depending on individual perspectives on the world. However, at the moment the impasse between the opposing views serves to highlight that nobody yet has developed a broadly acceptable strategy for securing the future of the world and we are left to wonder whether anybody actually has it.

By Michael Mayer