The renaissance of ugly
With Black Friday only a week away, it might be timely to reflect on our society’s relationship to, and constant craving for, shiny new things.
Let’s face it. Uninhibited consumerism and the cult of the new aren’t doing us much good. We spend more than we can afford on stuff we don’t need to the benefit of less than ethical creditors. Friends and influencers showing off expensive lifestyles on social media make us feel like losers, which, step by step, deteriorates our mental health. The planet isn’t exactly winning, either. Six out of nine planetary boundaries are now surpassed, courtesy of humankind.
But wait a minute, you might think. How is this ”happy news”?
Well, the good news is that we are at the beginning of a new positive global movement, driven by the need to reevaluate the things and the environment that surrounds us. You might not have noticed it yet, but change will come. Probably faster than you expect. Future generations won’t have a liveable planet if we don’t quickly decrease our CO2 emissions and use much less virgin materials. The nature of the transition needs to be exponential.
Which is then the fastest way to quickly minimize CO2 emissions and the use of virgin materials? It’s quite obvious that, as a society, we must stop making and buying new things that are unnecessary for our well-being.
We can’t continue to throw old stuff away and use limited natural resources just to make things look good. We need to make them last longer and see the true value of things. Take care of them and repair them. And dampen our need to control nature.
As a consequence, in the future, more things will be ugly. And that is not a problem. Because ugly can be beautiful. How? It is easy; we only need to change our minds and learn to see the value in existing things. There is A LOT of embodied carbon in our cars, houses, clothes and gadgets. Using them longer will become the new trend regardless of new trends. Unnecessary new things will not give their owners the same status in society that they used to do, which will further accelerate the change.
One example of this is Anders Lendager, the star architect and founder of the Danish company Lendager Group (a progressive architectural firm specialized in innovative and circular reuse of construction materials), who lives in a surprisingly ugly house in a suburb of Copenhagen. His neighbours (who live in quaint 19th-century houses) think it is so ugly that he should tear it down. But he refuses. Because he knows the value of his unassuming catalogue house from the 1980’s.
Another example of this ”renaissance of ugliness” is the Ugly Lawn initiative that our communication agency, Differ has launched together with the Swedish island of Gotland.
Last spring, Region Gotland approached us with a problem. The island, which is a popular summer destination with a million yearly visitors, risked running out of groundwater due to unusually little rainfall during spring. They needed to make people aware of the situation and change the behaviour of unsustainable water use.
But how could we get people to listen to yet another sustainability message and make them conscious of the water issue? Our strategy was to make it fun to save water instead of lecturing people, which often leads to poor results. This led to the creation of the competition Gotlands Ugliest Lawn, a competition that saluted ugly dry lawns. The idea was to challenge the norm of lush green lawns. If people could see the beauty in an ugly lawn, we could save a lot of water. By inspiring people not to water their lawns, we also wanted to influence a broader audience to use water responsibly in other situations.
During the global drought of 2022, Gotland’s Ugliest Lawn and the water shortage became a universal discussion. The winner was interviewed by BBC Newsday, CBC radio interviewed our client and news outlets like The Guardian, and The Washington Post wrote articles about the initiative. Water consumption in Gotland decreased by 5% compared to the previous summer, and Gotland avoided running out of water.
The initiative could have ended there, but the campaign seems to have ignited a growing global water conservation movement. During the last year, eight municipalities in the USA, Canada and Sweden have arranged local ugly lawn competitions to promote water conservation. The OECD and The European Union have commended the initiative. The “Governor of sustainability” himself has even noticed the initiative.
As climate change makes drought and water scarcity a growing global problem (the month of July this summer was the hottest ever recorded on Earth) we thought we ought to take Gotlands Ugliest Lawn to the next level. Therefore, in September, Gotland challenged the world to save water and share images of ugly dry lawns with The World’s Ugliest Lawn competition.
The competition ends on December 25th (send your ugly lawn images to email@example.com or share them on Instagram with the hashtag #worldsugliestlawn), but Gotland has already received ugly lawns from around the world. The initiative has been spread by media like the BBC Breakfast, Have I Got News for You (which made a naughty joke about the competition on prime time), The Guardian, Forbes and Le Figaro.
And the Swedish embassy in the USA has encouraged Americans to be proud of their ugly lawns and take part in this global movement for positive change.
The influential German newspaper Züddeutsce Zeitung even reviewed the launch video with actress and activist Shailene Woodley and last year’s winner of Gotland’s Ugliest Lawn: “For people with a complex understanding of irony, the interview is a pearl of entertainment art, as Norström consistently resists all small talk; his syntax is as sparse as his front yard. Woodley tries several times to entice him into something like a surprisingly blossoming subordinate clause, but nothing happens; Norström sticks to his dry one-liners: Yes. No. Maybe.”
It seems like there is hope. The world is ready for ugliness.
Do you have other examples of this reevaluation of ugliness? Share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org