Shopping for Inner Peace

The FLOWinstitute supermarket is promoting sustainable development through bottled and canned 'unconditional love' and 'patience'

Those readers who have been feeling a lack of inner calm can find it in a supermarket operated by a firm called FLOWinstitute at the Danish Design Center in Copenhagen. The Danish company is presenting an exhibition in a supermarket arena, where one may purchase products such as "commercial-free space," "half a minute with one another," and "clean tap water," packaged in beverage cans, milk cartons, plastic bottles, etc. The packages, which are available for purchase, are sold empty. In this supermarket, the main product is consumer awareness.

At the entrance, visitors are welcomed by metal baskets in which they may gather the items that guarantee "unconditional love" and "one minute for reflection." Checkout stands are situated on the other side of the room. Three signs inscribed with dozens of facts related to individual, collective and environmental flow are positioned in the center of the room, above refrigerated display cases storing the products "clean air" and "flow."

The poster that bears the headline "Individual flow" relates to man's relationship to himself, and proclaims: The constant accessibility by email, mobile phones, etc. causes a type of stress that doctors now refer to as "always online syndrome"; at many fast-food restaurants, a single meal allots more than twice the recommended daily intake of fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar; and 50 percent of deaths in the world are related to diet, smoking and lack of physical activity.

The poster about "Collective flow," which concerns man's relationship with society, tells us that a person receives an average of 2,000 messages per day from advertisements; Western society constitutes 20 percent of the world population, but consumes 80 percent of its resources; and more that a billion people in the world earn less than a dollar a day. The poster of man's relationship to the environment states that if all of the households in China decided to buy refrigerators, there would not be enough metal in the world to manufacture them; and only 0.6 percent of the five trillion plastic bags manufactured worldwide in 2002 were recycled.

Visitors to the exhibition will have no problem sensing the critical and ironic tone it adopts toward the modern lifestyle. But aside from criticism, the products offer an alternative, and food for thought, as well.

How much does a kilo of patience cost?

The exhibition, which had been on display in the past few months at the Danish Design Centre in Copenhagen, reopened last week as a permanent exhibit (the display has also been showcased in Zurich, and from May 20 to 23 will move to the ICFF design show in New York). The exhibition was initiated and designed by Mads Hagstroem, a 29-year-old designer and entrepreneur, who is the owner and CEO of FLOWinstitute. Hagstroem says that until now it was customary to measure growth of an economy according to economic and technological parameters, without taking into account the effects of growth on the individual, society and environment. The lack of balance that ensued gradually brought about the necessity to consider growth in holistic and sustainable terms.

When speaking of sustainable development, one usually means development that makes use of natural resources without eliminating them. Traditionally, reference is made to this in the context of environmental quality, but Hagstroem believes that sustainable development should be viewed in a broader, more holistic sense that includes taking into account the three levels of flow.

"Obesity as a social phenomenon or excessive advertising in the public domain are also examples of development that are not sustainable," he says. According to Hagstroem, companies that successfully contend with the proliferation of problems of this type will in the future become the leading companies in the marketplace.

Parallel to this new perception, says Hagstroem, commercial firms are expected to behave with greater social and environmental responsibility, and there is an upsurge in the phenomenon of value-based consumption. He cites, as examples, the fashion of rubber bracelets, which began as a call for support for cancer research, or the choice to open an account at a bank that supports environmental projects. Hagstroem explains that consumers are starting to seek value in products that goes beyond their practical functioning.

What is the connection between all of this and design?

"I think that a new type of designer is arising, one that combines businessman and artist. As designers, we sense something that is impossible to measure in a rational way (such as the increase in value-based consumption), and we can transform it into a concrete product. This is also the case for the FLOWmarket - there is something non-material like 'patience,' which is processed into a corporeal product, in a basic and ironic way. The combined values in a pair of Nike shoes, like a healthy lifestyle, are new values that we are going to have to adopt."

Hagstroem does not criticize this phenomenon. On the contrary: "We are moving from satisfying our physical needs to satisfying non-material needs," he says. "Once we, the rich Western consumers of the world, have provided ourselves with a roof over our heads and food to eat, we begin seeking values and meaning." The meaning and values that back a product of any sort are what will set it apart from its competitors. The companies of tomorrow will have to integrate values into their products, and prove that they act in a socially and environmentally responsible manner, because consumers will judge them according to these parameters.

You preach in favor of environmental responsibility, but the entire exhibition is made of packaging that does not biodegrade, and even encourages its consumption. How does that fit in?

"I still can't afford to use biodegradable packaging, because it is pretty new in the market. It is important to me that I use something that already exists, because people can identify with the purchase of a can of beverage that they buy every day."

You could have chosen to not sell the products.

"I considered how I could influence the way people think, and I realized that I could sell it to them. I wouldn't have been able to do it as an organization that rants and raves about consumers and about manufacturers. When people buy these products, they give them as gifts or display them at home, the guests see it, they laugh, and a discussion develops. I chose to use a supermarket because everyone can identify with buying a carton of milk or box of detergent. So instead of writing a report on 40 problems in the world, I succeeded in giving them physical form.

"I am trying to create an alternative," continues Hagstroem. "The only way I can convince companies to move over to a holistic path is to prove to them that I can really make money this way, that people really do buy the products."

Political consumerism

The exhibition was not intended to stop people from consuming, "because we live in a consumer society," he says. "But if we consume 24 hours a day and can support sustainable development in the way that we consume, then we have 24 hours a day to make change in the world." He terms this "political consumerism," and stresses: "I am not speaking of going back in time - not using cellular phones and only wearing natural fibers. What I am talking about is an added layer on top of what exists already."

The exhibit itself is the new company's first product. Hagstroem is planning an additional line of goods, including a cellular phone to be made of natural materials that would be processed (such as soybeans and corn husks) and a classic design, which would remain fashionable for a long time, so that people will not rush to replace it. He is in contact with researchers attempting to develop technology that would enable communications without radiation. In addition, he plans to publish comic books in which a super hero would handle these same problems, and an aesthetic magazine that would present the solutions to these worldwide problems.

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