If you buy health food, show concern for the environment, and meditate or do yoga, you're not just green, granola, or purple—you're also a member of the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) demographic. Though we've been breathing deeply and eating organic for decades, it was only in 1996 that marketing guru Paul Ray identified us as a growing, influential group, initially labeling us "cultural creatives" or "conscious consumers." Now they say we're 36 million strong; we're men and women of all ages who spend around $230 billion a year on everything related to health, the environment, personal growth, alternative spirituality, social justice, and sustainable living.
Like the label or not, LOHAS people, or Lohasians, are putting monetary pressure on corporations to do the right thing: care for the planet, use less toxic ingredients, and create just social policy. Though I've been a card-carrying Lohasian for ages, this year I attended my first LOHAS conference, in its 10th year, catching speakers who included Steve Case, Paul Ray, and other "green" players. I heard again and again that the LOHAS movement has reached a "tipping point" (and so, apparently has the term "tipping point"). More people than ever are buying hybrid cars, eating organic, and consulting natural medicine. Yet planetary devastation continues unabated; wars rage. As Ray said, "Things are getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster." At the LOHAS conference in Santa Monica (April 26-28, 2006) I found out what's going on behind the scenes of those striving for—and marketing—"better and better" on your behalf. Turns out there's a lot of passion, action, and a Joan Baez-led drum circle. My journal is below.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
1:30 pm: A Pre-Conference Stroll: Ashes & Snow in the Sand
Almost immediately I hit the vast beach and head toward the Santa Monica pier. I see a huge warehouse ahead. Only here for a few months, it holds Gregory Colbert's Ashes & Snow; exhibit, a "nomadic" show of spiritual, sepia-toned photos of children praying, resting, and reading with elephants, eagles, and other wild animals. The gallery itself is made of recycled, sustainable materials—metal shipping containers and hardy cardboard. Inside the dim, cavernous, temple-like space, vaulted ceilings peak in seemingly sacred triangles; photos are suspended over river rocks. Ancient-sounding music murmurs.
The photos are intimate, moving, a little heavy-handed, but mostly sad: In each sentient animal eye I see mourning. As if they know what's happening to the Earth, and, unable to watch TV or overeat or shop, they're bearing the knowledge of this sadness unbuffered, as we can't, or won't. I buy a string bracelet at the gift store, whose proceeds (like everything at the exhibit) go to Flying Elephants, an organization that protects nature through art.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
9:00 am: Gearing Up
There's some fierce business card swapping next to organic bouquets, then we fill the incongruous conference ballroom, huge crystal chandeliers above, elaborate wall-to-wall carpet below, and chairs for all 600 attendees. It feels odd, like we should all be outside, barefoot, comfy.
James Rouse, naturopathic Lohasian
9:20 am: "Soft Buddha Eyes"
James Rouse, a naturopath and TV host bounds onto the stage, a blur of white teeth, blue eyes, spiky blondish hair, and tele-riffic enthusiasm.
He thanks us for going on a "trust walk" this morning. He tells us about "people who live heart first," and his desire for "but reduction" (meaning not his tush, but excuses in life). I'm in deep eye-roll mode. But then we stand. We're going to "try a Buddhist practice to help you put your guard down," he says. "Find someone across the table," he instructs, "and look at them for about 10 or 15 seconds with what the Buddhists call soft eyes—kind, compassionate, non-judging." I smile at a woman with long brown hair and big matching eyes. Nervous laughter breaks across the room. "That's a very different beginning to a business meeting, isn't it?"
I feel newly present, joyful, arrived.
*(That's marketing-ese for haute hippies, the Birkenstock set, metrospirituals, treehuggers, urban yogis, trustafarians, and the eco-chic—a.k.a. modern-day bohemians)
9:40 am: Healing Habitats: "Green Design 21st Century Style"
Though there's much eco super-power on this panel—John Picard, the "green" builder who designed, among other things, the Ashes & Snow exhibit; environmentalist Philippe Cousteau (Jacques' grandson); and Michelle Moore of the U.S. Green Building Council—my new hero is Sam Lebudde, a dolphin-saving biologist. He passionately articulates the spiritual and planetary significance of switching from our current buildings, "miniature black holes that suck energy, suck water, suck resources, and expel waste" to structures that "produce more power than they use. They will make water, they will make you healthier."
"Human beings in the West spend over 90 percent of their time indoors," Lebudde adds. "Besides recommending that you all go outside more, it's important to realize what buildings are. They're the places where we live, learn, work, play, heal… they are for humans our habitat. And that means that architects and designers and builders are building much more than buildings, they're defining our common foundation as a species… they are creating the parameters by which we relate to one another, by which we live our lives. The difference between building a building and building a habitat for thinking, feeling, sentient beings, is enormous and that's what green building is doing."
11:15 am: Ford Rules
Niel Golightly, the director of sustainable strategies for Ford Motor Company, steps up.
Most people don't know that Ford's Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan has been green—designed by eco-building guru William McDonough—for nearly three years. It's got wetlands, a green roof, reuses water, harnesses solar power, and has a paint shop that actually creates energy off its fumes. Plus, Golightly (really his name) announces that by 2007, 80,000 Ford vehicles will have seat covers made of 100 percent recycled fabric. This move, he says, will save around 600 thousand gallons of water, 8.1 mill pounds of carbon dioxide, and 6.1 mill kilowatt hours of electricity a year. "If that's not good business, I don't know what is," he says. It's starting to feel a little bit infomercialish now, but he also tells us about Ford's new partnership with TerraPass an organization that helps drivers calculate and offset their cars' emissions. And he talks about the company's hybrid SUVs.
"For companies wanting to be around 20, 30, 50 years from now, sustainability is not optional," he says. The audience seems visibly inspired that such a huge auto company is taking these strides.
1:45 pm: Five Live Infomercials––But For Stuff I Like
The great part about attending a conference dedicated to a demographic you're a part of is that even the boring stuff is somewhat interesting. We learn that Plenty prints on recycled paper even though it costs a lot more; that Dr. Hauschka believes beauty comes from truth and goodness; Patagonia tithes one percent of its sales to causes—and applauds Wal Mart for its pending use of organic cotton; Wild Oats uses "corntainers" for take-out items, cage-free eggs, and as much fair trade and local artisan product as possible.
5:30 pm: Getting Our Diksha on at the Twilight Reception
We're under a giant, sprawling tree, eating tofu shish-kebab, drinking regular wine (they ran out of organic) when I see Chantal, my eye-gazing buddy. She looks even more serene than this morning.
"Diksha," she says.
"You must get the diksha!" she points to the hotel lobby.
By her description (and eyes) I gather it's a spiritual transmission of peaceful waves. A guru in India is holding 21-day courses in it. Supposedly we can't get enlightened because our brains have too much static. The diksha, a calming placing of hands and an energetic beaming, can help. Rumor has it that Gwyneth, Brad, and Angelina get the diksha all the time. "Go now!" says Chantal.
In the lobby, a woman in blue and purple holds her hands over a man's shoulders. He looks calm. I go to the bald man next to them in a butter yellow shirt with a wood mala-bead necklace and say, "Chantal sent me." He smiles, wry and tired, and wordlessly gestures me to sit. He stands behind me, resting his hands on my shoulders and then over my head. "Relax," he says, "open up." Soon I feel a warm waterfall pouring into my brain and flowing through my body.
My busy brain settles.
Friday, April 28, 2006
9:10 am: Steve Case's Next Revolution
Here's the man many have been waiting to see, Steve Case, co-founder of AOL. About a year ago, Case bought a company called Revolution. The Revolution Living part of the business now owns the super-swank Miraval Spa, LIME (a mind-body-spirit media hub), Flex Car, a vehicle-sharing program; and a minority part of Gaiam, the health care products company; it's also involved with non-profits and setting up alternative health-care clinics.
In pleated chinos, tasseled loafers, and a tan-peach shirt, Case fires us up for the revolution. Highlights:
"Health care is really 'sick care.' Health is something different, people do it voluntarily, and do it 100% out of their own pocket. When you cross the line, and become 'sick,' you enter a whole different world of co-payments and PPOs and all that. They are separate worlds now."
To be mainstream, LOHAS needs "…to be welcoming. Don't make people feel they need to 'qualify'… It's like fitness clubs... people need to feel like they can DO it! They don't want to feel like an idiot."
Eco needs to be cool: " Why didn't I have a hybrid car before last year? Because they looked dorky and they weren't comfortable!"
10:10 am: Do They Walk the Talk? "LOHAS Leadership Summit"
We each get a bottle of Aveda's Love oil. A man in a lavender shirt gets to the podium, and with a French accent, tells us to apply rub the oil into our hands and cup our face. "Love is free," he says. I figure he's a random guy until he sits on the sofa and is introduced as Dominique Conseil, the president of Aveda. Next to him is Michael Crooke, the president of Steve Case's Revolution. They also go into infomercial territory, each explaining the fabulously sustainable, socially helpful, truly authentic things their companies do.
When they open for questions, I ask, "How [are] you guys are incorporating LOHAS's spiritual principles like compassion and consciousness and joy into the daily lives of your companies?"
Conseil smiles and talks about no-email Wednesday (he calls the medium "electronic procrastination), no-meetings Fridays, the organic employee cafeteria, having massage therapists come to the office, and other "caring" practices.
It's Crooke's turn: "We haven't cracked the code. We're working too hard working too long and it's a work in progress."
I'm not sure if he seems more embarrassed or annoyed; either way, it's honest, but disconcerting. The Revolution should be walking its talk, no?
4:45pm: Spiritual Shopping
I skip the afternoon's getting-sustainable-films-made session in exchange for a walk through the conference's marketplace room, which is brimming with repurposed cashmere sweaters, couture made from plastic bags, non-dairy mayonnaise, herbal healing drinks, and sample massages.
5:15 pm: Joan Baez, and a Thrumming, Drumming Finale
At the closing ceremony, the host, entrepreneur Carol Atwood, is still speaking when someone starts singing over her on another microphone. The voice gets louder and louder, until Atwood gives up and introduces the voice: Joan Baez. She's tiny, with a sparkly scarf around her next, and her voice fills the huge room with warmth. She sings a call-and-response Amazing Grace.
Then Rhythm Village comes onstage. They're an earthy, welcome contrast to the chandelier-lit ballroom. As their African drumming starts, shoes come off, tables are pushed away. They pass about 50 drums out and soon the whole room is vibrating. In African dance dancers thank the drummers with movement and the drummers fuel the dancers with rhythm. It's a beautiful flow. My hands sweep from my heart to the stage in great swoops of gratitude—for being here, for being surrounded by people trying keep us all from melting, to keep the planet beating, living, as Rouse said the first day, "heart first."