Ethan Arpi

BOP and The New Face of Consumerism

consumptionIn an article published last month in the New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker explains how a group of hipsters are challenging consumerism by actually participating in it. As Walker reports, those who find a corporation’s business practices morally odious have turned to socially responsible brands and are now only consuming products made by these companies. ?The marketplace itself is not the enemy in this situation? Walker writes, ?it’s a tool for expressing discontent.?

Walker thinks that the hipster strategy is an uphill battle, but even still, there are signs that it might be working. Wal-Mart, the world’s corporate punching bag, has responded to consumer pressures by unveiling a plan to provide a selection of organic foods in its thousands of stores. (To see why this is not all that it’s cracked up to be, check out last weeks NYT article Mass Natural by Michael Pollan.) And countless other corporations, including GE, are responding to market pressures by greening their business practices.Here at Nextbillion we might not all be hipsters?at least I suspect not?but we still have something in common with them. Rather than fighting the system and sticking it to the man, we hope to harness markets so that they can radically transform the nature and face of consumerism.

In a mapping project being done in conjunction with the Inter-American Development Bank, we have tried to best show how tomorrow’s markets are comprised of consumers at the bottom of the economic pyramid (BOP, not to be confused with our reputable Bureau of Prisons). Developing smart and sound business strategies to meet these consumers? needs will enable both businesses and low-income consumers to forge mutually beneficial relationships. The ultimate goal is to stimulate sustainable economic activity and enfranchise those that today’s markets have left behind.

Just how big is the BOP? In Latin America and the Caribbean alone the BOP accounts for 360 million people, or 70 % of the regions population. And worldwide, according to C.K. Prahalad, the BOP numbers a staggering 4 billion people. This underserved majority is nothing less than an economic gold mine waiting to be discovered. No one doubts that it will be difficult to create products for these consumers who earn $2 a day, but the most innovative entrepreneurs are certainly up to the challenge.

As businesses begin to take seriously the needs of this underserved market, we can expect to see the BOP putting a new face on consumerism. Because the BOP is so large, business practices that cater to their needs must be sustainable and ecologically friendly. In theory, these improved practices will trickle up to the top of the pyramid where frivolous consumption is at its worst.

Ultimately, the most important changes to consumerism will not come from pocket-watch-sporting hipsters who hang out in Brooklyn or San Francisco. It’s the four billion people waiting at the bottom of the economic pyramid in places like Brazil, China, and India that will transform the face of consumption.