There’s a name for how you shop

Ted Ning and LOHAS put a label on the market demographic for healthy, sustainable, green consumers

Ted Ning, director of LOHAS
Photo courtesy of Ted Ning

Maybe you haven’t heard of LOHAS, but it’s big in Japan.

No, seriously. Forget your hipster tunes and Hello, Kitty bags. The concept of LOHAS has taken off in Japan and surrounding Asian nations. The Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability is an organization, a mindset and a business culture you can import that helps draw the pieces together — sustainable living, social responsibility, personal development, health. The concept fits well with the cultural principles already entrenched in Asian countries — those of respect, healthy living, balance and nature.

The concept has 60 percent market penetration in Japan. In China, there are LOHAS hotels, TV shows, department stores, train stations. The word there translates to “happy living.”

In America, however, where the idea was born, ask a person “Are you LOHAS?” and you’re more likely to get a blank stare.

The LOHAS concept originated at Gaiam, Inc., a progressive company founded in Boulder in 1988. While the company still practices the LOHAS principles, it is not affiliated with the LOHAS organization. Interview requests to Gaiam for this article were unfulfilled by press time.

NASDAQ data on Gaiam describes the company as practicing “conscious commerce” — looking to personal values and beliefs about health and sustainability to guide purchasing decisions, and allowing consumers to essentially vote with their dollars. Crafting this vision was supported by “The Integral Culture Survey,” a study published by the Institute of Noetic Sciences in 1996 that showed that the view Gaiam was crafting for their company was shared by 90 percent of “cultural creatives.” In 1994, the study’s author, Joel Ray, who joined the board of directors for Gaiam after their IPO, estimated there were 44 million people in that demographic.

Today, LOHAS serves as an identifier for the one in four adult Americans — a $290 billion U.S. marketplace for goods and services — who were identified as the original adopters of trends that would soon sweep the country. The Natural Marketing Institute identified the industry that serves those consumers and gave the market the moniker Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability. “Cultural creatives” who practice LOHAS are the people most likely to invest in green building practices like EnergyStar appliances and renewable energy systems, natural lifestyles including organic cleaning supplies and CFL bulbs, personal health through integrative health care and organic products, eco-tourism, alternative transportation and alternative energy.

They’re typically well-educated, tech-savvy, affluent and willing to spend more on products that share the values they’re cultivating (pretty much your stereotypical Boulderite) — and, they’re the early adopters.

“LOHAS consumers are the ones who try all these things, test them, and then they share the information in terms of this type of lifestyle with their family and friends,” says Boulder resident Ted Ning, director of LOHAS. “So they’re the largest brand ambassadors as well. So this is a group that everybody’s very keen on because they’re the ones that predict future trends that will be mainstream in the next five years.”

Businesses practicing LOHAS look for the intersections of what otherwise could be viewed as diverse individual values.

“It’s this thread or this glue, if you will, that kind of bonds all these different aspects so that people can better understand there is a relationship between all these different pieces,” says Ning, who has been called “Mr. LOHAS.” Ning works as a consultant and speaker for companies interested in bringing the LOHAS principles into their corporate culture or expanding their connections in that market.

“I have kind of a 50,000-foot view of all of these different groups, because I’m in touch with them as to what’s going on in different areas, and then am able to say, OK, if this is happening over here, it might affect what’s happening over there because of the overlap that I kind of uniquely see in relationship to each other,” Ning says.

LOHAS is an umbrella that includes social responsibility, personal development, health and environmental values with the understanding that consumers who express an interest in one are likely to also have an interest in another.

And no, those consumers don’t know they’re getting that moniker. The term has not been positioned in the American consumer market as part of the vernacular and has instead been kept inside business realms.

“People, when you walk up to them and you say, ‘Are you a green consumer, or do you consider yourself green-oriented?’ — they understand what you’re talking about,” Ning says. “But when I say ‘Are you a LOHAS person?’ they have no idea. They’re like, ‘What is that, Hawaiian?’” Business leaders from around the world attend the annual LOHAS conference, which was held in Boulder this year from June 18-20. In the mid-2000s, a group from Japan came and took the concept back there. It has since blossomed in the Asian markets.

“The concept really wrapped traditional Asian values into Western packaging, if you will, of respect and nature and balance and healthy living and all that, and it was really appealing because of the Western package, to the younger generations,” Ning says. “If you’re familiar with Japanese trends, they just kind of do a phosphorous spike if they take off.”

Among the American issues Ning says he’s seeing from his bird’s-eye view of the market is an increasing attention on building a corporate culture that fosters creativity, a sense of openness and involvement and, in some cases, a democratized workplace.

“It’s not just the company picnic kind of thing. I’ve been to those, and maybe we’ve all be to those, and those are kind of like, yeah you get a free meal and you get to play some volleyball, but can you go beyond that, can you go deeper? And I think people are really seeking that,” Ning says. “I think people are craving connection as well, and that is something that businesses can offer. When it comes to fostering this element of, OK, you can create a corporate, employee-developed garden, for example, or carpooling, or these kinds of elements where the employees engage within the process of whatever the initiative may be. It depends on the levels of the engagement with employees as to how rich those experiences or those ideas are.”

The bottom line, though, is that these businesses can’t just market the LOHAS ideals to consumers. They’ve got to “walk the talk” in their own offices as well, reforming not just what we buy, but what kind of workplaces are nurtured when consumers buy those products.