Does the world really need another plastic Big Ben?

Shaun McCarthy

May 16, 2008   |   Posted by Shaun McCarthy

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Beijing Day 1 026 (640x480)

One of the most emotive developments in the London 2012 planning so far was the unveiling of the logo for the games. Debate raged about whether it was a vibrant expression of London’s energy – or the work of a crazed graffiti artist. I was wearing my London 2012 jacket when waiting in the pouring rain for transport from the rowing venue yesterday. It was thankfully fully waterproof but it also sparked a conversation with a British ex-patriot family in front of me, they still hate it! This reaction demonstrates the emotion the people of the host cities can start to feel about the logos, mascots and merchandising related to the games.

This is no where more true than in Beijing as it seems the entire city is awash with the two elements of the olympics branding. The first of these is the “Fuwa” a troupe of five cartoon characters or good luck dolls. The other and most widespread symbol of the games is the olympics logo “Dancing Beijing”, based on ancient Chinese characters. The Beijing logos and merchandising appear to have literally become the focus for outpourings of national pride and anticipation. There is a huge “Olympic Flagship Store” close to the Forbidden City. It is like a department store inside with room after room of souvenirs, mostly cheap trinkets but also quality merchandise. The rooms with cheap stuff are packed with Chinese people visiting Beijing who patiently stand in queues of 50+ people to pay for their prized merchandise. There is a similar store in the Olympic park. If you venture further afield you can find street markets with copy merchandise, these seem to be mostly used by Chinese people, I had a lot of attention from stallholders as the only westerner in sight.

A lot of the day-to-day work of the commission is addressing large scale sustainability challenges like carbon, transport and air quality. However one of my most personally held hopes is that the London games gives us an opportunity to stimulate a completely new approach to merchandising. I think it’s true to say that many of us worry now about how much “stuff” we have and how to moderate mass consumption. Addressing this issue through the Olympics would be the chance to raise this at a personal level with millions of people – literally giving them a piece of sustainability best practice to hold in their hands.

The sustainability issues relating to merchandising are wide-ranging and complex. They cover everything from ensuring that the production of goods is done ethically, to the materials that are used and the energy that is consumed to make them. Perhaps most importantly it relates to the concept of what sort of products should be made. Does the world really need any more plastic Big Bens made in the same factory as the plastic Eiffel Towers and Leaning Tower of Pisas? What sort of “things” will help us mark the incredible occasion of the London games – will they be inspiring, useful, durable or beautiful? Or all of these? Will they reflect the intrinsic nature of London?

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