I Want It, I Want It, I Want It: Sustainability in the Consumer Business Model (Part 1)

September 13, 2012

Steve McCoy-Thompson, Director of Operations, BSR

"Deliver what people want" sounds horrible to the ears of many green-hearted people. The core of the consumer business model smacks of short-term pandering to the public or, worse, soulless greed. Yet, two caveats before we render judgment on this pillar of capitalism:  First, if the business, or any organization from non-profit to government, does not deliver what the people want, it will not last long. That’s a good thing, for it makes providers more responsive to the rest of us. Second, the deceptively simple concept of delivering what people want presents not only a business imperative, but also an opportunity for sustainability to be more fully integrated into the business model. Let’s look at each word for a moment, starting with the second.


Every organization needs a product or service. Venture capitalists and small business owners alike must first define the unique "what" of the organization before they can do anything else. Do they sell nails, or oil, or tax advice? Moreover, every successful "what" must have a unique value proposition, or business model, that separates it from the competition—whether it is long-life nails for construction or on-line tax services for the general public. The creation of this "what" is where sustainability plays a critical role, for such creation requires resources, from raw materials to people. Sustainable resource planning and product design concepts are already transforming the way businesses think about the means of production—and help to reduce costs in the process. In this sense, sustainability should be considered a resource planning function, beyond public affairs and EHS compliance, that directly affects the core activities of every business.


The next link in our business chain is people, both those who want the "what" and those who deliver it. In short, the people who want the product or service are the market. An organization must know who and where they are, as well as what motivates them and why. Many more books on marketing and economics are devoted to this subject, and we still haven’t figured people out—thankfully!—for we are complex and often unpredictable. Yet sustainability has a clear role here as well, as demonstrated by a host of successful products from toothpaste to milk that cater to increasingly health- and green-conscious consumers. As consumer expectations rise globally, business will gain market share if they can meet expectations for quality, health, and safety in all their products. And for those inside the company who deliver those products and services, sustainable programs also have a clear impact. Sustainable companies have more retainable employees, and this correlation rises the more employees are involved in the formation and implementation of sustainability programs—a virtuous circle, if you will. In sum, sustainability has already demonstrated that there are factors beyond low prices or high salaries that consumers and staff, respectively, weigh in making decisions.

We will continue the "want" and "deliver" sides of the discussion in the next round—where I finally get to quote Pete Townsend of The Who: "I want it, I want it, I want it!"

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