Sustainable Consumption: More than Meets the Eye

May 29, 2010
  • Kai Robertson

    Former Senior Advisor, BSR

Sustainable consumption is an uncomfortable topic—especially when you’re talking with companies who are in the business of selling “stuff” and whose business models for growth are built on selling even more stuff.

I recently attended a session on sustainable consumption along with a number of leading thinkers from multinational companies across different industries. The stuff we (in particular, the global middle class) buy, use, and discard was the proverbial elephant in the room. Participants called sustainable consumption “the next frontier in sustainability” but also “scary” and “intimidating.”

But despite the challenges and lack of clarity that come with this topic, there were a lot of inspiring and useful perspectives shared that day. In no particular order are my top ten takeaways:

  1. Waste is a commodity and a resource to be harvested, not discarded.
  2. It could be possible to keep selling the same amount of stuff if we were to recapture it instead of using more virgin raw materials. From a food perspective, enough calories are produced to feed the world, if we could find a way to avoid the loss that takes place from farm to fork.
  3. We need to remember that most people look at the issues facing our planet through a lens of proximity. Generally for Western cultures, this means first comes "me and my family", then my community, then my country, then a country that’s like mine, and finally the rest of the world.
  4. When engaging with consumers on sustainability, it's important to personalize it (see point 3,) help them feel their actions do make a difference, and find a third-party endorser.
  5. There is a clear opportunity to develop business models that offer services which meet consumers’ needs and engage them as part of the solution—whether that’s helping them cut their energy bill or get rid of unwanted clothing or electronics
  6. Viewing sustainable consumption as just a marketing opportunity is short-sighted and won’t move the needle on addressing the larger issues related to a resource-constrained economy.
  7. Partnering up and down the value chain through pre-competitive collaboration will be a key requirement for sustainable business and planetary success in the future.
  8. The public wants a bumper sticker but most trade-offs are too complex to simplify. The actions that take place behind the scenes among business partners are as, if not more, important than that which is consumer-facing (see point 7.)
  9. Setting ambitious goals, even without a clear path for attaining them, has helped unleash the creativity and innovation needed within a company.
  10. Zero can be a meaningful goal—if it’s zero environmental violations, zero safety incidents, or zero waste.

Maybe rethinking how we view trash, stuff, and the kinds of choices offered isn’t really that scary. I found the day quite inspiring.

This summer BSR will be publishing a report on sustainable consumption that looks at key opportunities and challenges for business. Keep an eye on this blog for more information.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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