The Great Lifestyle Frontier

January 10, 2013

Solitaire Townsend, Cofounder, Futerra Sustainability Communications

Sustainable lifestyles are hot. Inspiring, persuading, and gently coercing consumers into “green” and ethical behaviors is the new frontier for business.

This isn’t a surprising development, however. Businesses are incredibly well-placed to green our habits.The brands they represent generate emotion and loyalty among consumers. Brand choice reflects our own personality and values. Brands carry promises and guide our behaviors—from doing laundry to buying a new car.  A government public service announcement can entreat you to recycle, whereas an on-package message can reach you at the “point of decision.” (In Futerra’s Planet Brands Index, we name 100 brands that are most able to influence consumer behaviors.)

There are numerous articles, guides, case studies, and debates popping up around this issue. The emerging consensus is that brands need to make sustainable lifestyles desirable, build greener behavior into their products, and provide compelling advice to consumers on sustainable decisions.

So while we have a growing body of evidence on how businesses can change behavior, questions of why, who, and where still remain:

  • Why: Business needs to decide if promoting sustainable lifestyles is about reputation or responsibility.

Responsibility is one of our favorite words in the business sustainability movement but is rarely applied to sustainable lifestyles. The situation is reminiscent of supply chain arguments from a decade ago: companies asked why they should be responsible for separate businesses from which they simply bought products.

Fast forward to today, and Walmart’s Sustainability Index requires improved social and environmental performance from thousands of suppliers as well as their own buyers. Perhaps Walmart will eventually evaluate their marketers on how well they sell a sustainable lifestyle.

Asking if business has a duty to sell sustainable lifestyles isn’t an easy question. Not least because it hints at the ultimate quandary hidden within this whole issue: How can business make money out of making less stuff? It is our job to make this business case.

  • Who: The debate must move beyond consumer goods, travel, food, and utilities.

Those industries have obvious impacts and an intimate relationship with the consumer. But we need this question to reach further. What is the responsibility of financial services to encourage sustainable lifestyles? How can media use their “brainprint” to influence aspirations and habits? Can business-to-business, heavy industry, commodities, or extractives contribute to a lifestyles shift?

  • Where: We need sustainable lifestyles worldwide.

Brands need to ask themselves how they can contribute to sustainable lifestyles in developing and emerging economies. 300 million middle class Chinese consumers are regarded as a "feast of riches" by many brands. But China is set to become the largest per capita carbon emitter in the world. The fascinating work that brands are beginning on sustainable lifestyles must extend into markets where footprints are due to grow.

The excitement and creativity around behaviors and lifestyles is welcome. As consumers come under increased sustainability pressures—paying more for their waste, water, and energy—they will ask for help from brands. As resources become rarer and experiences more desirable, they will ask for change. As consumers struggle to balance their aspirations with reality, they will look to brands for answers. Right now they are asking, but soon they will be demanding.

Futerra and BSR are working together to answer the questions posed in this blog. We hope to engage more businesses in more geographies and industries to think about their lifestyle responsibility. To get involved, please contact Futerra’s Stuart Duncan or BSR’s Tara Norton.

Solitaire Townsend is cofounder of Futerra Sustainability Communications.

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