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Creating Business Opportunity by Tackling Sustainable Consumption

June 3, 2011

The Challenge

In China, economic growth is perpetuating a multitude of challenges, including a lack of human rights protection for migrant workers, environmental degradation, and income disparity—and government is not fully able to address these issues. There is an opportunity for civil society to fill these gaps, but without business’ help in strengthening the country’s nascent nonprofit sector, that progress has dramatically less potential.

BSR founded CiYuan to address the biggest barriers to the development of China’s nonprofit sector: limited strategic partnerships and opportunities for dialogue between nonprofits and business; a foundation sector with limited experience in partnering with and supporting grassroots organizations; a restrictive environment for nonprofit registration and fundraising; and weak governance and transparency, which generates a lack of public trust in nonprofits.

By nearly any measure, the way we consume natural resources is unsustainable: Research suggests that we are currently using 50 percent more natural resources than the Earth can sustain.

As the global population continues to grow, from almost 7 billion today to 9 billion in 2050, it is imperative that we develop new ways to enable all of the world’s people to live a dignified life, with access to basic products and services, while also preserving healthy ecosystems.

That challenge is at the core of an initiative BSR began in 2010 to raise business awareness of this issue, and to recast it as an opportunity for innovation. To explore how business can lead the shift from “super” consumption to sustainable consumption, we launched a series of work that includes applied research, collaborative learning opportunities, and consulting pr

Defining the Issue, Identifying the Opportunity

We kicked off our sustainable consumption initiative with the release of “The New Frontier in Sustainability: The Business Opportunity in Tackling Sustainable Consumption,” which identified business pathways in three parts of the “value chain cycle” that often have been overlooked in sustainability efforts to date:

  • Product design: using sustainability to guide design approaches to products from the earliest stages of conception and development
  • Consumer engagement: influencing what and how people consume
  • End-of-use: recapturing products at the end of their useful lives and converting them to serve as raw materials for other purposes

To test the ideas outlined in our research, we held two workshops with member companies and experts in the field of closed-loop systems and consumer insight. A number of key themes emerged:

  • Sustainable product design is not just a matter of reducing the impact of existing products, but rather rethinking how to deliver the equivalent value in new ways.
  • Sustainable consumption means that business models encouraging the quick disposal of products, or “rapid obsolescence,” will have to change.
  • Influencing consumer behavior will require that we tap into social networks, peer groups, and communities. It also will demand that companies broaden their understanding of consumers—not just as “shoppers” but as citizens.

What’s Next

Feedback from the workshop and other discussions with members has sharpened our focus for 2011, when we plan to look at rapid obsolescence, its problems, and potential solutions. Also in 2011, we will conduct an interview series with design thought leaders to examine some of the emerging approaches to sustainable products. Ultimately, we hope this work will provide our members with practical guidance for designing more sustainable products, inspiring consumers to shift their purchasing habits, and developing end-of-use solutions.

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

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