Today, there are more than 400 product labels designed—as the Commonwealth Club’s Climate One host Greg Dalton put it at an event last week—“to inform or mislead people as they stroll down store aisles or browse online.”

Cramer, O'Rourke, Brent, and Dalton discuss solutions to sustainable consumption during a Commonwealth Club Climate One panel.


For years, the business community and consumers have debated the ills of greenwashing and benefits of product labels, but more recently that conversation has turned to sustainable consumption: What will it take to reduce the impacts of what we consume, and indeed to consume less?

The Climate One discussion, which featured BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer, GoodGuide Cofounder Dara O’Rourke, and Weber Shandwick Executive Vice President of Energy, Cleantech, and Sustainability William Brent, covered four main challenges in sustainable consumption—and how to solve them:

  1. Avoid the term “green”: As Cramer pointed out, “‘Green’ is actually a dangerous word.” It comes with baggage: Consumer skepticism and lack of a clear or reliable meaning; no product is 100 percent sustainable. And “green” doesn’t tell the full story. Brent noted that the head of electric-car-maker Tesla says he’s in the business of making a great vehicle that happens to use electric technology. Positioning the product this way emphasizes quality and takes for granted that sustainability is part of that definition. For that same reason, O’Rourke’s GoodGuide emphasizes health and wellness. “Framing the discussion around environment and green is problematic right now,” he said. “We need to figure out how to connect [sustainability] with things that resonate.”
  2. Make the information useful: The shampoo I use every day comes in a deep blue bottle and has a label that brags, “New! More sustainable.” But what does that mean? Conveying complex sustainability attributes in a simple way for consumers who spend milliseconds choosing products is challenging. O’Rourke’s GoodGuide attempts to help the 20 million consumers who use the service sift through marketing claims by letting them choose the information they want. “Some people want a simple answer,” he said. “Some want to drill down to a specific ingredient or labor process.”

    Cramer said this demand for tailored information is an offshoot of the “networked world” in which we live. Successful communications requires brands to join the conversation with customers about the sustainability attributes they want to see in products. In some cases, this means sharing what O’Rourke calls the “good, the bad, and the ugly,” as the outdoor apparel company Patagonia has done with its Footprint Chronicles. “Patagonia built its brand by admitting to customers its weaknesses,” O’Rourke said. “That’s the future: an honest, two-way conversation with stakeholders about what you’re doing to improve.”

  3. Address overconsumption: Buying better products does not erase the fact that the economy is based on an unsustainable level of consumption. Cramer pointed out that the average electric drill purchased in America is used all of nine minutes in its lifespan. While some companies shy away from the challenge to deliver “more value and less stuff,” this is actually an opportunity to innovate—one that companies like Zipcar and services like Yerdle, which helps people share items with friends, have used to advance the “collaborative economy.”

  4. Support behavior change: A large part of addressing overconsumption requires delving into the complicated field of behavioral psychology. O’Rourke admitted that a service like GoodGuide is only a starting point. “Providing the scientific information alone about how we are screwed on climate change or biodiversity has almost no effect on behavior change,” he said. Instead, he suggested that companies consider ways that these issues do matter to people’s lives and expanding the conversation. For instance, if a mother is concerned about the toxicity in baby shampoo, she may start to consider chemicals in cleaning products. “We have found that even small, mundane consumption choices that change your perception about products or life decisions can be an entry point to a broader discussion,” O’Rourke said.

For this reason, Dalton’s closing question to the group was perhaps the most important: How will you personally change your consumption patterns?