By nearly any measure, our current consumption patterns are not sustainable. The 2010 World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Index—which reflects changes in the health of the planet’s ecosystems—shows a drop by about 30 percent since 1970, and its 2010 Living Planet Report concludes that we are now using 50 percent more natural resources than Earth can sustain. This decline is already stalling progress addressing the needs of the more than 1 billion people who still lack adequate food, clothing, and shelter. As the population continues to grow, from 7 billion today to 9 billion in 2050, we need to shift to a more sustainable form of consumption that meets people’s needs without overtaxing natural resources.

Although achieving sustainable consumption requires action from all segments of society, BSR’s focus is on the role that businesses play. As innovators and marketers, companies have direct influence on what—and how—people consume. With consumers increasingly concerned about environmental trends, companies can gain competitive advantage by innovating high-value products at greatly reduced environmental cost.

Addressing the challenges and opportunities related to sustainable consumption is a high priority for BSR. Since launching our 2010 report “Sustainable Consumption: The New Frontier in Sustainability,” BSR has engaged with members to better understand the opportunities related to advancing sustainable consumption. Based on these discussions, this year we will focus on work with companies on product design, consumer engagement, and end-of-use solutions. We are planning a research series and workshops spotlighting sustainable design, a research paper and event dealing with rapid obsolescence, and a practical guide to addressing the end-of-use issues in the food industry. We will also continue to explore how businesses can find innovative ways to engage with consumers and encourage more sustainable choices.

Spotlighting Sustainable Design

Sustainable product design—creating products that deliver high value to people, while eliminating negative impacts on the environment and human health—is a niche field, but advancements are underway. Information about product life cycle impacts is becoming more widely available through open-source channels such as the Earthster open wiki. Software tools such as Autodesk’s eco-design solution are helping product designers improve material choices and reduce waste. In our research, we will identify some of the recently developed tools and solutions that can help move sustainable product design into the mainstream.

Building on our 2008 report “Aligned for Sustainable Design,” our research aims to develop a practical framework that can help company managers incorporate sustainable design into their strategies. We will talk to thought leaders in sustainable design—the inventors and creators who are moving beyond incremental improvements in products toward radical redesign—and learn how some of the cutting-edge design approaches can be applied more widely in businesses. Ultimately, we will publish our findings in research reports and publicize them through member workshops. One workshop is planned in Europe for June and another is planned for New York at the end of September.

Rethinking Rapid Obsolescence

Rapid obsolescence is an approach to product design that, from the beginning, accounts for the inevitable obsolescence of a product. Historically, manufacturers have supported rapid obsolescence by encouraging consumers to purchase all of the latest and greatest versions of products and services as they are released.

With a focus on the information and communications technology sector, we will examine what drives this phenomenon. In a research paper to be published later this year, we will investigate how businesses lead developments that don’t necessarily hinge on discarding valuable materials or products.

Our research also will explore how product functionality and aesthetics can be made to last longer, and how different industries can design products for greater “upgradability” and a more sustainable end-of-use. Following this report’s publication, we will share our findings at a member event.

Addressing End-of-Use Issues: A Focus on Food Waste

One of the world’s most pressing end-of-use issues is food waste. Across the world, 30 to 50 percent of edible food goes unused. Both developing and developed countries waste nearly the same total amounts of waste, but in very different ways. In developed countries, waste occurs after consumer purchases, while in developing countries—which often lack sufficient infrastructure or distribution channels—waste occurs before food ever reaches consumers.

Addressing the global problem of food waste will require two major achievements: reducing waste in the first place, and turning waste into a consumable raw material, such as fuel. Over the next several months, we will publish a series of articles in the BSR Insight and in our blog on food waste—focusing on new business opportunities for fighting this problem, and outlining the latest developments in food preservation, food distribution, grower partnerships, and consumer education.

Tapping into Consumer Concerns

Consumer concerns about the environmental and social impacts of their purchases continue to grow. But as many of our members can attest, businesses are only just starting to use this concern to shift consumers toward more sustainable choices. Many companies are struggling with how to communicate the environmental and social attributes of their products.

With the economic recovery still sputtering, there may be opportunities for businesses to tap into consumers’ growing desire to get more value out of their products. A recent New York Times article quoted market analysts saying that consumers are extending the life of their products and are less inclined to discard products in order to get the latest models. Many economists predict a lasting effect that will continue beyond the recession. Growing interest in value over “stuff” may signal an opportunity for companies to focus on communicating the link between economic value and more sustainable consumption.

BSR is also looking at women as untapped allies in the move toward sustainable consumption. Our preliminary research indicates that female consumers can help with the shift toward more sustainable consumption. Women have significant influence in purchasing decisions; for example, U.S. studies show that women are responsible for buying 80 percent of household goods. Our paper also cites studies showing that women are more likely to think of long-term interests and community well-being in making their purchasing decisions—interests that are aligned with sustainable consumption. To capitalize on the potential of women and sustainable consumption, our paper concludes with a set of recommendations to move businesses toward deeper engagement—beyond focus groups or polls—that brings women’s concerns into the earliest phase of product development.

There is a great opportunity for business to find creative ways to engage with consumers about sustainable consumption, and through our research and consulting projects, we aim to work with our members to develop more effective ways to connect with consumers.

Embracing the Challenge

Making the transformation to sustainable consumption is daunting. To quote our 2010 report, it may in fact be the “mother of all innovation challenges for companies.” We invite our members to step up to this challenge and learn from each other as we explore opportunities to move toward this goal.