For decades, creative minds have gathered in the Calvin Klein showroom on New York’s 39th Street to contemplate stylish jeans and trendy underwear. Last week BSR members from consumer products and food companies gathered in the same space for a day dedicated to exploring the new frontier of sustainability: sustainable consumption.

The workshop began with a mission to consume. Participants, five-dollar bill in hand, spent 20 minutes in Times Square, finding different ways to consume, all while contemplating the relationships between the product’s value, cost, and price.

In the afternoon, the mission took on a future-oriented dimension. Now participants were asked to rethink and redesign four different products in four different locations: a laptop in Dhaka, a wrapped sandwich in Strasbourg, pain relief medicine in New York, and champagne in Mexico City. Our goal was to deliver value while radically diminishing the impacts.

With product design and consumer engagement typically viewed at opposite ends of the value chain, our “product rethink” required that we see consumers not as just end-users of a product but as co-designers of the service. At the same time, we needed to address how local infrastructures must be adapted so that product recapture and material re-use is built into the system. In fact, recapture was essential to the original product design and functionality. In the end of the rethink, our value chain went from linear to looped.

We rounded out our afternoon with a discussion on creating a vision for sustainable consumption with RecycleBank’s Ian Yolles, Marc Mathieu of BeDo, and BSR’s Aron Cramer. The lively conversation yielded interesting food for thought:

The conclusions from the day are aligned with how BSR is exploring sustainable consumption and the opportunities for companies to innovate and evolve their strategies. While much has been gained over the last several years through incremental improvements in material inputs, processing, and distribution, we believe transformative progress demands greater attention to other segments of the value chain, such as product design, consumer engagement, use, and end-of-use.

The workshop was the first of many BSR events and projects that will focus on the challenges and opportunities of sustainable consumption. Stay tuned for more ideas and chances to engage.

  • The topic of sustainable consumption challenges fundamental paradigms and assumptions. The first step of simply exploring sustainable consumption and its implications for companies requires leadership and conviction.
  • Sustainable consumption will require that companies lead the consumer, developing solutions that consumers haven’t yet articulated, much less demanded. Nike’s Considered Design and its “closed loop” manufacturing process is one example of this.
  • There is a false choice between consuming smart and consuming less. Companies can develop multi-faceted ways to deliver a product or service which also encourage reduced consumption.
  • Influencing consumer behavior toward more sustainable choices will require that we activate social networks and peer circles.
  • The challenge of sustainable consumption must be framed as an opportunity and inspiration that will mobilize people and tell a story of hope.