The publication of BSR’s latest report on sustainable consumption, which describes the topic as the “New Frontier in Sustainability,” gives me cause to reflect on more than a decade of work in the field. I entered the “field” of sustainability under the influence of corporate pioneers such as Ray Anderson of Interface and thought leaders such as Paul Hawken, Amory and Hunter Lovins, and Bill McDonough, who together shined a bright light on the role that business can and must play in the transformation of our global economy from one based on the linear “take-make-waste” industrial model of the 20th century to one that recognizes the need to fully account for environmental and social impacts on a cyclical, “cradle-to-cradle” basis.
The current wave of interest in sustainability (and sustainable consumption) can therefore be seen, in part, as the “mainstreaming” of ideas that have been around for a long time. At the same time, it is important to note that we have learned a lot over the last 15 years—both about the nature of the challenges and opportunities we face (the “what”) and the tools and approaches we need to address them (the “how”).
So when we refer to sustainable consumption as the “new frontier” in sustainability, what we have in mind is the translation of thought leadership into action—sustained action, on a massive scale. The report argues for the practical application of a systems-based approach, in which tangible near-term actions such as radically increased resource efficiency buys us the additional time needed make the more radical investments—in things like alternative energy sources and materials and behavioral and policy changes—that will be required to achieve a truly sustainable economy in the long run.