Lauren Liecau, Masters Graduate, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

With the global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, sociologists and biologists alike have increasing concerns about our resource-constrained world's ability to meet future demands. As middle classes grow in emerging markets, questions also have been raised about the validity of consumption as a driver of growth.

During a Thursday session at the 2012 BSR Conference in New York, panelists framed the role that businesses can play in defining and driving sustainable consumption. The panelists—Aron Cramer, President and CEO of BSR; Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer at IKEA; and Randall Krantz, director of the sustainability initiative at the World Economic Forum—touched upon consumer goods and the food system, and discussed how to improve lives and well-being in an affordable, accessible, and sustainable manner. The lively discussion resulted in the following takeaways:

  • Context matters. Sustainability solutions need to be developed in response to local conditions. Particularly in urban areas, people care less about ownership and more about results.
  • Because people spend so much time spent online, they increasingly are concerned with access, value, and experiences.
  • More can and should be done collaboratively by the business and NGO communities to help consumers understand the implications of their choices to curb overconsumption and change behaviors.
  • Marketing will be critical to changing behavior. Solutions will have to be desirable and aspirational, so companies should use language that accentuates the positive.
  • Recycling, repurposing, and reverse logistics are potential areas to reduce waste and engage customers and partners.

Panelists and conference participants also pointed out many of the tensions and challenges inherent in sustainable consumption.

Speakers agreed that better lives cannot be achieved using traditional business and consumption models, but instead noted that we as a society must start talking about new and innovative models that can meet human needs at scale. Other challenges: Making sustainable products affordable for everyone and the pace of change that will be needed to accommodate population growth. Panelists said that to overcome these potential pitfalls, we will need to merge equal parts of aspiration, inspiration, collaboration, and perspiration. It won’t be easy. No great accomplishments ever are.