It’s Fashion Week in London, where the latest designs are showcased and pushed out to the world. BSR members companies gathered just a few blocks from the fashion festivities to discuss sustainable consumption and how to push out to mainstream business ideas and actions that maximize consumer value while minimizing environmental and social impacts.

The second in a series of workshops on our new Sustainable Consumption initiative, this workshop was focused on understanding how companies are addressing topics related to product (re)design, consumer engagement, and what to do with a product at the end of its use life. (You can read blog summaries of our first workshop here and here.)

Some fascinating examples were shared during the discussion, including discarded apparel used to insulate houses and swimwear recycled into evening gowns.

However, participants (who came from apparel, food and beverage, chemical, and telecommunication industries) acknowledged that action was needed across all sectors and at a larger scale from current experimental efforts. They also pointed to several common challenges:

  • Sustainable consumption is not currently on the business agenda.
  • Dedicated roles and incentives are not defined, so it is no one group's responsibility to spot sustainable consumption trends and implications.
  • While some experimentation exists, there are significant barriers to taking these to scale.

At the same time, participants were convinced that this topic needs to be put in front of business leaders to take action. And, as a group, we left with some tangible insights:

  • The debate between consumer needs and wants does not advance the issue. A more useful framing centers on how companies can bring fulfilling lifestyles to consumers with radically reduced impact.
  • Cities will be the leading edge and engines of change, particularly in the developing world.
  • Companies need to start raising these issues with their highest governing bodies and executives.
  • Engagement with consumers and others is the starting point, end point, and mid-goal marker. It's not an item on a checklist—it defines the necessary process to achieve real innovation.

In the end, it was clear that incremental action and impact is not the answer. We need massive, accelerating, comprehensive transformation. The companies that figure out how to deliver this will be the market makers and leaders in the 21st century.