Sustainable consumption remains the next big challenge in sustainability. Without recounting impending resource scarcity and the population boom, the macro trends show that we’re heading into a very different world. While leading companies have focused on reducing the negative environmental and social impacts on the supply side for years, those efficiency gains will get us only part of the way to a sustainable society. And so attention now swings to the demand side. Sustainable consumption, at its core, is trying to resolve the tension between limited resources and consumer demand.
Last year, BSR’s research report illuminated opportunities for companies to pursue sustainable consumption by coupling radical efficiency gains in production with product design, consumer engagement, and end-of-use efforts.
But acting on sustainable consumption is hard for consumers and brands. It’s a systems-level challenge, and truly sustainable production, usage, and end-of-use processes must look very different from our current approach—likely requiring everything from the redesign of regulations that govern the lifecycle value of products, to a more enlightened definition of profit that incorporates environmental and social attributes in addition to financial ones.
It’s a daunting prospect, which leaves even the most well-intentioned organizations paralyzed, while most others dismiss it outright. And consumers are no better off. Sustainable consumption is usually framed as a sacrifice for them, so it lacks resonance.
With sustainable consumption stuck between a push and a pull, there’s no champion for taking action. So where will action take place?
We won’t get to sustainable consumption in one jump. It will be a series of small hops that inform us along the way. Instead of trying to redesign the system, let’s experiment to learn and to create and test solutions. These prototypes will help us refine the challenge and provide the building blocks for a systems redesign. We need prototypes that address sustainable consumption challenges in the supply chain, in regulatory circles, in business models, and with consumers. How do we create regulatory systems and business models that support reduced consumption while not constraining returns? How and when do we engage consumers? These prototypes don’t have to be big or complicated—it’s better if they’re not—but they need to be focused on specific challenges within sustainable consumption.
One such challenge around changing consumption is how to extend the use phase of the lifecycle. An inspiring prototype comes in Patagonia’s Common Threads initiative, which allows customers to sell used Patagonia products through eBay. It’s a powerful testament to the apparel’s key brand attributes of quality and high performance, but it also carries the idea beyond just extending the use phase of the lifecycle: It’s about creating and extending product narratives that enhance the value of the goods for consumers and the brand simultaneously—now, goods that previously were discarded or remained dormant in storage become active reinvigorations of the company’s products.
Consider the example of my colleague, an outdoorswoman who now has 1-year-old twins. She told me recently that her dad, who has been coming down to California from Oregon to help out with the kids while her husband travels for work, showed up one day with a box of miniature Patagonia fleece jackets and long underwear (in raspberry colors for her daughter and blueberry for her son). At first, she rolled her eyes, knowing how excited her dad was to introduce his grandchildren to the outdoors but also realizing how quickly her kids would outgrow their pricey Capilene. When my colleague took her kids to Australia during the austral winter, it turned out that the Patagonia clothing worked perfectly. She appreciated every little technical detail.
Here’s the point to her story: While she considered herself a Patagonia customer, she never would have thought of buying children’s clothing there. It was not worth the investment for something the kids would wear for such a short period of time. But as someone who also appreciates quality and sustainability, she’s a convert. “As my kids are getting bigger, I have a place to sell their old gear, and I have a story to tell them about things that work well, making the most out of what you have, and sharing—one of the most important lessons to teach twins,” she told me.
By creating Common Threads, Patagonia has built a platform to have multiple conversations with consumers about how to extend the use of their goods, ranging from care advice to repair services, and thereby reinforcing the value of the relationship between Patagonia and its customers.
Another challenge is how to find the right interventions with customers to help them consume less with a business model that doesn’t mean less for companies. There’s a very successful prototype in the company OPOWER, which uses the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” to encourage consumers to reduce their energy use. The company does this by including neighbors’ energy usage in its utility bills. This small-scale intervention has saved consumers millions and has helped utilities fulfill their goals of smoothing peak kilowatt hours, thereby saving them money by potentially reducing the need for expensive “peaker plants.”
While Patagonia and OPOWER provide examples of inspirational experiments in sustainable consumption, we need more. Overcoming the inertia in acting on sustainable consumption is simple—start experimenting now to get ahead of the challenge.