At first blush, the setting for BSR’s sustainable consumption workshop last week might seem ironic: The room—Calvin Klein’s New York showroom on 39th Street—featured a disorderly array of clothing racks; boxes of men’s jackets, trousers, and casual shirts; and women’s jeans, handbags, and shoes arranged on a long table. But these props served a more important purpose: With a group of 20 representatives from food, agriculture, apparel, retail, and personal care and beauty companies, we wanted to explore our current system of consumption and the business opportunities to radically change that system.

At the start of the day, we gave each person a five dollar bill and sent them on a field trip through New York’s storied Garment District, past the New York Times building, the Port Authority, porn shops, and theaters on the edge of Times Square. Their only instructions were to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of everything around them, from the teeming tourists, rushing commuters, and street vendors to the products, stores, and signs. Most importantly, they had to consume something for $5.

They returned with a variety of items, from bananas to cups of coffee to a black pashmina shawl. Two participants pooled their cash for a young man who needed $10 to fix his bicycle chain to continue home to Vermont.

We asked the following questions about their purchases:

What followed was a rich discussion around phrases that came up like “assault shopping” and “wants versus needs.” One man who flew into New York to join the workshop said he felt swept up in the urgency of consumption all around him, and that “mandatory consumption” might be an appropriate phrase to describe the value of his experience. Another woman read aloud from the packaging of her purchase: organic, low-fat yogurt, complete with a removable and recyclable sleeve. She noted that the label failed to advertise “no flavor.”

The three people in the room who bought bananas (purchased separately from Dean & Deluca, a fruit stand, and a corner store), highlighted the challenges associated with product information. Not all bananas, nor the workers who pick them, are treated equally. There is a long history of worker exploitation and land pressures associated with producing the cosmetically perfect, uniform-looking bananas that we eat for breakfast. On the one hand, the lack of this type of information for some goods is sometimes compensated for by the values associated with specific brands. In other words, long-time fans of establishments like Dean & Deluca may trust that the store sources only “good bananas.” On the other hand, there is so much information lobbed at consumers today that sustainability-related information often becomes background noise that gets filtered out.

At the end of that discussion, we all agreed that the challenges associated with consumption are clear: We need a new system around consumption that allows all individuals to meet their needs within the confines of planetary boundaries. What is less clear, and what we spent the remainder of the workshop exploring, are the business opportunities associated with leading that transformation.

BSR has launched a multi-year initiative on consumption to spark a dialogue that is not currently taking place within the business world, and to explore what we consider a tremendous opportunity to tackle this next frontier in sustainability. As a first step, we’ll be releasing a report on the business opportunities in addressing consumption, as well as a second workshop in London this September to continue testing these ideas with companies. Keep an eye out for the next installment of this blog post, where we’ll bring you highlights from the second half of the workshop.

  • What was the price?
  • What is the utility and value of the product?
  • What is the cost?