[Editor's note: This article was authored by BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability.]

With climate negotiations reaching an inconclusive end in Copenhagen, the action swings back from national governments and the intergovernmental process to you and me.

For many years, the idea of sustainable consumption has been embraced by NGOs and others, but widely shunned by business.

This is changing fast. Not only that, the signs of growing interest are coming from unlikely locations.

In Bentonville, Ark., last summer, new Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke called on his company to “develop the tools to help enable sustainable consumption.” Who would have guessed that the chief executive of the world’s largest retailer, which sells US$400 billion of goods each year, would say that?

Recently in Dubai (just before the recent bond crisis struck the Emirate), under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, I chaired a Global Agenda Council on this subject. A dozen experts from business, academia and NGOs from the United States, the U.K., Brazil, Germany and elsewhere were asked to deliver recommendations on how to shift to more sustainable consumption patterns. We developed three priority recommendations: Mobilize and inspire consumers, explore new business models, and create innovative public policy. The topic will be on the agenda again at the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos this month.

Why has this issue come out of the shadows now? After all, the UN has been working on this issue for almost a decade, through the Marrakech Process, which aims to develop guidelines for production and consumption.

The answer may well lie in the pre-recession events of 2008. Before the financial crisis hit late last year, we experienced a mash-up of food/fuel/water-security problems. All the graphs and charts that predicted a disconnect between the supply and demand of basic commodities came to life in the form of shortages and price shocks in the months before Lehman Brothers collapsed. This meant higher prices for companies, and higher prices for consumers, who saw their food and energy bills rise.

And while the recession has brought a temporary pause to all this, the long-term trends suggest that the question of whether existing business models can—literally—be sustained is squarely on the table. To address the coming consumption crunch, new products, services and production processes are needed.

The keys to progress rest in the same formula I discussed in my recent e-blast about climate change: Innovation, efficiency, mobilization and collaboration.

The need to develop new consumption patterns is the mother of all innovation challenges. The race to dematerialize is on. Some of this will come from the digital revolution, as newspapers can now be delivered wirelessly to e-readers instead of plopping dead trees on the doorstep. But some of the innovation will come from redesigning business models. Electronics retail leader Best Buy is looking to enter the transportation business. Through its emerging business unit, the company is experimenting with electronic transportation devices like “e-bikes,” building a mobility business to capitalize on its expertise selling and servicing very different kinds of consumer devices. One well-known beverage maker is looking at selling packets of soluble powder to avoid the need to ship water and containers around the globe.