Four Scenarios on Brands and Sustainability

What will sustainable products and services look like at the end of this decade? Will the green consumer marketplace continue to grow incrementally, painfully slowly, as it seems to have done over the past decade? Or will it accelerate, as new technologies and mindsets — not to mention a new generation of Digital Natives — weave sustainability into the fabric of the marketplace? Will sustainability even be relevant?

Answering such questions isn’t for the faint of heart. The most we can hope for is some visibility into what various scenarios might look like.

That’s the premise of a fascinating and rich report, out today, from Forum for the Future, the U.K. think tank, in collaboration with the British supermarket chain Sainsbury and the British-Dutch multinational Unilever. Consumer Futures 2020, a free download, offers “different but entirely plausible scenarios” on how global trends may change consumer behavior and the consumer goods industry over the next decade. In each scenario social and environmental pressures drive sustainable goods and services into the mainstream, irrespective of consumer demand and global economic trends.

Based on research and interviews, the authors created a two-by-two matrix, with the two axes reflecting high or low prosperity and high and low levels of consumer commitment to take personal responsibility for the impacts of their purchases and lifestyles. The resulting scenarios are based on UK consumption patterns, but are “applicable and relevant to any developed economy, such as that of Europe and the USA," say the authors.

Here is how the four scenarios play out:

My Way is a high-tech world, with a prosperous and entrepreneurial economy dominated by community-based trade. Sustainable living is easy. Smart products promote patterns of consumption that use fewer resources and emit less pollution, such as smart packaging on produce that changes color when dated, or personal energy managers that also build social networks. In this scenario, mainstream consumers are buying locally and strengthening local economies. Vertical farming is widespread, producing more food per unit of land, with concomitant local jobs and social well-being.

Sell It to Me is a world in a flourishing global economy dominated by brands. Innovative products provide personal health solutions, such as clothes impregnated with vitamins, or shampoo lather that changes color to indicate mineral deficiencies. In this scenario, personal responsibility for sustainability is relatively low. But brands, driven by a global deal on climate change and resource scarcity, have taken a lot of the hard work out of being sustainable. Retailers have responded to external pressures to offer smart products and services designed to reduce in-use impacts. However, consumption remains rampant unless delivered through highly efficient manufacturing processes.

From Me to You is a world where communities, collaboration and innovative business models facilitate low-carbon lifestyles. The economy is subdued and uncertain, and businesses aren’t seen as effectively addressing society’s challenges, leading to the creation of alternative models. Peer-to-peer lending exchanges are common, for example, where property owners band together to loan money for mortgages. Communities are strengthened by local food and energy production. In general, declining and expensive resources are highly valued and waste is minimal. Goods exchanges are mainstream, encouraging recycling and reuse of a wide range of goods and resources.