Can We Really Make Sustainable Consumption Work?

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Can We Really Make Sustainable Consumption Work?

In GlobeScan and SustainAbility's latest survey of nearly 1,000 global sustainability experts and practitioners, 78 percent of respondents agree that businesses have a duty to offer sustainable product lines instead of, rather than in addition to, unsustainable ones.

That may be a lot to ask.

The concept of "choice editing" -- presenting the consumer with only more sustainable products – has arisen in recognition of the fact that the majority of consumers do not choose more sustainable products when other (perhaps cheaper or more convenient) alternatives are available.

At SustainAbility, we see growing evidence that sustainable choice editing is a viable business strategy, and is essential to changing purchasing decisions. In SustainAbility's latest research report on business' use of third-party certifications and ecolabels – to be published this week – we find that sustainability labeling (e.g. Energy Star or Fair Trade) only influences a minority of consumers who are actively seeking that attribute. Thus, to change the behavior of the majority, we need to get editing.

Yet while sustainability experts are advocating for choice editing, we recognize that it can pose difficult dilemmas for business, particularly during hard economic times. Should companies discontinue less sustainable products which may have a high profit margin while introducing more sustainable products which have a higher cost and lower margin?

Such a change can be disruptive, and may confuse employees, investors and customers. Just ask PepsiCo, which faced criticism from investors and business partners earlier this year as the company moved increasingly into healthy product segments.

In spite of this, we see a number of companies making measured progress, and in cases, reorienting their product and service offerings to account for their environmental and social impacts. Why? They see benefit to their brand, improved customer loyalty and reduced risk, as well as alignment with their stated values and sustainability commitments. Examples of such shifts include:

Disney Parks & Resorts: Offering healthier standard kids' meals with low-fat milk, applesauce, and other healthy default options in place of soft drinks and French fries. Disney now estimates that parents opt for the healthier default options more than 50 percent of the time.

ZipCar: Introduced plug-in electric hybrid vehicles to its US car-sharing platform through a pilot program in early 2011. The car-sharing service also reported its first-ever per-share profit at the beginning of November 2011.

B&Q: Phased out patio heaters from its U.K. home improvement stores and has introduced more sustainable products such as 100 percent Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance certified brand switches.

The challenge will be moving from these incremental successes to bring sustainable consumption to scale. How can businesses accelerate sustainable consumption to the tipping point, and shift their entire offering to more sustainable products over the long term?

To start, get even closer to your consumers. To borrow the words of my colleague, Caren Holzman, aim to "influence beyond the transaction."

Some 87 percent of experts who participated in the GlobeScan/SustainAbility poll agree that "educating consumers on the benefits of more responsible consumption" is an important element of driving sustainable consumption.

Consumer education is critical for several reasons:

Many products have a significant environmental and social impact in the consumer use phase; education is the best way to mitigate those impacts short of taking them off of the shelves

Education supports brand messaging around material sustainability issues, thereby enhancing trust and the quality of your stakeholder relationships

Ultimately consumer education – and mutual understanding of key impacts – may reduce blowback from choice editing efforts that you undertake in the future

Bear in mind also that it's important to educate the consumer in a manner that will not burden them (e.g. in terms of cost or time), and makes it easy to change their behavior. Examples of this in practice are:

Levi-Strauss: Levi Strauss is engaging customers on energy and water use with its Care Tag, which advises the owner to wash less, machine wash cold, line dry when possible and donate their jeans to Goodwill after use. The Care Tag is not only unobtrusive, but the directions will save consumers a bit of money if followed properly.

eBay and Patagonia: Their new Common Threads Initiative brings together pre-owned clothes from Patagonia and the e-commerce power of eBay. When consumers join the Initiative, they can list used Patagonia clothing on eBay and become eligible for listing in the new Used Clothing & Gear section on Patagonia.com.

In order to provide for the needs of an ever-growing population on a planet with finite resources, we need to improve the sustainability of the products we buy and sell. Businesses can start this transition by getting closer to consumers, educating them on how they can reduce their impacts, in order to make more sustainable product offerings a sustainable business model over the long term.

Shopping image via Shutterstock.