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.

Next page: Companies that are getting it right(er)