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Two Steps Forward

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.

• I’m in Your Hands is a tightly regulated world in which consumers look to government and business to take the lead on sustainability. The economy is recovering from recession but growth is low and credit is tight. In this scenario, the shift from products to services has become more widespread. Retailers and brands lease a lifetime’s supply of key goods, and now provide heat, water and nutrition. Strict government legislation and economies of scale mean that such leasing models are sustainable and profitable.

The authors emphasize that the scenarios are “robust and plausible portrayals of possible futures but are not designed to be predictions.” Rather, they say, the scenarios are a tool to understand how global challenges such as climate change, scarcity of key resources and rapid population growth may play out and affect the consumer attitudes and the consumer goods industry.

I can’t improve upon these much, except perhaps for a deeply stark and depressing economic scenario I’ll call “Back to Basics,” where we’re all forced to retreat from all consumerism save the bare essentials, if that, and company survival trumps sustainability concerns and commitments.

What’s most striking about all four of the Forum's scenarios is the inherent innovation demonstrated by business, regardless of where the economy or consumer preferences are headed. From intensive high technology, to simple, collaborative consumption business models, to farmers’ markets, to turning products into services, to making bare essentials affordable to the destitute — all of these require ingenuity and the ultimate reinvention of products, services, and commerce.

Implicit in all of these scenarios is the importance not just of products and services, but brands. As markets and sensibilities shift, companies will find themselves pivoting into new markets and business models, driven by growing technological capabilities as well as economic realities and shifting societal expectations. A niche personal computer company becomes the world's largest music distributor? Locally based, micro-rental mobility companies out-market the world's largest car companies? Things can change quickly.

Whatever the scenario, the path to a sustainable future lies with business, both large and small, global and hyperlocal. That’s my biggest takeaway from this report.

The big, unanswerable question for companies is which scenario(s) will loom largest, and how to be ready, willing, and able to be profitable amid the paradox of uncertainty and rich possibilities.

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