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Two Steps Forward

Sustainable Consumption Gets Buy-In

This article is part of a series of excerpts from the fifth annual State of Green Business Report, looking at trends in corporate sustainability. Download the free report from, and see all of our trends here.

Also, be sure to register for a free webcast taking place on Tuesday, February 7: The State of Green Busines 2012 - The Good News and Bad is hosted by Joel Makower and dives in to all the findings of the report. Click here to register.

The years-long conversation about reducing consumption by getting consumers and others to buy fewer, more durable goods is gaining attention -- albeit still in small, tentative ways. While there's not yet any sustainable consumption bandwagon, the companies and executives talking the talk are appearing downright mainstream.

Last year heard some corporate voices that could signal a new approach to curbing consumers' all-consuming passions -- and create business value, to boot. The approaches range from incremental to radical -- and from

subtle to not-so-subtle. It may not yet be sustainable consumption, but it's definitely smarter consumption.

Patagonia and eBay made the biggest splash with their Common Threads Initiative, which encourages consumers to sell their used Patagonia clothing and gear online. At the beginning of the 2011 holiday buying season, Patagonia took out full-page newspaper ads featuring one of its jackets, with the provocative headline "Don't Buy This Jacket". It counseled, "Don't buy what you don't need. Think twice before you buy anything," and directed readers to a web page where they were asked to sign a two-part pledge:

Patagonia agrees to build useful things that last, to repair what breaks and recycle what comes to the end of its useful life.
I agree to buy only what I need (and will last), repair what breaks, reuse (share) what I no longer need and recycle everything else.

As senior writer Adam Aston characterized the eBay relationship: "An auction function may not sound revolutionary in the retail world, but Patagonia's broader agenda here is an unorthodox, perhaps even radical, act for the fashion industry."

Another apparel company, Puma, is taking a different tack: making its clothes compostable. CEO Franz Koch said his company was working with partners on developing products on the principle of "cradle-to-cradle" design, in which every component can be recycled back into a comparable raw material, or composted harmlessly into soil. Nike, for its part, has its own initiative, called Considered Design, whose goal is to use the fewest possible materials and design for easy disassembly, allowing items to be recycled into new products or safely returned to nature at the end of their life.

It's not just clothing. Electronics retailer Best Buy launched a kind of subscription model for electronics in the form of its Buy Back plan, inviting shoppers to "future proof" their new purchases -- for a price. Shoppers pay an upfront fee -- say $69.99, for a laptop or tablet -- and receive 10–50 percent of the value of the product back if it's returned within two years, assuming normal wear and tear. It's still unclear whether this will actually reduce waste or consumption, but it does introduce a new business model: the idea of electronics as a service, not a product.

Such efforts could finally bring life to the conversations on sustainable consumption conducted for many years by organizations like the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the World Economic Forum. And while the list of companies participating in those conversations is long -- including Coca-Cola, General Motors, Henkel, Nestlé, Nokia, Procter & Gamble, SC Johnson, Sony, and Unilever -- few of these companies have had much to show for it, in terms of radical changes in products, serivces, or business models.

Perhaps these global brands can learn from the new generation of startups -- some for-profit, others nonprofit -- known collectively as "mesh" companies. The term, coined by entrepreneur and marketing guru Lisa Gansky in a book of the same name, describes companies that offer services instead of products -- car sharing instead of car ownership.

Already, there are dozens of mesh companies -- a database Gansky created has more than 2,000. A sampling: A Box Life (keeps shippable cardboard boxes in use longer); GoLoco (ride-sharing system that notifies users when their friends or interest groups are going places they want to go); Instant Offices (matches businesses with available office space); Kopernik (connects tools and people where they are most needed); and Local Dirt (helps consumers buy, sell, and find local food).

Mesh companies could represent the future of sustainable consumption -- and the future of commerce itself, at least for some product categories. If consumers catch on to the idea that access may trump ownership, it could be a win-win-win: companies make more money from less physical stuff; consumers get exactly what they need, at lower cost and without the worry of planned obsolescence; and the planet is spared countless tons of waste.

Shopping cart photo CC-licensed by Schizoform.

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