Skip to main content

What's in a Name? Rethinking 'Sustainable Consumption'

<p>Consumption has long been a dirty word for environmentalists. As the term &quot;sustainable consumption&quot; spreads throughout the business world, it might be time to question whether this part of sustainability strategy should be called something else.</p>

Unilever made headlines last November when it announced plans to double sales while cutting environmental impacts in half over the next decade. The firm aims "to create a better future in which billions of people can increase their quality of life without increasing their environmental footprint."

The company isn't alone in paying attention to what's been called the next frontier in sustainability (pdf): "sustainable consumption," or how to deliver products and services to consumers within ecological limits.

It's a worthy and important goal. The only problem? The phrase sustainable consumption itself. As the name spreads throughout the business world, it might be time to question whether this part of sustainability strategy should be called something else.

The word consumption originally meant to waste (the disease consumption, incidentally, was also called the wasting disease) and still implies that something is being used up. When something's consumed, nothing's left. This runs counter to the image of a sustainable system, in which materials and energy are used cradle-to-cradle, in a closed loop.

Some companies use "sustainable consumerism" instead, but that doesn't quite seem right either: Consumerism is defined as fostering a desire to buy more and more goods and services (inherently unsustainable, at some point), and it still comes from the root "consume."

Consumption has long been a dirty word for environmentalists. The message has been that consumers buy too much, and so sustainable consumption may either strike some as an oxymoron or imply that everyone will be purchasing less. That misses part of the story.

"I worry about the term because I think the billions who lack adequate goods and services deserve to consume more," said Mark Lee, executive director of SustainAbility. "Too often folks in developed nations talk about reducing consumption, when I think it has to grow radically, but what is consumed must be sustainable."

Chris Librie, director of global sustainability at S.C. Johnson, prefers "consuming sustainably," which he feels sounds more positive. "Sustainable consumption can sound a little demotivating," Librie said. "The emphasis is only on the 'less' part of the story. That's definitely part of it, and something we need to get under control in the developed world. But 'consuming sustainably' opens up the idea of consumers making better choices, and becoming active participants in changing behaviors." To that end, S.C. Johnson is working not only to improve the sustainability of its products, but to educate consumers on product lifecycles and better product selection and use.

In the end, naming this concept has to begin with a true understanding of what it means. George Lakoff, the professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley famous for his work on framing issues in progressive politics, said sustainable consumption "is a phrase that doesn't make any sense."

"There's a lot to be done," Lakoff argues. "It's not a matter of finding a few words here and there, it's a matter of understanding really what it is that you want to do, and what kind of language makes sense with what you're doing."

At the Center for Responsible Business at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, we're focusing this semester's Peterson Series of lectures and workshops on sustainable consumption. To us, the concept means several things as it applies to business: innovations in sustainable design so that consumers have better goods and services to choose from; working with consumers to help them better understand which products to choose, and how to use them most sustainably; and creating new business models that radically reduce impacts on the environment. It's a lot to pack into one phrase.

What does sustainable consumption mean to your company, and what do you call it? Share your thoughts in the comments. If you're in the Bay Area, please join us for our Peterson Series events, starting with a lecture from Kal Patel, president of the Asia region of Best Buy, in conversation with Aron Cramer, president of BSR, on February 2.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user di_the_huntress.

More on this topic