Sustainable Consumption: Opportunity or Oxymoron?

Sustainable Consumption: Opportunity or Oxymoron?

Imagine that you’re the chief sustainability officer of a Fortune 500 company. During a meeting with your CEO, you say, “We need to talk to consumers about using less.”

Improbable? Sure.

Impossible? Perhaps not.

An important conversation to start? Absolutely.

So, at least, says Aron Cramer, the CEO of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a non-profit association of companies, whose mission is to promote a just and sustainable world.

“The American model of consumption cannot be extended to the entire world, and won’t be, because the planet simply can’t support it,” Aron told me when we spoke by phone the other day. Yet billions of people around the world want to improve their standard of living. Figuring out how they can enjoy a better life, without destroying the environment, “is the mother of all innovation challenges,” Aron says,

Last month, BSR published a 26-page report called "The New Frontier in Sustainability: The Business Opportunity in Tackling Sustainable Consumption" [PDF, free download]. It’s an attempt to get business leaders to think about what sustainable consumption might look like.

The topic “has been the third rail of sustainability politics,” Aron told me, but he added, with his usual optimism, that “more companies are ready to have this discussion.”

If nothing else, the report makes clear the urgency of the issue. Citing a WWF report [PDF], it says:

By recent estimates, our global footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent, and if our current demands continue, by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.

And yet:

…countless people have insufficient access to basic needs like food, clean water, and adequate shelter, and they also lack access to the resources they need to improve their lives. In 2006, the 1.2 billion people in the OECD countries had an average annual income per capita of US$30,580, while the 5.4 billion people in the rest of the world earned an average of US$3,130. Of those, 19 percent suffer from hunger, 28 percent are drinking polluted water, and 29 percent are illiterate. More than 2 billion people continue to rely on less than US$2 per day to meet their needs.

The question is, what business opportunities, if any,  await companies that figure out how to give poor and middle class people what they want in a sustainable way?

The report points towards a few:

In fast growing emerging markets, it says, companies can create “different ways to improve well being” that enable “the leapfrogging of resource-intensive infrastructure in favor of light materials and digital services.”

Second, sustainable consumption also creates market opportunities for companies that use information technology to deliver positive outcomes for consumers.” Examples: Smart buildings, smart homes, a smart grid.

Third, companies have an opportunity to appeal to “the rising generation of consumers” who are “likelier to favor products whose sustainability attributes are clear.”

Finally, the report says, “embracing sustainable consumption provides a shield against price volatility and potential supply shortages of key commodities”

I asked Aron for examples of companies that are thinking, or even better, acting along these lines. Utility companies like PG&E and Southern California Edison are encouraging conservation and efficiency, he said. True enough, but they’re in a unique position — regulators in California have “decoupled” their profits from sales, so unlike most businesses, the power companies can make more by selling less.

Chevron, he noted, has an advertising campaign called “Will you join us?” that encourages conservation. “They’ve spent a lot of money to try to convince consumers to use less gasoline,” he said.

Other companies exploring what sustainable consumption might mean include eBay, which wants people to buy used stuff, rather than new, for obvious reasons, and Zipcar, which promotes car sharing. Best Buy sees an opportunity in helping its customers to be more efficient and save money (See "Why eBay is a Green Giant" and "Best Buy: An Emerging Green Giant"). Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iTunes dematerialize books and music. Other companies, meanwhile, are promoting reuse and recycling, or trying to transform products into services: Interface, Recycle Bank and Herman Miller, among others, come to mind.

But, in my opinion, that doesn’t add up to much — not yet, anyway. Chevron’s conservation campaign is mostly marketing. Admirable as they are, eBay and Zipcar have unique business models. Cradle-to-cradle design is a niche, not a movement.

I hope Aron and BSR prove me wrong — really, I do — but I don’t think we should count on corporate America, or small business, for that matter, to drive sustainable consumption. Companies can help us consume smarter; clearly there’s a business opportunity in energy efficiency, and an even bigger one in renewable energy, particularly if governments tax or limit carbon emissions.

But consuming smarter goes only so far. We also have to consume less of just about everything, and that bumps up squarely against the business imperative, which is to sell more of just about everything, including a whole lots of crap that adds little or nothing of value to the world. If you doubt it, tour the nearest mall.

So who will lead the way? Religious leaders, we’d hope. Educators, from kindergarten through college. Parents, or more likely children. More to come on this in the next couple of weeks, including, when I take off on vacation next week, one guest blogpost from an eco-rabbi and another from a woman who hasn’t thrown anything into a landfill since 2006. Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.