What sustainable consumption looks like

The Gunther Report

What sustainable consumption looks like

which green products bring us closer to sustainable consumption?

Editor's Note: While sustainability leaders spend a lot of time talking and thinking about internal changes, from greening their supply chains to making their buildings and processes more energy efficient, they need to remember that the products at the end of those supply chains must be both defensible and attractive to consumers. Here's one consumer's take.

Three “green” products that recently arrived at my house got me thinking about the idea of sustainable consumption.

Which of these three do you think moves us closer to sustainable consumption?

Which takes us farther away?

This is a bottle of dish and hand soap from Method. The package is made from recycled ocean plastic.

This is an LED bulb from IKEA.

And these are SUNNAM solar-powered lamps, also from IKEA.

Two of these products -- the dish soap and the bulb -- move us in the right direction. The solar lamp? No. And I say that as an admirer of Method and IKEA.

Photo of sustainable light bulb provided by somchaij via Shutterstock

To understand why, let me try to define sustainable consumption: It’s the consumption of a product that leaves the world no worse off -- and ideally better off -- than if it were never made. But it’s got to be more than that -- the product has to be appealing and affordable, too. Very few products meet that test today. But it’s not hard to see what sustainable consumption would look like -- products would be made using renewable energy, and they would be made into something else when they are done. A world powered by renewable energy with zero waste would be sustainable, more or less, or at least a lot more sustainable than the polluting, wasteful, throwaway system of production and consumption that we have now.

That helps explain why I like Method’s dish and hand soap. It’s packaged in the world’s first bottles made with a blend of recovered ocean plastic and post-consumer recycled plastic. The ocean plastic was collected on Hawaii beaches by volunteer groups and Method employees. For now, the product is available exclusively at Whole Foods and at methodhome.com.

Will this solve the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans? Not even close. But it’s a creative and innovative way to point people toward a better world, where everything that’s no longer needed is eventually made into something else. As Adam Lowry, Method’s founder and “chief greens keeper” explains in this video, Method is trying to “raise awareness about the importance of keeping plastic out of our oceans” and “lead by example.” Are you listening, P&G?

Adam says:

We know that only a small amount of plastic will be taken out of the ocean for all of these bottles that we make….That’s not the solution, but we know we can have a much bigger impact if we start to change people’s minds about their role in protecting our oceans.

Exactly right. The bigger drawback of the Method soap is that it’s pricey -- $4.99 retail for 11.6 fl oz, compared to $1.49 for 14 oz. of P&G’s Lemon Scented Joy (which, by the way, contains no lemons but is made of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Pareth-23, C12-14-16 Dimethyl Amine Oxide, SD Alcohol 40-B, Undeceth-9, PPG-26, Sodium Chloride, Cyclohexanediamine, Polyacetate, Fragrance, FD&C Yellow #5 and D&C Red No. 33). Still, $4,99 is a lot to pay for superior packaging and a biodegradable formula. As Method grows bigger, the price, presumably, will come down.

I also like IKEA’s LED bulb -- because it’s part of a bigger and more important story at IKEA. In 2010, IKEA became the first retailer to announce a gradual phase-out of inefficient incandescent light in all of its US stores. Now IKEA says it will switch its lighting business to all-LED by 2016. This is good for customers and good for the planet, even though it limits consumer choice. (Consumers who want wasteful old bulbs will be able to buy them elsewhere.)

In a press release, Steve Howard, IKEA’s sustainability chief, explains:

With household electricity bills continuing to rise rapidly and global energy consumption increasing, a small LED bulb can have a very big impact. It uses much less energy than a traditional bulb….Building on our belief that everyone should be able to afford to live more sustainably at home, we will make sure our LED prices are the lowest on the market.

IKEA’s LED bulbs sell for $9.99 to $12.99 and over their lifetime they will cost less than incandescents or CFLs.

Are the bulbs truly sustainable? No, because they aren’t easily recycled (yet). But LED bulbs are built to last. IKEA says they can last nearly 20 years, about 20 times longer than a typical incandescent, and twice as long as a typical compact fluorescent bulb. Like Method, IKEA will encourage its customers to change their habits.

As for IKEA’s SUNNAN table lamp, the price is right ($19.99 for a desk lamp), the concept is great (no electricity needed) and the design is cool but the product is impractical. The instructions say: “Charging of the solar panel must be performed outside in direct sunlight with the panel angled directly towards the sun.”

Are you kidding me? I live in shaded neighborhood, with almost no direct sunlight. It’s starting to get cold out, even here in Bethesda, Md. And what if I lived in a New York City high rise? Am I supposed to take the lamp up to the roof and leave it there all day to recharge?

This kind of thing that gives “green” a bad name. Greener, as my friend Joel Makower likes to say, should be better in some way  -- cheaper to own, cheaper to use, healthier, higher performance, more durable, more stylish, repairable, reusable, etc. I would add that greener shouldn’t be worse in any big away. A lamp that needs to sit outside to charge is worse than the status quo. (As are the solar-powered outdoor lights by our driveway that don’t give off enough light, but that’s another story.)

Then again, innovation means failing some of the time. The only way we’re going to figure out how to consume sustainably is through persistent bold experimentation. Kudos to Method and IKEA for trying.