The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has just issued a report, entitled, Sustainable Consumption: Facts and trends from a business perspective.
In announcing the report, the WBCSD admits that “the report says current global consumption patterns are unsustainable.” The gist of the announcement and the report is that world business is going to take the lead in rectifying this situation. The report’s foreword states:

It is becoming apparent that efficiency gains and technological advances alone will not be sufficient to bring global consumption to a sustainable level; changes will also be required to consumer lifestyles, including the ways in which consumers choose and use products and services.

I am skeptical. The following summary in the report would seem to say that business is going to save the world by manipulating consumers to buy goods and services that they (business) deem to be green. They fail to see that consumption, itself, is part of the problem.

The role of the consumer
Consumer attitudes and behaviors:

– Consumers are increasingly concerned about environmental, social and economic issues, and increasingly willing to act on those concerns

– Consumer willingness often does not translate into sustainable consumer behavior because of a variety of factors – such as availability, affordability, convenience, product performance, conflicting priorities, skepticism and force of habit

The role of business – mainstreaming sustainable consumption

The business case: Business approaches to sustainable consumption can be grouped into three broad categories:

– Innovation – business processes for the development of new and improved products, services and business are shifting to incorporate provisions for maximizing societal value and minimizing environmental cost

– Choice influencing – the use of marketing and awareness-raising campaigns to enable and encourage consumers to choose and use products more efficiently and sustainably

– Choice editing – the removal of “unsustainable” products and services from the marketplace in partnership with other actors in society

The challenge ahead & options for change

– To be able to lead sustainable lifestyles based on informed purchasing decisions and changes in behavior, consumers need the support of all actors: business, governments and civil society

– Business sees a need for further dialogue with stakeholders (such as consumers, retailers, marketers, policy-makers, NGOs) and between businesses to define sustainable products and lifestyles and to formulate actionable responses

– Leading businesses have the capacity to mainstream sustainable consumption and stakeholders welcome the opportunity to work alongside business moving forward.

It is going to take much more than consumer education. It will take a mindset shift in both business and consumers. The present business case, as described above, is little more than more of the same. If business truly wants to contribute to sustainability, they must question the current foundations they operate on top of, and adopt a whole new set of values and assist consumers in embodying these values. Much more than “choice editing” is necessary. In a flourishing world, consumers are more than a bundle of needs to be satisfied through the cleverness of business. Business does have an essential role, but not the one they currently foresee.

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