Sustainable Consumption: Acknowledging the Elephant in the Room

by | May 25, 2010

“Green” guru and friend Joel Makower has been known to call sustainable consumption the “elephant in the room” when he talks with corporations about their environmental footprints. After all, for many leading brands, the business case for adopting more environmentally friendly practices is the promise of increased customer preference and loyalty, resulting at the end of the day in…selling more stuff.

Enviros have long pointed out the design flaws in today’s consumer society, which exploits common resources like air and water, and values gratification today over resources tomorrow.

Forty years after the first Earth Day, that dynamic may finally be shifting. Companies big and small are seeing opportunities to re-examine long held beliefs about exactly the business they’re in.

“We shouldn’t see ourselves as a car company, and having two cars in every driveway around the world just isn’t sustainable,” said Ford Motor Company Chairman, Bill Ford, at the Fortune Brainstorm: Green conference last month. “We’re in the business of providing transportation.”

ZipCar, the car sharing service, has already put that concept into reality, providing its primarily urban members with all the convenience that cars can bring—with none of the ownership headaches. The net result for the planet—each ZipCar takes 15-20 personally-owned vehicles off the road, according to its founder, Robin Chase.

In the age of increased transparency, a few leading businesses are turning to their consumers for answers to challenges embedded in current business models, like the amount of waste generated from the quick service food industry. A recycling program miscue led CSR-leader Starbucks to try a new tactic. In March, it announced the “betacup” challenge, a contest that is crowd sourcing ideas for a more sustainable cup to serve in its stores. Its ambitious goal is to serve 100 percent of its beverages in reusable or recyclable cups by 2015.

“Finding effective solutions to the disposable cup waste problem will be a challenge – a good solution will need to include product design, communications and incentives to change consumer behavior, and work within service and recycling infrastructures,” said Shaun Abrahamson from Colaboratorie Mutopo, a group that co-founded the betacup. “We think this is an ideal task to present to a large global community of coffee drinkers, many of whom have likely thought about this issue and possible solutions.”

It may be paradoxical, but it very well could be that the next wave of innovative thinking in sustainability will be driven by consumer facing companies, which could be good news. After all, businesses can (and should) do all they can to reduce their own impacts, and there is often a solid business case for doing so in cost reduction and employee recruitment and retention, not to mention plain old, good public relations. But the results of these efforts are dwarfed by the results of decisions made by their consumers.

In an essay earlier this year, Aron Cramer, President and CEO of Business for Social Responsibility, spoke about the challenges of taking the concept of sustainable consumption out of the realm of the environmental organizations and NGOs and into mainstream business. “The need to develop new consumption patterns is the mother of all innovation challenges,” he wrote.

“The Holy Grail,” Cramer added in his essay, “may come in mobilizing—and inspiring—consumers.”

No one suggests that this will be easy.  When Yvon Chouinard, the iconic founder of apparel company Patagonia, took the stage at Fortune Brainstorm: Green last month, he unexpectedly started talking about Socrates. “An unexamined life is not one worth leading,” he quoted, then added, “leading an examined life in business is a pain in the ass.”

But a handful of brands are already seeing the pot of gold at the end of the sustainable consumption rainbow. Eileen Fisher underscores the durability and enduring style of its classic women’s clothes at its flagship store in New York City, by selling new and gently worn items in the same space. According to its website, Because Eileen Fisher clothing is timelessly designed and made with high-quality fabrics, it tends to have a long use phase, which underscores the customer value proposition of sustainable design.

And Levi Strauss garnered significant attention late last year by pointing out on its care tags for the planet that, after you’re done wearing their jeans, you can donate them to diverting “billions of pounds of unwanted clothing from landfills.”

With smart businesses seeing that they can gain greater share of wallet with such efforts, the race is on to see who can create and defend deep relationships with their consumers by bringing the concept of more sustainable lifestyles out of utopia and into reality. For consumer brands, it is time to finally acknowledge that elephant in the room.

Amy Skoczlas Cole is the Director of eBay’s Green Team , where she leads the various aspects of the company’s environmental strategy, including tapping into the collective power of the 90 million people who use eBay everyday to make a real difference in world. To find out more about the eBay Green Team, visit

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