Consumption (noun); the action of using a resource.
We know consumption is a primary driver of the inherent unsustainability of modern living. For those yet to be convinced that our way of life is not sustainable (adjective — able to be maintained at a certain level), reflect on the fact that last Friday, May 10th, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere peaked at 400 ppm. Also reflect on the fact that the desire for a $1 T-shirt has driven the most appalling standards in many apparel supply chains and the recent deaths of over 1000 garment workers in Bangladesh.
What to do? Shifting to a path where consumption patterns don’t breach non-negotiable planetary boundaries and deprive millions around the world of access to a decent quality of life, is, no surprise, not easy. Of course there are signs of progress — collaborative consumption models, the sharing economy; these business models and approaches all offer alternatives to the societal norm of buy, consume and throw away.
But the pace of change isn’t fast enough. 400 ppm last week. 403 ppm perhaps this time next year … Time is running out.
This is why, in December of last year, Forum for the Future partnered with L’Oréal USA to convene some of the brightest and the best in the brand and sustainability world, in a safe, pre-competitive space, to try and identify practical approaches and solutions to re:imagine consumption and how to place current consumption patterns onto a sustainable trajectory. A summary report on the meeting can be found in the Synthesis Report and a video summarizing the day*.*
So, was this an impossibly over-optimistic ask for a day’s workshop? Did we make any progress? Well, yes and yes.
Even with many of the key influencers who form the core of Sustainable Brands' world-wide community in the room, including retailers such as Walmart and Target; household brands such as Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal USA and Unilever; early sustainability adopters such as Aveda and Patagonia; world experts on sustainability including WBSCD and WEF; smart agencies such as BBMG, OgilvyEarth and Shelton Group; and of course, yours truly, the chances of coming up with an actionable blueprint to re:imagine consumption in five hours were not high.
However, we made great progress and identified ten conditions needed to achieve sustainable consumption. The conditions include the need for a universal, accessible language for sustainability (maybe, dare I say it, ditching the "S word"); marketers putting their creative genius into making sustainability aspirational and — wait for it, normal — as well as affordable and accessible for all. Business models need to internalise current externalities (nature’s assets are not free) and we need societal norms to change; happiness needs redefining so that it is no longer synonymous with acquiring more and more stuff.
We also identified four potential work streams that might help create these conditions. One concept could involve forming a coalition of leading brands to create a multi-channel, consumer-facing campaign designed to communicate sustainability in a hip, cool and aspirational way, designed to push sustainable behaviours from the dark recesses of our global society, stumbling and blinking into the mainstream. Another centred around ‘Collaboration 2.0' — how brands from different sectors might come together and collaborate vertically to address specific challenges such as those tricky consumer-use phase impacts (imagine a utility provider with a shower manufacturer with iconic hair-care brands working together to tackle water use in the home).
Delivering these work streams and creating these conditions for success is clearly beyond the reach of any one brand or business alone, as action requires tackling systemic barriers to sustainability. That’s why a further condition for success was creating the space and opportunity for more pre-competitive collaboration between businesses. Critically, though, any future collaboration needs to be targeted at the white spaces between existing collaborations (and there are a few), or add value to these on-going collaborations. However, one thing is certain, greater collaboration between businesses and brands, and wider civil society, is something we at Forum feel quite passionately is within the grasp of all, and might be the place to start to create the seismic shifts needed to create a sustainable future.
Dr Sally Uren
Deputy CEO, Forum for the Future
Editor's Note: Sally will be facilitating this conversation forward as part of the new Sustainable Brands Collaboratory, being launched June 3rd at SB'13 in San Diego. The SB Collaboratory will serve as a structure for supporting the global Sustainable Brands community in tackling concrete initiatives related to it's three key areas of focus: Shifting consumer demand and behavior toward sustainable consumption and lifestyles; encouraging and enabling breakthrough innovation that supports growth while mitigating negative environmental impact; and designing and measuring new forms of value and tying it to the bottom line.