The Business of Sustainable Consumption

What role should business play in encouraging sustainable consumption? This is a core question that I’ve been exploring in my research with CONSENSUS, an EPA-funded research project led by Trinity’s Geography Department. Unsustainable patterns of both production and consumption are considered at the heart of sustainability issues necessitating action from policy, the general public and corporate actors alike. Business operations have long been affected by environmental legislation aimed at reducing
emissions and pollution in resource extraction and manufacturing processes and including action on waste minimisation and recovery. But when it comes to sustainable consumption – including our personal behaviours, for example relating to the foods we eat, how we wash ourselves, or our mobility choices – how much can businesses be expected to take action, and what might this action look like?

Behaviour change an explicit focus for businesses

Latest business strategy developments show increasing attention to the way people choose, use and dispose of their products and services and how these actions can be influenced to reduce environmental impacts. This is based on the recognition that responsibility does not end once a company’s product is sold, especially given the heavy environmental impacts linked with the “consumption phase”, and from waste disposal. For example, lifecycle studies show that exhaust emissions are responsible for around 70% of total vehicle carbon dioxide emissions with the remainder linked to manufacturing and delivery of fuel. Indeed, Unilever, the world’s second largest Fast Moving Consumer Goods corporation, asserts that  “the hot water our consumers use to enjoy our products makes up almost 70% of the overall greenhouse gas footprint associated with our entire business”. Environmental impacts tend to be the greatest in situations where consumer products are associated with large volumes of energy or water use as is the case in many of our daily habits like clothes washing, showering, heating our homes and personal travel.

One response is to design products that offer more technical efficiency in the use phase, such as Toyota’s introduction of the Prius, while recent trends are for providing explicit guidance on how people should use products, or even challenging engrained habits and norms. For example, Toyota’s ‘Glass of Water’  app monitors driving patterns and promotes smoother driving styles, which if effectively applied, can reduce car fuel consumption by 10%. Unilever’s laundry brand Omo has washing agents that work at lower water temperatures (reducing consumer energy use) while Proctor and Gamble’s ‘Turn to 30’ education awareness campaign has been associated with increasing the number of people using cold washes from 2% to 40%. Lynx (or AXE in the USA) is encouraging their consumers (who on average spend 17 minutes in the shower!) to pledge to reduce shower times, using a tongue-in-cheek campaign suggesting “showerpooling” and providing efficiency upgrades for customer showers. Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson is promoting higher levels of recycling of their personal care products through their ‘Care to Recycle’ campaign.

Ruth image

All this activity begs the question of what the underlying motivation is: is it just green marketing aimed at growing market share; a truly new way of doing business through addressing societal needs; or simply shifting responsibility for action to the user? One motivator is the requirement for companies to meet self-imposed sustainability goals and visions. With pressure from stakeholders and consumers, evolving regulations, and with guidance from bodies such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, companies are increasingly required to integrate sustainable production and consumption into the core of their business models. This attention to sustainability, especially societal wellbeing, is reflected in purpose-driven strategy statements oriented around meeting societal needs and enabling sustainable lives. For example, Proctor and Gamble’s mission is “touching and improving lives”, Philips’ mission is “improving lives through meaningful innovation” while Unilever’s vision is to “double the size of the business, whilst reducing our environment footprint and increasing our positive social impact”. In the case of Unilever, selling more products such as Omo, a concentrated laundry-powder which activates with low amounts of water is said to “reduce the time, physical effort and amount of water needed to wash clothes by hand” – thus contributing towards their goal of positive social impact, whilst also reducing environmental footprints.

Whether and how far companies can go to achieving these missions (and by whose standards) remains to be seen. Importantly, any attempts to target consumers and the use phase must be accompanied by action to improve the sustainability of the supply chain along with phasing out of harmful substances and waste reductions. Some would consider that on a systemic level, economic growth is part of the problem of over-consumption rather than the solution and question if it is compatible at all with societal development that remains within planetary ecological boundaries. Nevertheless, these developments show a willingness by corporations to engage in debates around consumption, behaviour and cultural change – crucial aspects of the sustainable development agenda.

Given the power of corporations to affect consumer choices and cultural norms and their role in providing the products and services we use every day, CONSENSUS is including private sector actors in our next phase of action-based research on sustainable household consumption. This ‘HomeLab’ study is examining everyday habits relating to food and water consumption. Taking the example of our personal washing research, we are prototyping and evaluating combinations of new products, washing devices, ICT, educational measures and policy simulations in collaboration with public, private and non-governmental actors. These will be implemented and evaluated within real households in September 2014. How might these HomeLabs work out? What will user experiences be and will they result in a pleasurable and effective washing routine, whilst improving the efficiency of water use? Moreover, what will cross-sectoral collaborators, including businesses involved in our study do afterwards with the insights generated?

Check out the CONSENSUS website to remain updated – more GeogBlogs on our progress to follow soon!

Authored by: Ruth Doyle, Postdoctoral Researcher (CONSENSUS project), TCD Geography


2 thoughts on “The Business of Sustainable Consumption

  1. Seeing waste products as a resource is one area that needs a huge improvement. It doesn’t even detract from the business model that so many companies are frightened of.

  2. Completely agree Glen, resource efficiency and reduction has to be a priority, and as you say, it can improve cost efficiencies too. Any attempts to encourage behaviour change without this action will just appear as window dressing!

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