World Business Council for Sustainable Development

Business takes a lead on sustainable consumption

Business can play a leading role in fostering more sustainable consumption patterns, according to a report released by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The report, Sustainable Consumption: Facts and trends from a business perspective (1.3 MB), is the result of a year-long study of the relationship between business activities, consumer behavior and environmental and social challenges.

“More and more, companies are realizing that consumption issues are a central concern for their business. Companies have made a significant shift in their thinking and willingness to use their expertise with consumers to help solve today's problems,” said Samuel A. DiPiazza Jr, CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers International and chairman of the WBCSD.

The report says current global consumption patterns are unsustainable. “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.”

C.A Weinberger, corporate senior vice president and global chief marketing officer for Henkel, said: “This development offers great potential as a driver for innovative products – not merely in the sense of ‘green' products, but in the sense of offering smarter consumer-relevant solutions that link top product quality to the shared responsibility of producers and consumers.

“Business needs to work more closely with consumers in terms of the sustainable use of products, communicating the added value of sustainable products and enabling behavior changes.”

Consumers are increasingly concerned about environmental, social and economic issues. They say they are willing to act on those concerns. However, the report finds that willingness often does not translate into sustainable consumer behavior because of factors such as availability, affordability, convenience, product performance, skepticism and force of habit.

Dr Peter White, director of sustainability at Procter &Gamble, said: “We need to connect sustainable production with sustainable consumption. This means understanding current and future consumption patterns, then creating more sustainable products, services and behavior change initiatives.”

The report identifies three key categories for business to mainstream sustainable consumption: innovation (coming up with new products that maximize societal value while at the same time minimize environmental costs), choice influencing (providing information that helps consumers to choose and use products more sustainably) and choice editing (the removal of “unsustainable” products and services from the marketplace in partnership with other interested groups).

Kirsi Sormunen, vice-president and head of environmental activities at Nokia, said: “This work demonstrates that WBCSD members are committed to addressing the global challenges related to shortage of resources, water scarcity, climate change and loss of biodiversity. It is our aim that this report will be a trigger for innovation not only in sustainable product design but also in product information and communications ”.

To show the urgency for such business innovation, the report lists the drivers of global consumption patterns (rapid population growth, the rise in global affluence and a culture of consumerism among higher income groups) as well as the resulting impacts on people and planet.

For example, we know already that global consumption patterns are putting unsustainable stress on natural resources (some 60% of the Earth's ecosystems have been degraded in the past 50 years and natural resource consumption is expected to rise to 170% of the Earth's bio-capacity 2040).

Looking ahead, the business leaders involved in the report called for talks with groups such as retailers, marketers, policy-makers, NGOs and consumer groups to increase levels of transparency and information on products to make it easier to find the right response to achieve the necessary changes in consumption patterns and lifestyles.

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