Can we really do more with less?

Sensemaking / Can we really do more with less?

Martin Wright meets the authors of the latest report on sustainable consumption.

28 May 2012

Martin Wright meets the authors of the latest report on sustainable consumption.

Sustainable consumption: holy grail or oxymoron? It’s a question that’s been tantalising activists and business leaders alike since the phrase was first coined 20 years ago or more.

It should be a no brainer. Meeting our needs and desires without draining the world’s finite resources on which we all depend – how hard should that be? Well, to date, the answer seems to be: virtually impossible. Survey after survey shows that people may claim to take environmental issues into account when choosing what to buy, but in reality, it comes down to price and quality almost every time.

But there’s no doubting the urgency of the task. As Peter Lacy of consultants Accenture points out: “Between now and 2030, 150 million people each year will enter the global middle classes – with all the rising expectations for levels of affluence which goes with that. Yet over the same period, we’re anticipating a 40% shortfall between demand and supply for both water and energy.”

Carrying on consuming as we are now, then, is not remotely an option. Either we find a way to consume sustainably – or we won’t be consuming at all.

That’s the conclusion of a new report, 'More with less: scaling sustainable consumption and resource efficiency'. Produced by Accenture and the World Economic Forum [WEF], it’s an impressively thorough effort to chart both the scale of the challenge, and some of the ways in which business and government can meet it. But anyone who’s observed this field for the last couple of decades could be forgiven for asking: what’s going to be different this time round?

Part of the answer is that, at last, leading businesses agree action is desperately needed. As Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher, puts it: “Infinite resource intensive growth is simply not possible, and we are already living off our future capital.” Some are starting to respond, says Lacy. He picks out Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, and Marks and Spencer’s latest ‘Schwopping’ initiative, as examples of companies which are “looking at closed loop business models that eliminate waste, but are also ‘sticky’ and attractive to consumers.”

The last element is crucial, adds WEF’s Sarita Nayar. Companies have to help their customers “bridge the intention and behaviour gap, so that choices they are offered meet their needs both in terms of the performance of the product, its convenience – and its price.” In short, they have to create “sustainable products that make sense”.

And if the big players can’t do so, there’s no shortage of upstarts willing to give it a try. Some of the most interesting ones, Lacy believes, are those which have spotted the beginnings of a seachange in the whole way we consume. “Take car clubs like Zipcar. They’ve seen that the model of consumption is shifting from ownership to sharing.” Others are responding to Nayar’s challenge by using innovative technologies to meet familiar needs sustaianably. One of the most exciting examples is the Better Place scheme, set up by Israeli entrepreneur Shay Agassi. He’s tackling one of the main obstacles to the takeup of electric vehicles – so-called ‘range anxiety’ – by enabling drivers to pull into service stations, and have a depleted battery swapped for a fully charged one in roughly the same time it would take to fill up a tank with petrol.

Schemes such as this won’t turn us all into sustainable consumers overnight. But they show that there is at least potential to make some radical shifts in the right direction. One way or another, concludes Lacy: “We have to learn how to do more with less. And we have to do it at pace, and at scale.” - Martin Wright

Photo credit: Hemera/thinkstock

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