cracking the final frontier, the consumer

I spent yesterday dipping in and out of Unilever’s excellent online sustainable living lab, where business and industry leaders were openly discussing the big issues that keep them awake at night.

The great thing about the lab is its interactive nature and I decided to actively engage in the debate as it presented a good opportunity to square up to some of the biggest names driving forward corporate sustainability.

One issue that brand managers seem to be wrestling right now with is sustainable consumption – how to influence and change our purchasing habits for the better, while maintaining healthy profit margins. Not really a marriage made in heaven given our current linear economies.

Marks & Spencer’s head of sustainable business Mike Barry was one of those fielding questions in the lab. He admitted to me that much more work was needed around reconfiguring consumption patterns.

“It’s ultimately getting people to think and behave differently," he said. "Business needs to provide a lead to show consumers that a different approach to consumption can be simple and exciting."

How the likes of M&S navigate this proposition remains to be seen, but Barry felt adopting a more progressive cycle where we become users of products and services, rather than consumers, through leasing-type arrangements, could offer some hope.

In the medium term, he said, this would see global manufacture continue while being supported by localised material recovery and reuse. Longer term the global system itself could be superseded by local manufacture and reuse hubs.

The binding agent needed to make such macro ambition happen is collaboration. It also needs complete buy-in across the value chain, but the final, and perhaps most vital, ingredient is consumer engagement.

Trouble is, carbon concepts tend to be too nebulous to generate the sense of public urgency needed so marketers will need to be creative if they are to engage effectively on this front.

Just last week the Carbon Trust and Coca-Cola published a white paper on personal carbon allowances. Both parties carried out a pilot to see if the idea of giving people a recommended daily carbon allowance, in much the same way as calories, could work in practice.

The findings revealed a real knowledge gap around the hidden cost of carbon. While participants had a good grip of the packaging and transport impacts relating to the goods and services they purchased, embodied emissions left them somewhat clueless. This is a big deal when 40% of emissions attributable to UK consumption occur outside of the UK.

Understanding the lifecycle of carbon and its impacts, and then presenting that to the public in a thought-provoking and digestible way will be challenging to say the least. But it’s a nettle that brand managers need to grasp.

As Barry took stock of his time in the sustainable living lab yesterday, he offered this thought: “Lots of themes, but we keep coming back to the consumer as the next frontier”. Who dares to cross it first could end up altering the dimensions of our buying habits forever.

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