Can Brands and Marketing Deliver a Sustainable Future?

Last week, following the release of the ‘consumer futures 2020’ report, an interesting group of people gathered in New York do discuss the multi-billion dollar question – can brands and marketing deliver a sustainable future? The event, organized by Forum for the Future and Guardian Sustainable Business provided an opportunity to hear insights on this issue from different perspectives, highlighting both the opportunities and challenges we’re facing on the way to make consumption more sustainable.

The event which started as a panel, continued later on with group discussions and ended with comments was hosted by Jo Confino, Executive Editor at the Guardian and chair of Guardian Sustainable Business. The speakers on the panel were Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation, sustainability author and activist, Sally Uren, deputy chief executive, Forum for the Future, Freya Williams, senior partner and director of strategy, Ogilvy Earth and Ian Yolles, chief sustainability officer, Recyclebank.

With this list of speakers you can understand how the room was packed with participants who were eager to hear what this group has to say on the future of sustainable consumption in general and the ‘consumer futures 2020’ report specifically.

Dr. Sally Uren of Forum for the Future started with a summary of the report, which presents four scenarios exploring possible patterns of consumption in 2020. She described the different scenarios and explained how the authors of the report define sustainable consumption (combination of smart growth, smart use, better choice of choice and positive social impact). Dr. Uren was very optimistic and shared her view that sustainable consumption will go mainstream whether or not consumers actively demand sustainable goods and services and regardless of whether the global economy is thriving or subdued.

The next speaker, Freya Williams of Ogilvy Earth shared Dr. Uren’s optimism, but also reminded the audience of the challenges of behavior change. To motivate sustainable consumption is basically no different than motivating ‘regular’ consumption she explained. In both situations people buy goods and services to fulfill needs, such as to be popular, to be no different than their neighbors, to get laid or just to feel good. In many ways, according to Williams, this challenge is about branding given that half of the Americans think sustainable consumption is mainly for crunchy granola types or rich people. So can we make sustainable consumption sexy and desirable? Williams believes the answer is yes.

Jeffrey Hollender wasn’t as optimistic, although he wasn’t pessimistic either. Radical might be a better way to describe his approach to the issue. Hollender said the problem is we have a system that makes good products expensive and bad products cheap and rewards business for bad behavior. What we need here he explained is a change in the system. He explained that companies need to have a different agenda and should apply their power to change the system. The question, he summarized was can we kick the addiction to wealth before it will destroy us.

Ian Yolles of Recyclebank also presented the situation as a crossroad, where we have to choose between radical change and collective suicide. He said that he is optimistic though and believes we’ll make the right choice.

One of the interesting questions discussed in the panel was the role of companies in promoting sustainable consumption and whether they should wait for consumers to show more interest or just lead the way and encourage consumers to follow them. Dr. Uren explained the resistance companies face when exploring changes both from customers and the investment community. The existing business model is broken, she quoted Ian Cheshire, CEO of Europe’s leading home improvement retailer Kingfisher Group. Jeffrey Hollender added that big businesses won’t necessarily solve the problems and provide communities with what they need. Both Yolles and Williams said big companies should be leading the way. Yolles gave the example of Unilever and Williams said that you can find leadership even in the advertising industry – it isn’t just full of Don Drapers, she joked.

Finally, the speakers were asked to provide their opinion if they believe it is possible to see a substantial change in consumption patterns happening in 2020. In general they were optimistic. The only one who provided a different view was Hollender who said 2020 is too close as a target and we shouldn’t focus on it. In 2020, he added, we’ll probably just see the ugly part of the transition to a brighter future. Whether he’s right or not is still left to be seen, but it was still encouraging to see that even the radical side of the panel believes the future will be brighter.

Images credit: Forum for the Future

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, as welll as the sharing economy, open innovation and sustainable business models. Currently he is involved in projects focusing on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the relationship between sharing economy and resilience, design intelligence, and whether Millennials can integrate sustainability into their lifestyle.Raz is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.