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Four Scenarios, One Optimistic Look at Sustainable Consumption

Raz Godelnik
| Tuesday October 18th, 2011 | 1 Comment

“… people are being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about” – Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth

I’m sure many people and not just those protesting in Zuccotti Park would agree with this quote. Will it stay like that forever? It’s hard to tell, but according to a new research on ‘consumer futures 2020’ one thing we can be sure about is that the future is going to be radically different from today.

The research, which presents four scenarios exploring possible patterns of consumption in 2020, has more good news – in each scenario, external social and environmental pressures drive sustainable goods and services into the mainstream, whether or not consumers actively demand them and regardless of whether the global economy is thriving or subdued. In other words, no matter what scenario will take place eventually – consumerism will become more sustainable in the near future.

This report was jointly produced by Sainsbury’s, Unilever and the UK-based organization Forum for the Future. Their goal was not just to find out what the future of consumerism will look like, but also to create a practical tool to help companies worldwide to prepare for the future.

In order to create the scenarios, the authors of the report looked at what they saw as the two least certain trends with the greatest impact on the future of the consumer goods industry:

Prosperous vs. Less prosperous – by 2020 will our economy be flourishing or subdued?

Do-it-yourself vs. Do-it-for-me – will consumers take the initiative to satisfy their needs or expect brands to do this for them?

Based on these two parameters, they created a two-by-two matrix, which in turn enabled them to create four scenarios:

  1. My way – Mainstream consumers buy locally, strengthening their local economies. Vertical farming is widespread, producing more food per unit of land. Sustainable living is high-tech and easy; products such as the personal energy micro-manager help reduce energy consumption and build personal relationships via on-line competitions.
  2. Sell it to me - Brands and businesses have taken a lot of the hard work out of being sustainable, driven by resource scarcity and a global deal on climate change. Retailers have taken unsustainable products off the shelves and smart products and services are commonplace – all designed to reduce their in-use impacts.
  3. From Me to You Communities are again strengthened by local food and energy production. Resources are valued much more highly than today because they are scarce and expensive, and there is little or no waste. Goods exchanges are mainstream, encouraging recycling and re-use of goods and resources, from fridges to grey water.
  4. I’m in your handsThe product to service shift has become mainstream. Retailers and brands lease a lifetime’s supply of key goods, and now also provide heat, water and nutrition. Strict government legislation and economies of scale mean that these leasing models are highly sustainable. Consumers take a “waste not want not” attitude and expect government and business to take the lead on delivering sustainability.

The authors emphasize that all scenarios above generate similar result –sustainable consumption moves from a niche market to mainstream. But what does ‘sustainable consumption’ mean exactly? The authors explain it is mainly characterized by smart growth (decoupling commercial success from environmental impact), smart use (minimizing impacts associated with product use and disposal), a better choice of choice (manufacturers offers customers better choices) and positive social impact (purchasing promotes well-being on multiple levels).

The scenarios present realistic visions, not too optimistic, but also not too bleak. Nevertheless, this research presents optimistic point of view in general, as no matter which scenario you look at, you see an improvement comparing to these days. It makes sense as even if eventually, reality will prove to be different from the four scenarios, it will probably be quite close to one of them unless something really radical happens. The main question I have in mind is about the timing – will these changes really take place by 2020? Or maybe it’s just a wishful thinking and maybe it’s more realistic to assume we’ll see them on 2040 instead?

It’s hard to tell of course, but I guess this is a question many companies that will take a look at the report will ask themselves. From the report it’s obvious that companies will have to change the way they do business, as Amanda Sourry, Chairman of Unilever UK & Ireland points out. “Companies that succeed in the future will be those that reduce their environmental impact while increasing their social and economic impacts,” she added. The only question is when the best time to start working on it is.

In a way it’s a chicken and egg situation, but the authors believe companies shouldn’t be waiting for consumers to demand more sustainable products and services and use their power to create this demand. Sainsbury’s and Unilever certainly walk the talk, but what about other companies? Will they be convinced? We’ll probably have to wait to 2020 and see.

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.


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  • R. Venkatasamy

    This is by no doubt another most interesting discussion that i have come across. Excessive and unnecessary consumption is probably what is plaguing the world in terms of sustainability. I will have more to say as I see comments from others.