Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Raz Godelnik headshot

Can Aspirationals' Idea of Sustainable Consumption Bring a Better Future?

If you feel a little bit down lately with the U.S. government shutdown, the latest IPPC report, the end of Breaking Bad and other devastating news, we have something that might cheer you up a little.

This is the 2013 Aspirational Consumer Index that was published last week, offering a fresh glimpse into the rise of the Aspirationals, more than a third of the consumers worldwide who are uniting style, social status and sustainability values to redefine consumption. The index offers a positive outlook into the future, where Aspirationals, especially in emerging markets, will “shift in sustainable consumption from obligation to desire.”

While it sounds promising, please note that I mentioned that this news might cheer you up. The reason I’m cautious is not because I don’t believe in the Aspirationals, but because I’m not sure a future shaped by their sustainable shopping habits is necessarily a sustainable one.

Let’s look at the findings of the index and then try to figure out how sustainable the future portrayed there is. The index follows Re:Thinking Consumption, a report published last year by BBMG, GlobeScan and SustainAbility, where you could learn for the first time about this promising consumer segment called the Aspirationals. These consumers, the authors wrote back then, “are materialistically oriented while at the same time aspiring to be sustainable in their purchases and beliefs.”

And now comes the index, an in-depth survey of over 21,000 participants across 21 international markets. The index identifies more than one-third of consumers globally (36.4 percent) as Aspirationals, defined by their love of shopping (78 percent), desire for responsible consumption (92 percent) and their trust in brands to act in the best interest of society (58 percent).

The authors note that this trend sounds very promising. “Driven by young, optimistic consumers in emerging markets and amplified by technology and social media’s influence, Aspirationals represent a powerful shift in sustainable consumption from obligation to desire,” said Raphael Bemporad, co-founder and chief strategy officer at BBMG. “By engaging Aspirational consumers, brands can further the shift toward more sustainable consumption and influence behavior change at scale,” added Eric Whan, Sustainability Director at GlobeScan.

The demographic data certainly backs up these hopes – Aspirationals are young (they’re the largest segments among Millennials and Gen Xers), urban, have a strong presence in emerging markets like China (46 percent of the population), Pakistan (44 percent) and India (42 percent). And they even show strong presence in major developed markets like the U.S. (36 percent), the UK (34 percent), Australia (41 percent) and Canada (40 percent).

So far, so good, right? Still, something still bugs me when I read these numbers and the analysis. Actually, I’ve got three issues that make me question the premise of the Aspirationals.

First, the numbers. The index states that the Aspirationals represent 36.4 percent of the consumers worldwide or nearly 2.5 billion consumers. The index also characterizes the Aspirationals as responsible consumers who say “I believe we need to consume less to preserve the environment for future generations” (92 percent of the Aspirationals), and are “willing to pay more for products produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way” (91 percent).

It seems though that these figures mainly represent a promise for the future that, for now, has yet to be realized. Otherwise, we would have seen a much faster shift towards sustainability among consumers and wouldn’t have so many companies complaining that consumer demand for sustainability is far from clear.

Second, it’s apparent that Aspirationals have this tension between consumption and shopping. You can see it in the following findings – while nearly eight in ten Aspirational consumers say “shopping for new things excites me,” nine in ten Aspirational consumers say “I believe we need to consume less to preserve the environment for future generations.” In a way, this is a struggle between the heart and the mind, or between the right thing to do and the thing you love to do, and I’m not sure sustainability can ever win this fight.

Third, it’s the premise behind the Aspirationals, which basically says that sustainability doesn’t need to win this fight because if companies embed sustainability into their offerings, Aspirationals can have their cake and eat it too. This approach is, in a way, a reflection of the concepts of decoupling and closed loop economy (aka the circular economy) that many sustainable leaders in business believe are the best strategies for a sustainable future. As Hannah Jones, VP of sustainable business and innovation at Nike explains:

"As we move into a sustainable economy, we will need to move into a closed loop economy. We will be providing products that allow businesses to grow, are profitable, meet the demands of shareholders but are also de-coupled from scarce resources… It's not about saying to the emerging middle class in China 'you don't get to consume as much.' It's about a new definition of premium products that are closed loop, using only materials that can be fully recycled."

But can we really shop our way into a sustainable future? If you ask economists and authors like Tim Jackson, Dan O’Neill, Paul Gilding and others, the answer is no. Why? Because, as Tim Jackson explains in his book, Prosperity Without Growth, when you do the math, absolute decoupling, where economic output becomes progressively less dependent on material throughput and hence the economy can grow without running out of resources is just not feasible. Scale always outweighs efficiency, he explains and therefore in a world of 9 billion people there’s a very slim chance that a decoupling strategy will succeed.

As Ezio Manzinir, one of world's leading experts on sustainable design explains, if you take cars for example, a car, per se, is not sustainable and even if you transform all the cars today to the most advanced, sustainable form possible, you will still have junk and traffic and you won’t be able to provide a mobility solution to all the people worldwide. Better cars can be useful, he suggests, but the solution is in rethinking mobility.

Will Aspirationals be able to think of solutions in terms of mobility rather than just in terms of eco-friendlier and better-designed cars? If they can, then their rise is definitely good news. If not, then their fusion of sustainability and consumption is definitely a sign of progress, but not necessarily of hope.

[Image credit: BBMG, GlobeScan, SustainAbility]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

Read more stories by Raz Godelnik

More stories from Leadership & Transparency