Session Summary: Enabling Sustainable Lifestyles: The New Business Frontier

Thursday, November 7, 2013, 1:15 pm-2:15 pm

The concept of sustainable lifestyles—inspiring, persuading, and gently coercing consumers into sustainable and ethical behaviors—is the new frontier for business. The global business case for companies to enable their consumers to live more sustainably exists, but is not yet widely explored or understood. What is the compelling business case, how do we remove barriers to change, and how can we create a veritable movement of global businesses to push forward on this topic? The Sustainable Lifestyles Frontier Group is a working group of global BSR members tackling the key issues related to enabling sustainable lifestyles. This conversation will present outcomes of the group’s work and share a business case on this topic, providing a call to action for business on how to enable global customers to live more sustainably.

Speakers



Highlights

  • Company interest in sustainable lifestyles is rapidly increasing. Brand representatives expect the number of companies engaged in sustainable lifestyles to double in five years—from 40 percent to 80 percent.

  • Companies need more publicly available case studies that show the business value for investing in sustainable lifestyles.

  • Designing options that eliminate the need for consumers to deal with tradeoffs will be critical to the success of driving more sustainable lifestyles.

Memorable Quotes

“What do we mean by sustainable lifestyles? If you’ve recently recycled your trash, drunk an organic green juice, or bought something secondhand, you are already participating in the sustainable lifestyles movement.” —Elisa Niemtzow, BSR

“Commerce inherently breeds consumption. But how might we look at commerce as a healing act, restorative, and a community-building tool?” —Caitlin Bristol, eBay, Inc.

“A company’s approach to influencing consumer behavior should be based on core company interests. If you don’t get this, you’ll be stuck in ‘pilot purgatory.’” —Solitaire Townsend, Futerra Sustainability Communications

Overview

Niemtzow kicked off the session by defining sustainable lifestyles and emphasizing that many people in the room are already engaging in aspects of sustainable lifestyles, such as recycling and buying used products. As individuals, she said, “[Sustainable lifestyles are] about ensuring that what we do, use, and consume in our everyday lives equates to well-being for ourselves, our societies, and our environment.” For business, sustainable lifestyles involves engaging consumers in new behaviors. Based on a recent BSR and Futerra survey (PDF) of brand representatives, 40 percent of companies are already engaging in sustainable lifestyles, and they expect this figure to double to 80 percent in five years.

Heiny explained, “Target has a public commitment to empower guests and team members to live a more sustainable lifestyle.” She gave the example of in-store recycling bins for plastic bags, small electronics, and bottles and cans. She also discussed Target’s Sustainable Product Standard, which was developed in collaboration with stakeholders. The standard defines a sustainable product, and it has started with the household cleaning, personal care and beauty, and baby care categories. Target also worked with GoodGuide to develop a tool to collect supplier performance information and enable the company to drive more sustainable design and purchasing decisions.

Bristol added that collaboration is critical to both sustainable lifestyles and to eBay’s business. She said, “We don’t succeed or grow without [collaboration]. We are very focused on what we can do—together—to bring new and more sustainable commerce to the world.” She then showed a video highlighting Common Threads, a partnership between eBay and Patagonia that encourages the reselling of Patagonia products on eBay. To date, more than 40,000 items have been resold through Common Threads. She emphasized that we need to think about commerce differently—as a restorative act instead of a consumptive act.

Townsend followed by saying that there is a large amount of information about the concept of sustainable lifestyles but very little on the business case for driving consumer behavior change. She explained that BSR and Futerra have been working with companies in the Sustainable Lifestyles Frontier Group to understand the business value and develop case studies. She then officially launched the group’s website, which provides resources and case studies for companies seeking to understand levers for behavior change, as well as concrete examples from participating companies. She encouraged companies to contribute their own case studies via the website or by contacting BSR and Futerra directly.

Niemtzow then asked the panel about their experiences unlocking the value of sustainable lifestyles. Heiny explained, “We wouldn’t be doing this if our customers weren’t asking for this, excited about this.” Bristol highlighted that Common Threads created tangible value for both eBay and Patagonia. A year after the initiative was launched, eBay experienced a 25 percent increase in used Patagonia products sold and a 26 percent increase in new Patagonia products sold.

Addressing the challenge of when and how to try to change consumer behavior, Bristol explained that Target is working with Stanford University to conduct research to understand at what point in the transactional purchase cycle it makes sense to insert a green message—if ever. Heiny added that the vastly different customer interpretations and preferences for sustainable products create an additional level of complexity.

Townsend explained that in her research she’s found three broad tactics to drive behavior change: telling, asking, and helping. She argued that business is generally unsuccessful when telling or asking. The role of business is to help customers. Delivering more sustainable ways to make customers’ lives easier and more enjoyable is how business can drive sustainable lifestyles. The panelists then discussed different types of consumers as identified by different studies. They agreed that while definitions may vary, studies show that consumer demand for products and services with more sustainable attributes is growing, even though consumers may not be using the term “sustainable.”

During the question-and-answer session, a representative from Ketchum asked the panelists their perspective on the “green gap” identified by some studies. The “green gap” refers to findings that many consumers who say they want more sustainable products in many cases do not actually purchase those products. The panelists agreed that many consumer purchasing decisions are based on culture and past experience and are, therefore, hard to change. The most successful way to drive the average consumer to more sustainable lifestyle choices is to avoid using sustainability as the focal point. Townsend mentioned that this approach can be particularly effective with male consumers, who have been shown to be harder to engage in more green behavior. She gave the example of Carlsberg’s efforts to get men to recycle beer cans at football (soccer) events. Carlsberg provided two recycling cans—one for the home team and one for the away team. This approach increased recycling by making it fun. Concluding the session, the panelists agreed that the key to unlocking consumer behavior change for sustainable lifestyles is to eliminate tradeoffs for the consumer.



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