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Solving the Sustainable Consumption Conundrum

Amon Rappaport leads a panel on the Sustainable Consumption Conundrum at SB '12.

The move toward sustainable consumption presents a conundrum: How should a company communicate the value of “less” consumption when its business is built on “more”? And why are leading sustainable businesses telling people to buy less—or not at all?

Patagonia famously proclaimed “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” over a picture of one of its best-sellers, in a full-page New York Times ad on Black Friday. Speaking at TED last year, Bill Ford, Jr., executive chairman of the car company his great-grandfather built, warned of impending global traffic gridlock and admitted that “I worry about ‘what if all we do is sell more cars and trucks?’”

To unravel this riddle, I organized and led a session on the Sustainable Consumption Conundrum at the recent Sustainable Brands conference, with three panelists who could shed light on this issue: John Viera, global director, sustainability and vehicle environmental matters at Ford; Shawn Parr, CEO of design and innovation consultancy Bulldog Drummond; and Lewis Fix, vice president of sustainable business and brand management at Domtar Corporation, one of the world’s largest paper companies — that’s also helping customers use less paper.

Along with an audience that eagerly engaged in the discussion, we covered the what, why and how of this trend.

The What and Why

Here’s a little more about what these companies are doing, and why:

The fine print of Patagonia’s ad stated, “We want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.” According to the company’s Vice President of Environmental Initiatives, Rick Ridgeway (who couldn’t make the session but spoke to me the day before), “We did this to get the conversation going. This is going to be about consumers redefining their relationship to stuff.” The ad was part of Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative, a partnership with eBay and consumers to make, buy and sell clothes more sustainably, including a section of the site devoted to reselling used Patagonia gear.

Ford is rethinking its business model to take advantage of the opportunities created by the global gridlock issue Bill Ford warned of. “We want to move from the business of just selling cars and trucks to a business of moving goods and people,” said Ford’s Viera during our session. “But let me be perfectly honest: What we don’t have is the answer of exactly how to do that.” So the company is experimenting with different solutions, such as promoting car-sharing through a partnership with Zipcar and working with city planners to encourage residents to skip driving one day a week.

Domtar has launched a program with several partners to help people decide when to print or not, and its Paper Trail lets customers see the environmental impact of their consumption of the company’s products. “We really want to be in the business of helping people use our products more responsibly,” said Fix of Domtar. “It’s about selling better to less people.” Yet with paper use in decline, the company is also experimenting with alternative uses for tree fiber, such as nanocellulose, a pseudo-plastic that can be used in everything from diapers to bone replacements to auto parts.

L-R: Shawn Parr, Lewis Fix, John VieraL-R: Shawn Parr, Lewis Fix and John Viera discuss the conundrum
How To Solve the Conundrum

Based on comments from the panelists, questions from the audience, and discussion among us all, I offer the following insights on how to solve the sustainable consumption conundrum:

    1. Tell stories that match your brand narrative

Patagonia’s ad works, said Shawn Parr, because it’s “rooted in their business case and in their authenticity.” Bill Ford’s message is also consistent with his great-grandfather’s vision and story: They both set out to bring mobility to the masses — it’s just the business model that’s being adapted to the reality of today.

    1. Elevate the conversation and create value

Doing this right means having a deeper, more meaningful relationship with consumers, and with colleagues internally. Domtar is adding value to its customers’ experience by engaging them in a discussion of how to use paper more efficiently. Fix uses that point when giving guidance to the skeptical sales team at Domtar on having elevated conversations with distributors.

    1. Connect your products to the long-term vision — and sell both

At Ford, Viera was challenged to promote the long-term vision amidst the short-term concerns of the 2008 financial crisis. So he focused on “what we can do with our products today to actually encourage people to consume less products but make more money for the company.” For example, they developed a tool on the dashboard of hybrids that gives drivers real-time feedback: A plant graphic grows leaves when the car is being driven efficiently, or withers if it’s not. They also introduced a “shortest distance” option within navigation systems. Viera and Ford’s marketing team positioned these to the C-suite and the marketplace alike as innovations designed to meet customer needs.

    1. Show me the money

At the end of the day, this is still about money: a strong business case for the C-suite, and a compelling value proposition in the marketplace. As Viera noted, the message that “using the vehicle less means savings to your wallet” resonates with consumers.

The art of it all is creating a long-term vision consistent with your business, and getting buy-in from the C-suite and customers alike. When done right, customers may not consume less, just differently. But that may be just what you want. Because if it creates value and builds a long-term relationship, you’ll ultimately boost brand equity and foster loyalty.

To see the full session, watch the video here.

Amon Rappaport is a purpose-driven brand and communications strategist who helps companies and causes tell great stories that benefit business and the world. As Chief Storyteller of Rappaport Communications he advances corporate responsibility and creates brand value for clients… [Read more about Amon Rappaport]

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