Last week, The World Economic Forum published a report proposing a leading role for the private sector in scaling sustainable consumption. The document is clever but who, apart from companies, is going to believe it?
More with Less: Scaling Sustainable Consumption and Resource Efficiency
does a good job of setting out the challenges and opportunities. It points out that over US$2 trillion in global economic output to 2030 is at stake, and that business-as-usual won’t work in a resource constrained world.
Business, it says, can play both a leading and an enabling role in scaling sustainable consumption by transforming:
• Demand through interactions with the consumer
• Value chains through new business models
• Rules of the game through public-private partnerships.
A thrusting and can-do proposal, but one that also suffers from tunnel vision. And without a broader outlook WEF has little chance of wooing partners and building the trust needed to deliver on sustainable consumption goals. The solution? Tackle a few uncomfortable truths head-on:
1. Credibility. The enormous popularity of Annie Leonard’s critique The Story of Stuff (15 million views and counting) shows that many people see corporates as the perpetrators of unsustainable consumption. So how will businesses persuade consumers, NGOs and governments that they are serious about driving the turnaround?
2. Laggards. If businesses want a lightly regulated ‘leading and enabling’ role in the transformation to sustainable consumption, they must show how they will manage their own slow-movers and laggards. They are currently way too silent and clubby on this topic. It’s time to break ranks.
3. Lobbying. Too many companies promote sustainability publicly and then privately lobby governments for short-term economic gain. To be credible, leading companies must fight for sustainable solutions and make loud protests against unsustainable ones. That means standing firm against, for example, irresponsible tar sands exploitation –unanimously condemned as ‘ecocide’ at a mock trial at the UK Supreme Court last year. Are they ready to do that?
4. More is more. Apart from mentioning Patagonia’s bold ‘don’t buy this jacket’ advert, the report fails to address the idea of how less consumption can be scaled, probably because most companies are just too uncomfortable with the notion. Nothing’s changed then in the 17 years since SustainAbility’s report Who Needs It? triggered similar reactions.
5. Values. The report’s business case of cost avoidance, cost reduction, revenue growth and revenue protection shows how financial value can be captured in the switch to sustainable consumption. But the values case is absent from the report, even though it urges ‘emotional’ communication with consumers to get them to embrace sustainability. Shame.