It’s Not Me, It’s You — How Companies Can Encourage Sustainable Consumption

Quick takeaways from the 20th anniversary BSR conference – #BSR12

Ask 1,000 CSR and sustainability professionals what the biggest barrier to their companies adopting more sustainable practices in the coming years, and you know what they’ll say?

“It’s not me, it’s you.”

will.i.am at BSRThat’s right, consumers: it’s YOU.  General consumer disinterest in all things sustainability, to be exact. One of the key themes of the annual BSR conference that took place this week in New York was the need for greater engagement of consumers.  And who, of all people, showed up at the conference with a potential solution? None other than will.i.am, of course!

“We need to make sustainability a verb,” he said. Like Google. Or TiVo.

One company on its way to making sustainability a verb is Marks & Spencer. And what’s the verb it has chosen?

Shwop.

One part swap, one part shop. In partnership with Oxfam, the UK-based retailer is encouraging customers to drop off old clothing–any clothing, not just M&S–when they visit retail locations to buy new clothes. And they have enlisted Joanna Lumley to help bring the message to consumers that shwopping is a cool thing to do.

The rationale for asking customers to shwop, according to M&S CEO Marc Bolland, is that consumer engagement is the key to making true strides in sustainability. “Companies are getting really good at cleaning up our supply chains,” he said during Wednesday morning’s plenary session. “But we need to do a better job addressing sustainable consumption.” And that requires prompting behavior change in consumers, something that more and more companies are trying to do.

Changing behavior has traditionally been hard. Really hard. In part, this is because the choices that companies asked consumers to make tended to result in less functionality, less convenience, more discomfort—in short, less desirable products. In the infinite wisdom of will.i.am: “Why does recycled stuff have to look ugly?”

There are essentially two parts to encouraging more sustainable consumption choices in consumers: 1) Offering sustainable product choices that provide some additional value or experience to consumers, letting them feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. And, 2) Communicating about these choices in a way that makes them aspirational—inspiring consumers to choose, rather than telling them to choose.

According to Isabel Sebastian, who presented her research on gross national happiness at the conference, it’s about companies finding ways to appeal to more than just a consumer’s basic needs. Picture Maslow’s Hierarchy—most companies’ business models are designed to meet the recurring needs toward the bottom. But if they can create products that meet the needs at the top, essentially giving consumers opportunities to give back or to co-create impact, society will not only be happier—it will be more sustainable.

And then, it’s up to brands to instill in their consumers the vision of a sustainable lifestyle as one that’s desirable—yet attainable.

will.i.am’s new campaign with Coca-Cola, Ekocycle, is trying to accomplish this by launching a line of fashion-forward lifestyle products made of recycled materials, in partnership with iconic brands like Levi’s and New Era. Having a celebrity spokesperson like will.i.am (or Joanna Lumley, in the case of M&S) advocating for the “cool factor” of making the sustainable choice can’t hurt, too.

It will be interesting to see how many other companies begin to engage their consumers to join them in broader sustainability efforts in the coming months, and to what degrees they are successful.

What do you think – are you inspired to shwop or to join will.i.am and Coca-Cola in the Ekocycle movement? We’d love to hear your thoughts on how companies can learn from campaigns like these to rally their consumers around sustainability.

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