A global culture of consumerism has firmly taken hold – the average British woman buys half her body weight in clothing every year; a typical American purchases more stuff every day than an average American weighs; more than 30 million tons of food was dumped in landfills in the US in 2009; and the largest shopping centre in Europe has just opened as the gateway to the London 2012 Olympics. Yet as resources become more constrained, economies stall and businesses begin to think more innovatively about different ways of delivering value to the customer, there are some signals of hope for a reversal in the way that consumers value and use products and services.

Trend #1 – Companies driving behaviour change of consumers.

Recognizing that only 7% of their environmental footprint is in the production of their health and beauty products and 93% is in the way the consumers use them in terms of water and energy, Alliance Boots has developed 10-minute e-learning sessions for staff that will leverage the employees’ relationship with customers to influence the way customers use products.

The Challenge: How can companies use their core assets and connections with consumers to drive behaviour change?

Trend #2 – Selling less and repairing and recycling more. “The greenest product is the one that already exists.” – eBay

The Common Threads Initiative launched by eBay and Patagonia asks customers to not buy something if they don’t need it. If they do need it, they ask customers that they buy what will last a long time – and to repair what breaks, reuse or resell whatever they don’t wear any more. In return, Patagonia has committed to make products that last and help repair quickly anything that breaks. Patagonia and eBay have set up an online marketplace for Patagonia gear.

The Challenge: Are companies ready to create brand value in the secondary markets?

Trend #3 – Collaborative consumption: “What’s mine is yours.”

Car sharing, space sharing, storage sharing, clothes swapping, textbook renting – you name it, we can share it! Start-ups are popping up all over the world with these ideas, and mainstream companies are taking notice. For example, BMW recently launched its On Demand BMW care hire service in Munich, and Amazon allows Kindle users to loan books to friends and family.

The Challenge: Can companies make collaborative consumption scalable and profitable?

Trend #4 – It’s the economy, Stupid.

Polls during the recession in 2010 found that nearly half of Americans said they were spending less time buying nonessentials, and more than half were spending less money in stores and online. As America teeters on the edge of a double-dip recession and consumer confidence remains low, Americans are spending less time buying goods and services and more time cooking or taking part in organizational, civic and religious activities according to some studies, and they are driving fewer miles and choosing (and loving) the staycation. Is the great land of consumerism making a change for the better?

The Challenge: Can companies afford to lose sales in non-essential products and instead create profit from experiential and/or service oriented business models?

To consume or not to consume, what to consume, how to consume – it is time for businesses to take heed of these trends and look through new lenses. The key question is what will be the new profit or shared prosperity models for those companies that choose to follow these trends.

SustainAbility will discuss these and other insights on sustainable consumption at a webinar with members of our Engaging Stakeholders Network on September 28th. If you are interested in joining the network and would like to attend the webinar, we have a limited number of guest places so please get in touch.

Caren Holzman


Caren Holzman

Based in London, Caren leads SustainAbility’s London team, addresses issues related to supply chain engagement, sustainable sourcing and poverty alleviation, and is a member of SustainAbility’s Management Team. Over her