10/28/2011 06:05 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2011

Sustainable Consumption Is a Myth

I've been in over a dozen meetings now with organizations like the World Economic Forum and the U.N. Global Compact where people use the word "sustainable consumption." Everyone seems to like the term, so I always ask them, "What do you mean by sustainable consumption?" The usual answer, after uncomfortable hemming and hawing, is that we don't quite know just yet. And that's not surprising. That happens to almost any word you put "sustainable" in front of.

Everyone also likes the term "sustainable development," and they can even parrot back the Brundtland definition (a United Nations commission, formed in 1983 and named for the Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland, said that development should meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs). But they can't tell you what a sustainable blender or sustainable car insurance would look like. That's not an accident. Sustainable development is a term that was crafted by diplomats hoping to get diametrically opposed environmental and economic ministers from more than 100 countries to agree on something their heads of state could sign on to before the end of a summit. They succeeded by being precisely imprecise as only diplomats can be. And precisely imprecise is something that sustainable consumption does well.

The truth is that sustainable consumption is a myth. That's because nothing is ever really consumed. Nothing goes away. And we've known this ever since the seventeenth-century enlightenment thinker Antoine Lavoisier elaborated the law of conservation of mass. The law says that matter is not created or destroyed, it only changes form. From a physical perspective, nothing is ever consumed. It can only be borrowed, which is exactly what life -- and Procter & Gamble -- do. The difference between life and Procter and Gamble is that the material building blocks of nature's products are constantly recycled from one critter to another. Material is literally reincarnated back into new creatures. This is sharing at a deep level, at the level of the material building blocks that can't be thrown away.

When you accept this view you begin to think differently about the "sustainable consumption" of your products. You begin to think like nature, in terms of building blocks that are fashioned into what I call sustainable materials platforms that can be used flexibly by many different products, and even by different companies.

Example: Coke. The Coca-Cola Company realized that while the soda may be "consumed," the packaging endures as litter. In fact it's branded litter and not something a company working to develop a reputation for sustainability likes its customers to see lying in gutters.

So thinking in terms of a materials platform, Coke created the fully recyclable plant bottle that could be cycled back into a new container. But as a flexible platform, the plant bottle could find other uses. And in February of this year, Heinz adopted the plant bottle for its ketchup packaging. Together the Coke and Heinz bottles share a common materials platform that, as others adopt it, will result in growing scale economies, lower unit costs and more stable materials supply.

Who knows what other uses the plant bottle might find, if product development teams began to ask not "What is the best material for this use?" but "How can I use this material in this application?" That's what nature does, producing everything from high tech ceramics to walking supercomputers.

So be careful with the term "sustainable consumption." If you are precisely precise you will discover that nothing is consumed at all.