The notion of "sustainable consumption and production" continues to be one of the more persistent and vexing challenges on the sustainability front. The challenge, of course: how to balance global consumers' seemingly infinite needs, desires, and aspirations with the planet's decidedly finite resources. Aligning production and consumption at a sustainable level will require some combination of fixes on both the supply side (technological innovation that produces radical levels of efficiency, for example) and the demand side (promoting and incentivizing responsible and appropriate consumption).
While there seems to be steady progress on the supply side, the demand side of the equation seems unchanged -- and stubbornly unchangeable. Consumption levels in both the developed and developing world keep rising, with no end in sight. And consumers seem to continually say one thing and do another, a phenomenon known as the "4/40 Gap": roughly 40% of consumers say they're willing to buy greener products, but only 4% actually does, at least according to some surveys.
A new publication from the United Nations Environment Programme, Talk the Walk: Advancing Sustainable Lifestyles through Marketing and Communications, attempts to close the 4/40 Gap by promoting the use of mainstream communications and marketing strategies to change consumer attitudes. Say the authors: "The key to overcoming barriers to sustainable consumption while making a profit definitely constitutes the Holy Grail for marketers, with potential for delivering double-digit growth for years to come."
Such bottom-line-enticing come-ons, the authors' earnestness, and the publication's slick graphics notwithstanding, it's a tough sell.
Sure, there's some good stuff here, including a gallery of advertising approaches promoting some aspect of sustainability, from the subtle to the not-so-subtle (see above). Some of these are even laudable, such as the efforts by Grupo Pão de Açúcar, Brazil's largest retailer:
It aims at promoting small Brazilian producers by introducing their products to mainstream retail circuits. Products selected for promotion also demonstrate social and/or environmental value-added. . . . As a result, some 60,000 products from 69 different small suppliers have been sold in a little over a year, generating sales of US$220,000 and accounting for between 0.04% and 0.23% of sales of each participating store.
It should be pointed out that $220,000 represents about one-half of one percent of Grupo Pão de Açúcar's $43 million advertising budget.
And then there's the inspiring story of a campaign by Kia, the Korean car maker, to promote its Sedona model in the U.K. As a new kid on the block in the U.K. market, Kia seized on the public debate on climate change to differentiate itself from competitors -- including a daring campaign to encouraging walking instead of driving for short trips. Kia promoted the notion of a Walking Bus -- in which "a group, or 'bus', of children walk from home to school each morning quickly and safely under the guidance of trained adult supervisors." The campaign launched in 1999 and is still active.
But, speaking as a corporate communications strategist, Talk the Walk doesn't reveal many secrets -- and the insight it does offer often seems more sinister than sincere. One example is its notion of the "green Trojan horse":
As exemplified by organic and fair-trade products or first hybrid vehicles, the ultimate role of green products in shaping sustainable consumption patterns probably consist in changing consumers' attitudes, building confidence in new solutions or technologies, and acting as a Trojan horse in mainstream groups' marketing approach, to finally contribute to level the playing field, without necessarily going mainstream themselves.
That is to say, "Make consumers be greener in spite of themselves" -- my paraphrase, not theirs.
That's a less-satisfying conclusion than one would hope. Ideally, consumer product companies and their customers would engage in a robust conversation about how the former can profitably serve the latter's needs in a way that honors people and the planet -- and not simply sneak greener products into the mainstream. It would involve ads and marketing messages that inform, inspire, and incentivize us to change our buying habits -- and to understand how and why we should.
And it would involve more than just the companies themselves. In a briefing book on sustainable consumption and production that I co-authored a few years ago, we laid out five key strategies that would be necessary to accelerate meaningful change: Increasing consumer awareness and choice; promoting innovative policies; accelerating demand for greener products; demanding corporate accountability; and encouraging sustainable business practices. All of these need to work in concert to address the fundamental issues at hand.
It's not that our everyday shopping trips need to be deep-think exercises that ponder the nature of everything we buy -- not that this wouldn't be Nirvana. But the frustrating problem inadvertently raised by Talk the Walk is that fomenting a robust green consumer movement will take much more of a thoughtful, holistic approach to moving the marketplace than most companies are willing to take.