Building brands in a changing society

Consumerism Done Differently: Part 1

Our consumer culture sure doesn’t make it easy on the planet.

The most basic household items – food, beverages, cleaning supplies, personal care items – come packaged in every combination of metal, glass, plastic and paper. Coveted personal electronics become obsolete with the next high-profile release. Today’s must-have clothing, shoes, toys and other personal items are meant to be replaced next season. Take-out food and drinks come in throwaway containers.

It’s a culture of amass, use and discard – and it takes a direct toll on the environment, from the energy and raw materials required to produce, package and ship consumer goods to the final disposal of used or unwanted items. Some ends up as landfill; some is optimistically placed in the recycling bin with the vague hope that it will be usefully repurposed in a distant plant. Much is downcycled, the term used by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle to Cradle, to describe using waste to create products of lesser functionality or quality, like blending used water bottles with lower grade plastic to manufacture speed bumps. Brands and consumers share responsibility for continuing the cycle; consumers with our seemingly endless demand for comfort and convenience, and brands offering a steady supply of both. And yet there is hope for the environment. A number of brands are at the forefront of addressing the environmental issues that our consumer culture creates.

These brands are trying to better align their offerings with society’s changing values in four key ways: choice editing, collaborative consumption, owning the lifecycle and vertical greening. Here’s a look at the first two:

Choice editing

Helping consumers make better choices for the planet can start with what’s on the retail shelf. Brands can nudge consumers to sustainable behaviour in relatively painless manner simply by removing or replacing products that don’t support environmental goals, otherwise known as choice editing. Ikea narrowed consumer options when it became the first North American retailer to eliminate incandescent light bulbs and replace them with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL) that use 80% less energy and can last 6 – 8 times longer. This was ahead of American and Canadian legislation that phases out sales of incandescent lights from all retailers by 2012. Another example is Loblaw, which has committed that all the seafood sold in its stores – whether canned, frozen, wild or farmed – will come from sustainable sources by the end of 2013. It’s a substantial undertaking for Canada’s largest buyer and seller of seafood but it means that consumers no longer need to debate the merits of choosing sustainable seafood. The choice was made for them.

Collaborative consumption

Fueled by a down economy and embraced by a digital generation raised on file sharing, collaborative consumption allows strangers to share the costs and benefits of goods and services. The cost-conscious can now swap used books throughBookMooch, find a welcoming berth in a foreign land through CouchSurfing, rent out an unused driveway at ParkatmyHouseand enjoy the fruits of someone else’s garden at Neighborhood Fruit. While there’s a clear benefit to the environment when people buy less and share more, collaborative consumption isn’t just for socially-conscious ventures – it can also be big business. Zipcar, a car sharing club with 605,000 members, is one of the more established brands with a business model premised on sharing. Another growing company is Bixi Bikes, a public bicycle system offered in cities across Canada and the US with subscription or pay-as-you-go access. And, of course, examples abound in the virtual world. These includeAirbnb, an online marketplace that lets vacationers rent spare rooms and other unique spaces, and Prosper, connects people with money to those who need to borrow.

In Part 2:

Owning the lifecycle and vertical greening. A look at how Patagonia takes responsibility for its product long after its customer leaves the store and how Starbucks is addressing one of the defining sustainability issues of its category: the disposable coffee cup.

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