In the time I’ve been actively engaged in business sustainability, I’ve noticed that report after study after survey that shows that a majority of customers have environmental and social considerations at the forefront of their mind when making purchases. For example, this 2008 McKinsey report (free registration required to read article) highlights that “87% of consumers worry about the environmental and social impact of the products they buy”. In the Australian context, research carried out by NetBalance for the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) reports “80% consider sustainability issues when putting products in their shopping trolleys”.
Yet this latent desire to make ethical choices in purchasing is also shown to be missing in action, outside of a significant minority. The same McKinsey report suggests 33% make such purchase decisions (which is similar to other reports I’ve read) and the AFGC finds that only 13% of Australians buy environmentally-sustainable food and groceries from the supermarket (as an aside: this figure seems low — I’ve seen other statistics that show organic produce as being much more prevalent than this, and that these purchases would be considered “environmentally-sustainable” — something to look into further). Trendwatching place these figures at 40% and 4% respectively (based on Journal of Marketing data).
In considering this gap, we find many stated reasons as to why intention isn’t translating into action. Most commonly cited is price — reports I’ve read (coupled with my own experience) suggest that customers aren’t willing to spend more than a 5-10% premium for “green” products, if they are willing to spend more at all. And of course products with a price premium were much more likely to feel the pinch of changing economic circumstances.
But there is more to it than that — performance is another, where “green” products are seen as inferior to mainstream products. As Joel Makower asks, why does “green” not equal “better”? Convenience is another factor, with limited availability of green options through mainstream channels (e.g. mainstream retailers, such as Coles or Woolworths here in Australia). Each of these is noted in both the McKinsey and AFGC summaries — and each is weighted against the environmental or social benefits of the product when making a decision. The AFGC report notes that only a small number will compromise on cost or convenience for environmental factors.
So what to do? We could try to change people’s priorities, to get them to change the weighting the put on each of these factors. I suspect this won’t get very far though… As I noted in my Web Directions South presentation, a lot of successful social innovations aim to actually flip the equation — to make the more sustainable option also cheaper, or more convenient, or have better performance, rather than forcing this kind of trade-off. Companies leading in the Collaborative Consumption space often fit this category. Trendwatching call such products Eco-superior or Eco-easy.
Bridging the gap
But why aren’t more companies doing this? Why aren’t there more products like this in the market? I think part of the challenge is that when companies are considering sustainability factors in their products, they focus on specific attributes of products, rather than thinking more holistically. What this means is that their consideration only extends as far as lessening the impact of certain ingredients — e.g. substituting an eco-friendly alternative as a key material or ingredient in a product.
Often this results in a more expensive product that doesn’t perform as well as the mainstream alternative. But more importantly, I think it misses the bigger opportunities of taking a sustainable approach to business – the kind of opportunities outlined by leading thinkers like Makower, Gil Friend, Paul Hawken and William McDonough.
These opportunities require a more holistic approach that considers the broader context in which a product or service exists. In Natural Capitalism, Hawken, Lovins & Lovins call this “whole of systems thinking”.
For those familiar with design thinking or service design approaches, this will be a familiar theme — core to these practices is assembling multi-disciplinary teams that take a broader contextual view (informed by design research) to uncover opportunities for rethinking the role of organisations and the products and services they provide that can create whole new classes of products (or, perhaps more accurately, product service systems).
The iPod/iTunes ecosystem is an oft-cited example of the possibilities of rethinking the system, rather than innovating purely on product attributes (while this isn’t explicitly for sustainability benefits, it does demonstrate the concept in practice).
In Blue Ocean Strategy, authors Kim and Mauborgne suggest a similar approach in their guide to formulating a successful product/business strategy. They reference this as an opportunity for innovation — without considering sustainability as a factor. However, it seems clear to me that the same principles are at work in books like Cradle to Cradle and Natural Capitalism, and are also cited in papers on design thinking in business (as I covered in more detail in my paper on Design Thinking and Sustainability).
This, I believe, is where design thinking and service design can play an enormously positive role in progressing sustainability. As it inherently takes an innovation frame, it is appealing to business. However, the opportunities for including the building of social capital and environmental benefits in the broader contextual frame of reference are huge — creating significant wins for business and society simultaneously.