October 25, 2014

A Not So Radical Idea: Encouraging Your Customers to Buy Less

There’s a growing movement in the green business world that’s about more than just creating eco-friendly products – it’s about encouraging so-called sustainable consumption. It’s about getting consumers to buy less and think more holistically about their purchases.

“The need to develop new consumption patterns is the mother of all innovation challenges,” wrote Aron Cramer, president of business social responsibility organization BSR, on GreenBiz.com.

Yet, the concept of sustainable consumption puts many businesses in an awkward role.

As a society we’ve become hard-wired to shop for low prices, with the assumption things can easily be tossed and replaced in a few years. Businesses have focused on getting customers to buy lots of stuff – not on creating products built to last. The problem is, that leads to a whole lot of waste piling up in landfills and harming the planet.

Technology Trash

To change that, environmentalists and business leaders are trying to rewrite the basic rules for what constitutes good business. The idea is that businesses play an essential role in promoting sustainable consumption through the way they make, market and dispose of their products.

According to a 2010 report by BSR, here are the three ways businesses can encourage sustainable consumption:

  1. Product design – How products are built – from the materials used to the durability to how they’re used – affects how sustainable they are. Businesses need to think about consumption patterns from the get-go.
  2. Consumer engagement – Companies are in the position to help their customers better use their products and engage them on the topic of smart consumption patterns.
  3. End-of-use – Creating plans for how products will be disposed of sustainably and recycled or reused can greatly lower their environmental impact.

BSR also acknowledges that there’s a great business opportunity with sustainable consumption. Businesses that show their customers their commitment to sustainability will ultimately develop more loyal and engaged customers. There’s an opportunity for small businesses to show their value compared to bigger competitors that typically compete mostly on price.

Some large companies have taken a leadership role in this movement. Outdoor apparel maker Patagonia has long championed the longevity and durability of its products. Just recently, it launched a new initiative called Common Threads that promotes the repair, reuse and recycling of clothing. The purpose, it says, is “to wrest the full life out of every piece of our clothing.” The company helps its customers resell their Patagonia clothes and offers to fix broken zippers and other clothing malfunctions for free.

More and more companies are using the same kind of language and working on ways to promote sustainable consumption to their customers. Ford Motor Company worked on a pilot program in Toronto promoting the use of public transportation. The company even acknowledged in its 2009 sustainability report: “By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on Earth…Putting 9 billion people into private automobiles is neither practical nor desirable.”

Is your company doing anything to promote sustainable consumption?

3 Comments ▼

Kelly Spors


Kelly Spors Kelly Spors is a former small-business and entrepreneurship reporter and blogger for The Wall Street Journal who has also written for Yahoo!, Entrepreneur, NFIB's MyBusiness magazine and The New York Times. Kelly is now a freelance editor and writer based in Minneapolis and has previously managed communications for an environmental non-profit that helps businesses find ways to be greener.

3 Reactions

  1. I like how fitting the image is because I recently tried to donate an old CRT monitor to a thrift store and they said they don’t accept them. Even thrift store shoppers are past CRTs. So what are consumers to do with these type products that are large and pretty much nobody wants to reuse them?

  2. Hi Kelly,

    Being an environmental friendly company is very important in today’s day and time. With the population increasing at such a rapid rate, the product consumption has increased tremendously and so has the waste. I loved the points that you’ve brought up in this post, I hope more companies become aware of this fact and take instant measures that would make our planet a liveable place for the generations to come. Thanks for sharing!

    Riya Sam

  3. Kelly,

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

    This may sound a little strange, but my first thought as I started reading it was about food.

    Restaurants generally serve so much food, portion-wise. There’s so much waste.

    Of course, there’s a lot of obesity because of this, too.

    Would it be considered “green” if food service operations stated serving smaller portions?

    The Franchise King®

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