The elephant under the table

If you couldn’t make it to the Sustainable Brands conference in Monterey last month, you missed a lot of good content, networking and discussion. The big question that came out of the conference for me was, “what does capitalism look like in a dematerialized world?” In other words, is a sustainable brand an oxymoron?

Sustainability is bigger than using harm-free materials or using less energy. It requires a fundamental shift in thinking, a long-term view and an exploration of new business models. It means redefining what success looks like, such as measuring the number of PCs leased and recycled instead of millions of units shipped per quarter. It’s the difference between GM and ZipCar. In the not-too-distant future we’ll be building products to last, reversing the trend of consumerism and disposable thinking.

This vision of the world is quite threatening to the status quo. We’re facing a tidal wave of change in the coming years, and companies can choose to disrupt their own businesses or be disrupted by an innovative niche player with less to lose and a willingness to skate to where the puck will be rather than where it is right now.

And that puck is speeding towards the future fairly quickly. A recent study by A.T. Kearney showed firms with true commitment to sustainability outperformed industry peers by 15% in the financial markets in the economic downturn. Another study by Aberdeen Group found that top sustainability performers realized 16% higher customer retention rate and an 8% decrease in sustainability-related costs.

It’s time to start asking what the sustainable version of your category could look like in five to ten years, and if you’re positioned today to be a leader or laggard in that world. Perhaps capitalism will never be truly sustainable but, as in horseshoes, getting close counts. Let’s all take a good hard look at the elephant under the table — what we sell and how we do business — and ask ourselves if there’s a better and more efficient way to solve customers’ needs.

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One Response to “The elephant under the table”

  1. Jennifer,

    Great post and yes this will require a fundamental shift in the way business is conducted. And there will be pain associated, but ultimately we all will benefit from a “value” based economy. Over the last number of years we have crated a disposal economy, think of the amount of fast food containers that are used and immediately disposed of on a daily basis, how “inexpensive” clothes have become and how often retailers change their color palettes so that consumers buy the same item in slightly different colors from one season to the next.

    Perhaps we will shop less but buy higher quality, less disposable goods and keep them longer. And perhaps society and the economy will benefit form this shift.


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