Welcome to the Age of Essential Sustainability: Where Less is More

12.04.18

by Ivan Bojanic, Senior Integration Architect, Gongos, Inc. & Nancy Walter, Integration Architect, Gongos, Inc.

In our lifetimes, businesses have operated under a simple precept that more is always better. Offering more products and more options fue­­­­led more purchases and more churn, which led to more profitability.

But it also led to a lot of waste. Today, consumers’ needs and priorities have changed, and they reward businesses that think and act sustainably; those that they feel are meeting the needs of the present—without compromising future generations.

We like to call it Essential Sustainability: Businesses with an eye on the future understand that it’s no longer a choice whether to adopt a sustainable approach, but rather, an imperative element of a forward-thinking strategy. Essential Sustainability challenges longstanding assumptions about what consumers want, and how we interact with businesses. Today, less has become more.

Why Essential Sustainability?

We’ve long heard the business argument for sustainable products and practices. We know that consumers, especially younger ones, are concerned about the ecological impact of consumption. They’re willing to pay more for products that are produced sustainably, and more loyal to companies that are working to lighten their ecological footprint. They’ll go out of their way to choose products and brands that make them part of the cause of sustainability.

But Essential Sustainability goes much deeper than that. Even the idea of consumerism and ownership is being flipped on its head, forcing businesses to rethink, well, business.

We Want Less Stuff. People are tiring of the role of “consumer,” and question thoughtless consumption as they consciously cut back. Google search “I want less stuff” and you’ll get nearly 2 billion results.

We reduce stress and increase feelings of calm by cultivating clutter-free lives and downsizing our living spaces. We recognize our individual roles in resource depletion by acquiring less or finding ways to multipurpose products. We find greater meaning in experiences than possessions. This “rebuke of empty consumerism” sensibility is reflected by the recent headline-grabbing work by world-renowned artist Banksy, which self-destructed after auctioning for $1.4 million by Sotheby’s.

We Need Less Stuff. It is increasingly easier to use resources only when we need them: we can rent fashion on demand, borrow outdoor gear or textbooks, and get a home-cooked meal at a neighbor’s house instead of stocking up on cookware. It’s having an impact on consumption and ownership: one study showed that the presence of Lyft and Uber reduced vehicle ownership in Austin.

We are Redefining Stuff. Digital is making it possible to rethink notions of what “ownership” even means when it’s possible to own a vast collection of cloud-based literature, music, or film that has no physical properties. It’s one way to cut unwanted clutter out of our lives while also living more sustainably.

Of course, this isn’t to say that we’ll ever stop buying things to own them—people will always want and need stuff. But the idea behind Essential Sustainability is that we’re undergoing a fundamental change in how we think about consumption, so the future of business is likely to look a lot different than its “more-is-better” past.

Rethink consumerism to stay relevant – and competitive

In the sustainable, less-is-more future of business, brands that embrace Essential Sustainability will be the ones that consumers trust more and seek out. Companies are already taking note of these trends; nearly six in ten are more engaged with sustainability than they were just two years ago.

This can take many forms. Most intuitively, businesses can redesign products and processes to be more sustainable, using fewer resources to produce and leaving less waste behind. Beyond that, businesses can demonstrate a more human sensibility toward consumption and rethink the idea of consumerism. Start by asking some simple questions:

What can we not sell?

At a time when many industry insiders feel we may be approaching “peak stuff,” simply producing and selling new products isn’t a smart business model. Home furnishings giant Ikea is increasingly investing in a “circular economy” approach in which it does more than just produce, it encourages reuse, even using its iconic showrooms as a place to repair and recycle products.

Can we sell less?

The desire to consume thoughtfully may be a reaction to a lifetime of messages to buy more. Businesses can incorporate the “less” strategy into their sustainability efforts by providing consumers with emotional space away from constant marketing messages. Since 2015, outdoor retailer REI closed its 149 stores on Black Friday as part of its “#OptOutside” program, encouraging employees and consumers to enjoy the outdoors instead of shopping. #OptOutside now has hundreds of partners, including Subaru, which donates vehicles to take shelter animals for outdoor adventures that day. 

Can we build more trust?

Brand trust is a top driver of purchase decisions, and businesses constantly seek ways to build it. Transparency about business practices related to ingredients, production, and company practices is a key driver of trust. Companies as diverse as Amazon, Absolut, and Chiquita proactively share detailed business information with consumers, making it clear that they have nothing to hide. And after pet food giant Nestlé discovered harmful practices in its supply chain, it publicized the results, with planned corrections, helping push the entire industry in a more sustainable direction.

Doing more by doing less

One of the challenges of working in a fast-moving business culture is stopping occasionally to check in with consumers, who may be undergoing fundamental changes. Today, we may be at such a moment; the consumer mindset is shifting from “Give me more” to “Give me less.” Less mindless consumption, less accumulation, and less depletion of dwindling resources.

Smart companies that pay attention to Essential Sustainability will make themselves more relevant, and more competitive in the future. They won’t stop at incorporating sustainable approaches to production and processes, rather they think far beyond those parameters. They rethink what consumption means, and why consumer notions are changing. They creatively find ways to offer more than just products and services, challenge assumptions about consumerism, and are transparent about how they operate. They’re on the road to doing more…by doing less.

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