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Bringing sustainable consumption into the mainstream

02/08/2022

Intro

Over the last few years, a desire to consume less – and consume better – has been gaining momentum among individuals and businesses. A growing number of consumers are aspiring to a more equitable society, one that shows more respect for the environment. And while it may have the appearance of a mere passing trend, sustainable consumption is on its way to becoming the norm...

Bringing sustainable consumption into the mainstream

Over the last few years, a desire to consume less – and consume better – has been gaining momentum among individuals and businesses. A growing number of consumers are aspiring to a more equitable society, one that shows more respect for the environment. And while it may have the appearance of a mere passing trend, sustainable consumption is on its way to becoming the norm in years to come – in people’s minds as well as in law books throughout Europe. Sustainable growth is one of the European Union’s main objectives, notably through its European Green Deal. Since it is more important than ever for companies to future-proof, we ask Sihem Dekhili, lecturer at the University of Strasbourg and a specialist in responsible consumption, to help us decipher the stakes behind these new consumption patterns.

What is the circular economy, and how does it benefit business?

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Circular economy is part of an ecological and energy transition process meant to allow companies to offer goods and services produced in a sustainable manner. While this may seem restrictive at first sight, it is nevertheless a strategy that offers many advantages:

1) It appeals to a new base of customers who are concerned about environmental issues, all the while raising awareness among current clientele.

2) It allows companies to get ahead of future regulations, and in doing so, makes them more competitive and attractive than their competitors in the eyes of both potential talents and customers.

3) It raises awareness among employees and unites them around common values, giving meaning to their work.

4) It creates jobs: recycling is one of the pillars of the circular economy, and requires four times as many people as landfill1.

According to Sihem Dekhili, the circular economy is all the more important for companies as it goes hand in hand with consumers’ expectations towards a brand’s image: “There are reports that mention that consumers sometimes have higher expectations towards companies and brands than towards policymakers. Consumers have realized that the latter’s role may not be the most important.” The European Green Deal includes a new action plan towards a circular economy in this regard, so that these sustainable practices are implemented across the EU.

Greener supply chains

It’s perfectly possible to make supply chains more sustainable. Here are some examples of concrete actions:

1) Opting for non-polluting raw materials.

2) Using more environmentally friendly modes of transportation, such as rail or waterways, and optimize round trips.

3) Reviewing the energy consumption of warehouses by using low-energy light bulbs, ensuring their maintenance with environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, or using recyclable packaging for products.

4) Using indicators to track the eco-responsible performance of your supply chain. For example, the ECI (environmental condition indicators) allows for the measurement of an activity’s environmental impact, particularly in terms of pollution.

A few concrete tools and initiatives to reduce carbon footprint

To measure the environmental footprint of companies’ supply chains in a more concrete way, the CO2 AI Product Ecosystem platform has developed an AI-based algorithm that makes it possible to test different scenarios and move towards more sustainable practices.

Concrete participation from all stakeholders (particularly companies) is important if we want to achieve a sustainable transformation of society. According to Dekhili, this responsibility should not be placed solely on the consumers’ shoulders: “businesses are in a better position to have an impact on sustainability, and are skilled at influencing consumer behavior.”

Dekhili also believes that legislation is important because it represents “something quite strong that is likely to shift paradigms. However, the legislative branch cannot be relied upon alone because even in the face of urgency, politics take time.”

Everyday responsible consumption: from apps to small loans

Smartphone apps such as Yuka can make life easier for consumers, allowing them to scan a product and instantly get information on its composition – with a few sustainable alternatives thrown in if needed. What makes these apps interesting is that they provide consumers with more transparency on what they buy, making it possible to reach a demographic for whom environmental issues are important, but not essential compared to the composition of a product: “we need to mobilize other arguments,” says Dekhili, “especially individual benefits, like how this or that eco-friendly product can be beneficial for the consumer, their health, their well-being. Because a consumer buys a product for themselves, and the environmental and social issue may come second.”

BNPL (buy now pay later) is another solution that helps consumers out by splitting a payment over several installments, allowing them to choose products that may be a little more expensive, but that are more environmentally friendly and last longer over time. For Sihem Dekhili, the notion of fair price becomes essential: “there is a category of consumers who have strong constraints in terms of purchasing power. Today, everyone is concerned by responsible practices, but there are tiers of eco-friendly products that are relatively expensive, and aren’t within everyone’s reach. This is where the notion of fair pricing comes into play – this notion of price justice. Because, while many consumers are not necessarily against paying more, the price must be justified. There’s an issue around pricing transparency.”

In can be asserted that consumers’ values are reflected in their buying habits: the adoption of local products that are also environmentally friendly and respectful of animal welfare is on the rise, as are new ways of traveling, which also encourage better consumption. The demand is there, but companies also have a role to play to continue to make these practices accessible. Implementing them today means getting a head start on future European laws – and, besides, it shows that eco-responsibility is not just a question of obligation. For Sihem Dekhili, “companies are perhaps as important as politicians in this process, as they can have a very significant impact through the choices they make.”