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Sustainable Consumption in Times Like These

In a recent story on NPR’s All Things Considered, Martin Kaste provides a thought-provoking commentary on ads: “Selling Americans on the Virtuous Recession.” He argues that companies from Sprint to Hyundai to Allstate Insurance are marketing their products as good investments or even “thrifty.”

Perhaps this approach is in reaction to companies posting year-end earnings (in some cases) as low as 1982 – the date of our last recession. After all, companies often bank on the holiday period as a time when consumers splurge and pamper, allowing retailers to make up for failed marketing campaigns or slower than expected sales earlier in the year.

But that was not the case in 2008.  This past December when walking through the mall I didn’t see any frenzied shoppers. In fact, it was somewhat peaceful and quiet. For me, this was a wonderful revelation – it’s usually difficult to get me into a mall without feeling overwhelmed or a strong need to leave before obtaining the item that warranted a visit in the first place. During the holidays and thereafter, the discussions I’ve had with friends about spending patterns focus on the financial crisis. “People are tightening their wallets,” one friend told me. “We’re all watching our spending,” said another. “I’m being thoughtful about my purchases.”

That’s interesting, I thought in all of those instances. As we’ve learned with the current financial crisis, so many people have been spending beyond their means and buying many items on a whim. “Say, there’s a nice sweater/ hand bag/ gadget,” (insert your own personal indulgence or weakness here; for me, it usually relates to the sport I’ve decided to try this season). How many people have thought, Do I really need that?

How did we get so far from Thoreau’s simplistic lifestyle and defiance of materialism to our current levels of personal bankruptcy, lack of responsibility, and 40% of American families (according to Federal Reserve Bank statistics in 2007) spending more than they earn? And for those consumers who are approaching their spending more carefully, thoughtfully, consciously – should it take a financial crisis to prompt the change?

While Thoreau embraced the outdoors to leave behind the commercialization of Main Street and the products it sold, I’m not necessarily advocating that we should do the same. But there is something to be said for minimalism.

My perspective might come as a surprise from someone who works at a retail company. At Timberland, our success depends on shoppers buying things – boots, shoes, t-shirts, socks, etc. – and our company, like many others, has also relied on the holiday season to meet year-end sales goals. I like to believe that many of our products are used by people who need them for their jobs or to function better. Construction workers use our PRO line to ensure they’re safe on the job. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy nature in well-performing and supportive boots. Even city-bound customers may have functional needs rather than a simple desire. My husband, for example, complains of wet feet when walking to work on cold, rainy days in Boston. A pair of waterproof oxford shoes helped!

Whether because of the current recession or start of a new year filled with the promise of change, shoppers these days are faced with choices that might seem different than before. For items you need (or even want), where do you spend your hard-earned dollars? Can you prioritize spending less? And what is the responsibility of companies to help create sustainable consumption patterns within our society?

Here are a few ways that companies help:

1.  Communicate the environmental attributes of products.
It’s not always easy for the average shopper to tell how “green” a product is. While the threat of greenwashing is real, giving consumers more (rather than less) information about green products, and ensuring you can credibly back up those claims, will educate prospective buyers and also help your company differentiate. More and more companies are creating product labels that help empower consumers to make responsible choices. Examples include labels like REI’s ecoSensitive icons or Timberland’s Green Index that alert consumers to products made from materials that are recycled, renewable and/or less carbon-intensity.

2.  Remember responsibility doesn’t expire when the product does. Even when armed with greater knowledge about materials going into needed or desirable goods, neither consumers or companies can have a strong of understanding consumption patterns without considering what happens when products’ useful lifetime has expired. Initiatives like Dell’s computer-take back program and Patagonia’s Common Threads give consumers options for safe and responsible disposal — or better yet, consideration for repair or reuse. You might find that using recycled materials also helps you lower your production costs, as has been the case with Timberland’s new green rubber initiative.

3.  Design with durability in mind. In today’s financial crisis, consumers are likely to prioritize high-quality products that will last a long time and won’t go out of style. Durable products might sometimes cost more, but they don’t need to be replaced as frequently and often aren’t purchased on a whim. We get lots of feedback that our trademark yellow boots fall into this durability category. Companies that create durable or recyclable products empower consumers to think differently about their purchases. They also help us build brand loyalty and close the loop for our “throw away” culture.

By changing design habits and making more conscious choices within that process, companies can help consumers be more responsible. Consumers that make values-based decisions, in turn, give companies the positive feedback they need to produce sustainable products. That’s a production and consumption cycle I can get behind – both at home and at work. In this period of financial woe it might also save your company some money. After all, it’s not just everyday consumers that are looking to cut costs.

Beth Holzman is the CSR Strategy & Reporting Manager at The Timberland Company.

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4 thoughts on “Sustainable Consumption in Times Like These

  1. Beth Holzman is absolutely right in her assertion that companies need to provide better information about the green attributes of their products. It will not only help consumers be more responsible, it will also help companies build their brand. The most sustainable brands are built on trust, and that requires credible communications. You can be the greenest company possible, but if no one believes you, you won’t go the distance.

  2. While I wholeheartedly endorse what Beth has so eloquently discussed, another critical point needs to be made. Despite these ‘lean’ economic times on both sides of the cash register, its critical that manufacturing companies and service providers across all sectors continually seek “lean” and efficient methods to manufacture their goods and provide services. Process efficiencies with an eye toward sustainable resource conservation and product life cycle management helps companies cut waste and remain comnpetitive. So don’t accept the excuse that “we are watching our spending” without asking how effectively organizations are focusing on life cycle costs and resource optimization.

  3. Beth, you say:

    “…for those consumers who are approaching their spending more carefully, thoughtfully, consciously – should it take a financial crisis to prompt the change?”

    I believe the elephant in the living room, which we rarely discuss, is the embedded, intrinsic schizophrenia of consumer capitalism. We get two conflicting messages — buy a lot, we need the money and you need the products -vs- buy, but judiciously, not too much, and not unnecessarily.

    Urging addicts to reduce their drug use without *also* curbing the exploitative and manipulative activities of pushers won’t produce very good results. When a pusher is stalking a client, a disciplined, responsible and boundaried one won’t provide as much profit as a vulnerable or needy one. All the better if you can “hook” a user in and get them to provide a regular cash flow.

    But the dual messages of spend/don’t spend, buy/don’t buy are pure crazymaking and don’t actually empower anyone. My personal belief is that companies, especially in the US, need to see the bottom line as only one element in a whole palette of business goals, and not even the primary one. Have you ever stopped to wonder why businesses in Europe aren’t considered mature or stable unless they’ve been around for 300 years? Whereas here we go for the instant fix, and would generally consider stable business performance over many years without a significant increase to be a “failure.”

  4. Lots of interesting comments here. It’s sad to think a majority of the population has a “throwaway” mentality about products and where money is spent. The quality of consumer good has dropped drastically because it has been more important to have more than to have things that will last. In my opinion, this is also an important aspect of “green,” because if you only need to buy something every couple of years, then you are purchasing a lot less in the long run.

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