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Panel: Sustainability cannot succeed through technology alone

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Changing consumer behavior won't be easy, but could prove a point of differentiation for businesses in years to come.

Here is a question that has bothered me every since I took the train home from consumer product goods giant Unilever's sustainability update in New York City earlier this week: Is technology innovation alone enough to help dramatically slow down the way businesses and people burn through the planet's natural resources? Or, will curbing water usage, greenhouse gas emissions and managing our growing piles of waste require a complete recalibration of our consumption habits?

"You need some of both: consumption changes and technological advances," says Daniel Esty, professor of environmental law and policy at Yale University. "Where you can change behavior, move it toward sustainability."

The core mission of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is, of course, to use technology to help curb environmental impacts in mature markets while simultaneously using innovations to spur growth for the company in emerging markets. This applies to every brand in the portfolio: from the Lifebuoy personal hygiene line to Ben & Jerry's ice cream to its water purification system, Pureit. Esty was part of a panel of sustainability experts debating the role of consumption versus technology during the Unilever event.

According to the panel, if you consider a mature consumer society like the United States, it will be awfully hard for people to convince people to, for example, take shorter showers to save water. But giving them shampoo that rinses out more quickly, as Unilever seeks to do, and you might get them drying off more promptly.

The trick is to help change behavior more subtly or give them carrots that make it worth their while. Otherwise, companies will find themselves faced with a dilemma: sure, your concentrated detergent in the smaller bottle may wash just as many loads of laundry as one with more volume, but which is the better consumer value? The concentrate may be a tough sell, especially if it costs more money.

"It needs to be in their interest to do these things," suggests Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Institute at Columbia University. Sachs is also the Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management, Columbia; and Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

One example of the latter surrounds Unilever's Pureit in-home water purification system, which was originally developed specifically to help address a scarcity of drinking water in India and introduced into that market in 2004. According to Unilever, there are now 15 billion liters of water being purified using the system. The company plans to extend the technology to Asia and Latin America. Indeed, it hopes to reach up to 1 billion people by 2020. It will take both availability of the technology AND changes in behavior AND new financing models to help get Pureit into the hands of people who need it, according to sustainability experts who are familiar with Unilever's strategy. Still, one could see how businesses could generate entirely new revenue streams tied to their sustainability initiatives.

"The world of extreme poverty is very complicated," says Sachs. "We need public-private partnerships. Typical [non-governmental organization] approaches don't reach the scale we need. I want to make a plea that good intentions be followed by good policy."

Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation with the World Wildlife Fund, says the role of companies like Unilever in changing behavior across entire supply chains should not be underestimated. But one of the most important things sustainability leaders can do, he says, is make acting sustainably a necessity. An imperative. In other words, it should be a matter of business survival up and down entire supply chains. And one should not be afraid to use some corporate peer pressure.

"We need to move all producers forward," Clay said, specifically addressing Unilever's pledge to use sustainable agriculture sources for its products. "We need to directly engage governments and reward performance. ... There is a challenge as long as there are people willing to cut corners. This is where government can play a role."

I've got to admit that I share the panel's skepticism that this will be a priority in the current economic climate. Especially in the United States. But according to the panelists, one way that things could move forward is if businesses spend less time lobbying and spend more time developing the solutions that could potentially change behavior on the planet's behalf. Says Unilever Americas President Dave Lewis: "At the end of the day, this is demand-led."

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure