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Sustainability: This Year’s Model

By: Jeff Falk
Posted: February 2, 2010, from the February 2010 issue of GCI Magazine.

Any business in any industry is both consumer and creator of consumers. There is no denying the range of benefits this has meant for the quality of life and the proliferation of businesses, but we’ve long operated and consumed in bubbles, allowing ourselves to disconnect what and how we consume from the impact of consumption. Sustainability is about taking a pin to the bubble. It’s eliminating the disconnect, realizing a continuum, recognizing cause and effect.

It is difficult to lay blame, if there is indeed blame to be had, for how industry has served consumer bases. Industry had a goal, to create desirable products to serve a given need. Then industry was challenged: how to create enough product effectively and efficiently enough to serve an ever-growing population of consumers. The challenge was undertaken and, largely, solved. But in doing so, the bubble was created. In both the quest to serve more consumers and in the accomplishment of that quest, it was difficult to consider anything else—the consequences of creating.

But, before world leaders met in Copenhagen, it was clear that a turning point had been reached. Momentum toward sustainability/eco-friendly/green has been evident, but both suppliers and brand owners made 2009 a year in which many of these efforts were primary and crucial to the brand mission.

It may be true that what spurred many efforts was improved cost efficiencies; it may also be true that the economy played its own instigative role. In the July 2009 issue of GCI magazine, Liz Grubow wrote that the downturn of the global economy resulted in consumers slowing their consumption habits. Beauty marketers, fueled by this trend, divested in busy aesthetics, excess packaging and multiple vessel shapes/sizes to concentrate more on brand storytelling, introducing refillables and using materials that harken back to the past—i.e., glass bottles, natural ingredients. In other words, sustainability grew as a necessity in order to continue to sell to consumers growing reluctant to buy.

Even if this was the lone factor—though doubtful, after considering a broader scope of efforts, such as the cradle-to-cradle initiatives in which waste is eliminated by recycling materials or products into new or similar products at the end of the intended life—so what? Is it the cause or the effect that is critical here? It’s arguable that the effect is much larger in this case. Grubow, in her July 2010 column, outlined major brand after major brand undertaking sustainable efforts, and those efforts are not waning.