At a recent conference on sustainable development, the Group Head of Sustainability at IKEA, Steve Howard, said the consumer in the West had reached ‘peak stuff’ including ‘peak furnishings and peak curtains’. A controversial statement for someone who works for one of the world’s largest furniture retailer. Howard was quick to add that this new reality did not stand in the way of IKEA’s target of doubling sales by 2020. The solution – IKEA would churn out more environment friendly products that helped consumers make better choices, or what Howard, referred to as the ‘circular IKEA’, where repair and recycling are served up as part of one big happy buying cycle. In other words, Western consumers who had hit peak stuff could be nudged to buy more so long as it came with a ‘green’ Kool-Aid to wash down the guilt!
Maybe Howard was being politically correct or maybe he truly believes that these two seemingly conflicting realities can and should co – exist, but a question worth investigating is whether sustainability within companies will always have to bow at the altar of growth? Can sustainability chiefs steer their bosses away from chasing higher growth targets without risking their jobs or being cast aside as dreamers? Because at some point, no matter how green your stuff is, it’s still ‘stuff’, and more stuff, necessarily means more drain on finite resources, more energy consumption, more waste and more of the same unsustainable behaviour loops.
But is there really a world outside growth for modern day organisations, beholden as they are to shareholder and investor interests? Enter Benefit Corporations – legal corporate entities in the US, whose stated mission, purpose and obligations extends beyond generating value for their shareholders, to include consideration for environmental and social impacts. This legislation opens a space for companies that are not driven by the single point agenda of higher shareholder returns.
Often mistaken for Benefit Corporations, another breed of companies called B-Corps are slowly making their way into the world of business. They aspire to the highest standards of environmental and social performance, transparency and accountability and place people and planet ahead of profits. The list of B-Corp certified companies is growing each year, but most of them are sole proprietors or small and mid-sized businesses. In 2014, Natura, a Brazilian beauty brand, became the world’s largest public B – Corp and in late 2015, multinational giants like Unilever and Danone have begun to engage with the B – Corp movement. These developments point to a different way of imagining growth and is definitely a positive trend.
An interesting example of an outlier brand is Patagonia, a US-based, popular outdoor clothing and gear designer and manufacturer, who has actively pursued an anti-growth strategy, asking consumers to buy less of their products. In 2011, the B -Corp certified company published a New York Times ad, with a photo of their jacket and the caption, ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ – advising consumers to consume less (and subtly hinting at the long life of Patagonia jackets). Ironically, the tag ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ showed up on the Black Friday winter clothing line the same year, and consumers flocked to buy the jacket, handing the company a 30% sales increase! A Bloomberg article reported that the ‘buy less’ marketing mantra has resulted in a surge in Patagonia sales, with new stores mushrooming across the US. Maybe the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Notwithstanding how the story unfolded, it was certainly a worthy attempt to question the premise of endless consumerism and growth.
In India too, conscious corporate behaviour is seeing the dawn of light with young start-ups taking the lead. Delhi-based Korra Jeans makes organic denims, with locally sourced materials, tailored from start to finish by a single tailor, thus departing from the ‘mass manufacturing’ model of fast fashion and embracing a model where work, craftsmanship, environment and social sustainability are all rolled into a pair of jeans!
But Patagonia and its ilk are still a blip on the radar. And while movements that give corporates a conscience are welcome, they remain Band-Aid solutions, in so far as they operate on the fringes. For most companies growth and profits are still the umbilical cord they cannot sever. And this makes things difficult for those sustainability professionals who are interested in crafting an alternative narrative that is not fixated on chasing ever higher growth targets.
One thing is clear – given the looming environmental and social crisis, there is no shying away from unpopular conversations, including those questioning unrestrained growth; and for better or worse, CSR and sustainability teams need to lead these discussions and forge collaborative partnerships to arrive at solutions. Acceptance and solutions will not come overnight, assuming they come at all, but the stakes are so high that we have to give it our best shot!
The fact that ‘anti-growth’, however limited its scope and effect, has seeped into the business lexicon, is in itself a progressive step. Besides, no matter how you view the solution Howard proposes to the problem of ‘peak stuff’, he did point out to a very important shift in consumer behaviour, and gave a warning of sorts. Perhaps for now the consumer will be satiated with green products, and IKEA and others can continue on their growth path unhindered, albeit in a greener avatar; but soon, that won’t be the case. Whether or not consumers come to question consumerism in all its colours, the Earth definitely is reaching ‘peak stuff’ and when that happens, the growth option will be off the table. The question is whether we act now and participate in shaping our future and collective destiny or we simply react to what destiny sends our way.
Antaash Sheikh is a communications and CSR professional, based out of Bangalore. The views expressed here are her own.