“Sustainability” is becoming a buzzword among enlightened consumers and marketers. An environmental, social, and economic concept, sustainability is all about preserving resources for future generations.
Sustainability is a mindset. It signifies a shift from the conspicuous consumption and credit-card binging that have characterized the country in recent years to buying what you need, social responsibility, and limits. McMansions in exurbia, for example, are starting to give way to eco-friendly homes that are smaller and closer to urban centers. Massive, gas-guzzling SUVs are starting to give way to hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius.
For some consumers, the desire to conserve resources and create unique design statements is fueling recycling of apparel and furniture, from thrift/vintage stores and eBay to the “kustom” phenomenon, where things are refabricated into something new. Hipster bars like Botanica in New York even have monthly secondhand swap nights.
The interior design industry is starting to capitalize on eco-chic. ABC Carpet & Home Store in New York has a department devoted to recycled and reclaimed furniture. For some, sustainability is related to wabi-sabi, the Japanese esthetic that celebrates simplicity, earthiness, and economy of means. Manufacturers such as Greentea Design are making furniture from salvaged materials such as wood flooring. Bamboo is being used more often because it is one of the fastest-regenerating natural materials.
Various companies are looking to the natural world for solutions to problems that chemistry cannot solve. At Nike, sustainable design is part of a new corporate-wide mission called Considered. Designers are encouraged to create products that deliver more based on less—less energy, less chemicals, less plastic, less waste. At the same time that they are deconstructing the shoe, they are looking to nature and geometry to figure out how to rebuild it.
DuPont has allocated nearly 10% of its $1.3 billion research budget to extracting ingredients from things that grow and can be infinitely replaced rather than from hydrocarbons, which are mined or drilled and readily depleted. Smaller companies such as SeQuential Biofuels in Oregon are already distributing biodiesel fuel (recycled vegetable oil rather than fossil fuels).
The sustainability movement is gaining momentum on college campuses, shaping curriculum and new construction. At Cal Poly, for example, January was Sustainability Month. These students are likely to carry the sustainability ethos into their professional as well as personal lives.
At this point, progressive consumers are the most committed to sustainability. For them, organic product claims are no longer sufficient; they are looking for sustainable. They are likely to respond favorably to marketing initiatives like the current Starbucks print advertising campaign or the catalogs from Patagonia, the outdoor gear company, that ask customers to buy only what they need. In July, Wal-Mart opened an experimental 206,000-sq.-ft. store in Texas where the company is testing 26 eco-friendly technologies, from wind energy to alternative freezer units. Findings will guide the formation of a sustainability strategy. With Wal-Mart on board, the mainstreaming of sustainability is bound to accelerate.
Richard Leonard is vice president of The Zandl Group, a New York-based firm specializing in consumer insights, trends, and marketing perspectives.