World Economic Forum Tianjin 2012 - New Solutions: Sustainable Consumption

New Solutions: Sustainable Consumption


What creative approaches are driving sustainable consumption?
- Catalysing new aspirational lifestyles
- The Information Age confronts the energy industry
- Technology conserving billions of gallons of water
- Pricing and policy against runaway consumption


Peter Lacy
Senior Executive Partner, Sustainability Services, Asia-Pacific and Greater China, Accenture, People's Republic of China


Tim Wang
Senior Vice-President and General Manager, Greater China, Ecolab, People's Republic of China

Peggy Liu
Chairperson, JUCCCE, People's Republic of China

Chandran Nair
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Global Institute for Tomorrow, Hong Kong SAR

Colin Calder
Chief Executive Officer, PassivSystems, United Kingdom

Peter Bakker
President, World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Switzerland


So, were there any “new solutions” in the panel on New Solutions for Sustainable Consumption? Not really, but that didn't detract from what was by far the best debate of this year's Summer Davos for me so far. Certainly it was the most honest discussion about current and future challenges on taking sustainability to scale at speed and moving us beyond the current “pilot paralysis” that seems to have beset even the most progressive actors.

The panel was excellently moderated by Peter Bakker, former CEO of TNT and now heading up the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, who commented at the start that we had an excellent panel. He was right, but not for the obvious reasons. It certainly wasn't the most senior panel or the “glitterati” that we sometimes get at the Forum – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But in Peggy Liu from the Joint US-China Clean Energy initiative; Chandran Nair from the Global Institute for Tomorrow; Colin Calder from Passiv Systems; and Tim Wang from Eco-lab, we had four thinkers and business people who were deeply reflective and prepared to speak the truth to power.

Four themes dominated the debate for me on sustainable consumption – innovation, aspiration, regulation ... and rejection.

Innovation – a common theme that came through loud and clear was the need for innovation, both in business models and new technologies (and, implicitly, overall economic and governance systems). One panellist talked about the need to “challenge incumbent energy companies and incumbent business models” that are not keeping up to speed with the implications for the energy industry of the information-communication technology revolution. Citing the fact that he has seen energy companies refuse to go after energy efficiency savings – sometimes of as much as 25-30% per household because I think it would erode their existing business model and shave £16/consumer off the annual P&L. We also heard more on technology innovation from one company and its investment in water efficiency – already having saved 1.6 trillion litres of water in their operations – enough to provide water to Tianjin, the host city for Summer Davos, with water for a year.

Aspiration – another central part of the discussion concerned whether we could make sustainability “irresistible” and move Asia – which, according to our own research will make up more than 60% of the global middle class consumer population by 2030 – from the “American Dream” to a new “China Dream” based on profoundly Chinese and Asian principles of harmony and rejecting the idea of conspicuous consumption. One panellist reinforced this with a salient point: “Do we really think Asians want more cars in their cities?” and went on to say that not only do we need to look at changing aspirations and behaviours – which he conceded is an important part of the mix – but that we need to rethink and reinvent transport systems. He also made a salient point that leads nicely into the third theme. “Too much faith is put in the consumer and individual behaviour.”

Regulation – this was perhaps the most common theme across the panel, perhaps surprising in a discussion on sustainable consumption and consumers. But repeatedly the panel came back to the fact that we won't see consumer change at scale – and the kind of action required to create sustainable models of growth and stable, successful societies – without clear rules and a framework set by empowered governments. One panellist cautioned that too much talk of sustainable consumption risks being utopian rather than describing the reality of human behaviour as we observe it, and what we've seen necessary in the past to create public goods such as eradicating smoking in public places or avoiding drink-driving. Another talked about the real innovators on enabling sustainable consumption being prepared for a set of rules and frameworks within which to compete. We also heard that, for Asian governments in particular, there is a significant premium for action: urgent action to ensure their legitimacy as resource constraints, pollution, congestion, etc. become growing concerns and incendiary issues in Asian cities in particular.

Rejection – perhaps unsurprisingly, there was also talk of rejecting traditional models and thinking about sustainable consumption – and indeed business and governance. What was good about this particular conversation is that it wasn't the usual anti-capitalist slant, but had some pretty concrete suggestions. I'm not sure I agreed with everything the panellists had to say, but the fact that some of these issues are on the table in a Forum like this – as well as the clear point that “the emperor has no clothes” in making any real global progress on sustainable consumption – and certainly not set against the future challenges we face from climate change, resource use, population growth and rising expectations around the world. We need new thinking to move beyond incremental towards transformational change – or as I have spoken about elsewhere, we need to find “True North” on sustainable business that really steps up to the plate.

Overall, I felt that it was one of the more honest discussions I've seen for a while. I'm not sure it had all the answers, or that anything was particularly new in the “new solutions” (perhaps the one genuinely new idea being the idea of the China Dream meme that the World Economic Forum's Tomorrow's Consumer project is also exploring with JUCCE and others from across the FMCG and Retail sectors such as Unilever, Kingfisher, M&S, BT, Accenture and others). But perhaps that's the point. We actually have many of the solutions – if not all of the solutions (?) – available to us already.

The key is how to put them together in a way that creates the right global economic and political model to allow us to overcome the collective action problem we currently face – that our current system leads us to lowest-common denominators, and that to reinvent capitalism and the role of global markets, particularly new models of production and consumption – we need to be prepared to discuss the “big issues” with the “big beasts”.

In my experience, that kind of discussion has tended to take place at the periphery; perhaps this discussion is a sign that the tough trade-offs and decisions we need to make on innovation, aspiration and regulation are moving back to centre stage in the light of current global events and the realization we are not where we should be or where we need to be on sustainability and sustainable consumption.


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