Between 1980 and 2010, the middle class worldwide nearly doubled in size, growing to almost 2 billion people. By the year 2030, it is likely to reach nearly 5 billion people. The middle class is the largest group, demographically, in terms of consumers of various products and services. However, growth of the middle class poses pressures on the natural environment and demand for resources, such as energy, food, and raw materials. Rising world population and increased production and consumption raise concerns about sustainability, which refers to meeting humanity’s needs without harming future generations. On the one hand, rising consumerism is a sign that living standards are improving worldwide; billions of people are emerging from the poverty that besets humanity. On the other hand, growing population and consumerism pose important challenges to planetary well-being.
The World Economic Forum has proposed various ideas for addressing sustainability, while ensuring people can obtain the products and services they need:
1. Emphasizing durable over disposable. Firms and consumers alike benefit from products that are relatively durable, as opposed to disposable goods that use more resources and fill up landfills.
2. Using renewable versus disappearing resources. Renewable resources are usually more cost-effective and encourage sustainability. For example, energy generated from solar and wind sources can be maintained indefinitely, while fossil fuels are dwindling over time.
3. Sharing resources. Firms and consumers must think increasingly about developing and using goods that they share with others. For example, homeowners tend to use lawnmowers, snowblowers, and other home-care equipment only intermittently. Economies result when such resources are shared among several households.
4. Favoring virtual products and delivery methods. Online product vendors use resources more efficiently than physical, “brick-and-mortar” retailers. Some products can be offered electronically, which saves paper. For example, many consumers opt for digital books they can read on Kindles, Ipads, and similar devices. Such approaches help reduce the destruction of forests and other resources.
5. Consuming locally grown goods. Many agricultural products must be transported long distances, which contributes to air pollution and needless resource usage. An emphasis on consuming locally-grown farm products can help increase resource sustainability and decrease pollution.
To thrive while preserving natural resources, companies will need to include sustainability in their strategy-making. Managers need to improve their understanding of how resources create new risks, but also produce new opportunities. Firms must devise sophisticated approaches for conserving resources and offering sustainable products and services.
For example, Otis makes the Gen2 elevator, which uses up to 75 percent less energy than conventional elevators. Recently, Otis established a green manufacturing facility to produce Gen2’s in Tianjin, China, which reduced site energy use by more than 25 percent. Builders are adopting Gen2 elevators and escalators, to save energy and help the environment. The Dutch consumer products company Unilever is cutting water usage and greenhouse gas emissions in its factories. The firm aims to increase recycling and recovery efforts in manufacturing, and reduce by one-third the use of materials in its product packaging by 2020. The Swiss food company Nestlé works with farmers around the world to help them increase crop yields, while minimizing their water usage and pollution. Nestlé has allied with nongovernmental organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance to focus on how farmers can improve access to clean water and sanitation.
Sources: Business & the Environment, “Food and Beverage Companies Serve Up Sustainability,” October 2011, pp. 1-3; Richard Dobbs, Jeremy Oppenheim, and Fraser Thompson, “Mobilizing for a Resource Revolution,” Mckinsey Quarterly, January 2012, accessed at www.mckinseyquarterly.com; World Economic Forum, Consumer Industry Emerging Trends and Issues (Geneva, Switzerland: World Economic Forum, 2011), accessed at www.weforum.org.