A couple of years ago we were promised the “greenest government ever” — not a difficult thing in the U.K., but it sounded fun all the same. Sadly, the green stuff that was a major part of Prime Minister David Cameron’s “detoxification” of the Conservative party image a couple of years ago left no trace at last week’s Conservative party conference, and has largely disappeared from the government’s agenda in recent months — stamped into the mud as politicians slug it out on spending cuts, growth, stimulus, and stagnation. 

The new orthodoxy looks depressingly similar to the old one — in short, growth will lead us to salvation, and everything else — the environment included — can wait. What’s odd is that the key dissenters to this view do not come from civil society. Sure, the angry NGOs are still having a go, but it’s business that is keeping the flame alive here, miles out ahead of the government, and more remarkably, beginning to accept they need to be miles ahead of the consuming public, if the transition to sustainability is going to happen in any useful time frame. Even the marketing people get it.

Every so often, this quiet revolution in business breaks the surface as a call to action. Businesses leading the charge (and get some return on their investment) tend to use friendly NGOs as human shields, and a convening idea that doesn’t sound too frightening, to create some space to go further. The latest offering is from Forum for the Future, Sainsbury’s, and Unilever, who recently launched “Consumer Futures,” a study offering four scenarios for the consumer economy in 2020, built on assumptions about prosperity, how much we will expect of brands, and how much we will be able to do for ourselves.

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The study’s recommendations for business aren’t hugely surprising — innovate; be transparent; work with the value chain; localize. More colorful are the scenarios themselves. Products that might be with us in just eight years include the already familiar spread of ethical comparison apps, solar-powered clothing, and local produce, and more left-field products such as refrigerating packaging and waste-powered patio heaters. Service shifts point to more radical change, particularly in “from me to you,” a scenario in which peer-to-peer mortgages, hyperlocal produce locators, and gardens full of commercial hemp are part of a new return to self-reliance and local production. 

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Consumer Futures’ final recommendation is perhaps its most controversial: “Companies should use their marketing, communications, and innovation skills to create consumer demand for sustainable and profitable products and services.” This sense that business can ride to our rescue by creating new forms of demand and the products and services to meet it is becoming something of an article of faith in the pro-business NGO world, and given the abject failure of other tactics, it’s not all that surprising. But for business it means acknowledging that they create markets at least as much as they follow demand — something they are surprisingly coy about. And for some U.K. NGOs — particularly involved in the “common cause” debate about communications and sustainability — there is something fundamentally problematic about using the dark arts of marketing to promote sustainable behavior.

If Consumer Futures has a view on this debate it is mainly pragmatic, giving the many companies who buy in to their role as enablers of sustainable consumption but not yet really sure how to go about it a practical toolkit. There’s some good process advice, but ultimately business is offered a pretty taxing formula for its next generation of products and services: smart growth (that’s the kind with no environmental impact), smart use, choice editing, and positive social impact.  

Getting all these right remains a monumental challenge, and even the much trumpeted efforts of Unilever, Marks and Spencer, et al. don’t get us that much closer, especially as they and their peers all have their eye on meeting the needs of hundreds of millions of new middle-class consumers in emerging markets, keen to live as Americans do and not too bothered if this means catching up a bit in carbon emissions terms too. And most businesses still calculate their impact in relative terms — per unit of production or turnover, giving us the paradoxical situation where they can all meet their sustainability targets and still destroy the planet at ever-increasing rates.  

Ultimately something has to give. As Unilever’s U.K. Chair Amanda Sourry put it, “The old model of ever greater consumption, with growth at any price, is broken. Companies that succeed in the future will be those that reduce their environmental impact while increasing their social and economic impacts.” But for now, growth seems to be the only answer anyone wants to hear for the short and medium-term questions facing developed economies, and anything that might make it a bit more smart (or just a bit less dumb) while we wait for government to catch up, has got to be worth trying.    

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