Media: Lufthansa Inflight Magazine 2019
Publication Date: October 2019
Interview with Julian Hill-Landolt, Director, Sustainable Lifestyles, World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)
Making Sustainable Living Possible and Desirable
Sustainable living requires not just new products and services, but a shift in the type of “good life” that we aspire to, says Julian Hill-Landolt of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
There is no longer any legitimate debate about the role that consumption plays in driving sustainability challenges such as climate change. After all, the latest research shows that household consumption contributes more than 60% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and between 50% and 80% of total land, material and water use. Any efforts to address the impacts of our lifestyles will require both companies and consumers to play their part. So how will we all transition to more sustainable lifestyles?
People, all around the world, are aspiring to the kinds of high-consumption lifestyles that the global middle class enjoy: big homes, nice cars, air travel, electronics, fashionable wardrobes. Environmental sustainability is not rocket science. There is a finite quantity of resources, from metals to agricultural land and clean air, and we draw on these resources. As the human population grows in numbers and in wealth, we increase our demand on these finite resources. Sustainability tries to balance the supply and demand to ensure that we can continue to access and benefit from the earth’s natural systems and resources.
From a sustainability standpoint, there are things all of us can do to lower our impact on the environment: stop flying, stop eating meat, stop living in a big house, to name but a few. They are not hard, but, to most of us, they are not very appealing. They require us to change our current ‘normal’ patterns of behaviour, and most of us don’t want to change our lifestyles. This challenge isn’t limited to rich countries – it is present in middle classes the world over. A relative middle-class income— whether it is $10,000 or $100,000 per year — gives us access to the same things: a larger home, personal transportation, a richer diet and a lot of other products and practices that generate significant negative environmental impacts. The reality is that it is really hard to live sustainably when you earn a middle-class income, no matter where you are in the world. The infrastructure of our lives – the homes we live in, energy we use, how we get around, the supply chains we rely on, the things we spend our money on – they just don’t add up to a sustainable lifestyle.
If our lifestyles are part of the problem, and we don’t want to change our lifestyles, what can we do?
Telling people to buy less or do less has, unsurprisingly, had limited success. We need to be more realistic.
If we are to create a world in which over 9 billion people live well and within planetary boundaries, then we need to understand why we live the way we do today. We must understand the world as it is, if we are to change and improve the way we live to create a more sustainable future.
Change is actually already happening – just not as we expected it to. Globally, people are both choosing, and having, to adapt their lifestyles. As people flock to cities, the way in which urban space is used is evolving: people are having to learn how to live in smaller spaces and how to get around cities that they can’t park a car in. We see increasing interest in all aspects of healthier living in a wide range of geographies: people want to know a lot more about what they eat and the products they use on their bodies. More recently, they want to know what happens to some of the things that they use once they are done with them, such as disposable plastics. These shifts are occurring organically in many societies around the world.
What this means is that while people don’t aspire to less, they are beginning to re-evaluate what they aspire to. It’s no longer “more” – today, people are aspiring to “better”. They are redefining what it means to live well – away from “Good Life 1.0” notions of bigger, faster and more, and towards a new “Good Life 2.0”, which is smarter, cleaner and healthier.
By looking at the way people need and want to live around the world today, we can begin to imagine how business can help transform lifestyles for the better. We can build on the shifts that are already happening, providing products and services that offer people better and more sustainable, rather than bigger, lifestyle options.
How can companies help to make sustainable lifestyles possible and desirable?
Until companies actually make it possible for people to live more sustainably, why should people give up any of the things they are currently doing? We need to offer better ways of doing things and solutions that rely on smarter infrastructure. Where companies already have more sustainable product ranges, we need to make sure they compete less directly with traditional ranges and price fewer consumers out. And beyond just making more sustainable living possible, we also need to adjust our advertising to ensure that we aren’t promoting conflicting aspirations, or even just down-selling the more sustainable choice. Just think of a restaurant menu that offers a ’28-day succulent aged rib-eye’ against a vegetarian option that reads ‘pasta with cheese’ – we’ve all seen this.
Sustainability is still not part of mainstream thinking, but an increasing number of people — especially the millennial generation — are looking for better and more sustainable options that will help them to enjoy aspirational and happy lifestyles. They are already paying attention to social and environmental issues and are sharing their opinions about products on social media. Businesses should strive to truly understand their customers’ desires; they need to build a relationship where they feel responsible for their customers, so they don’t offer products and services they know aren’t going to help them to achieve a balanced and happy life.
It is the private sector’s role to bring out the responsible consumer in all of us.
Are companies eager to take the lead on sustainability issues?
More and more businesses are showing an appreciation of this perspective because it’s impossible to ignore the disruption taking place in nearly every sector. Start-ups are finding innovative solutions and new business models, and the incumbents are taking note. The world’s biggest yogurt maker, Danone, paid $10 billion to acquire WhiteWave Foods (WWAV), a non-dairy brand based in the US. Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club to take on Gillette by extending Dollar Shave Club’s unique shaving-as-a-service subscription-based business model. Auto-manufacturers are now having to react to the market that Tesla has helped to create.
Are there any other examples of companies that are already doing it right?
There are plenty of companies taking amazing steps – often these are smaller “B-corp”-style businesses. Of the well-known multinationals, IKEA offers a good example. The Swedish retailer has set aggressive circular economy targets to use only renewable and recycled materials by 2030 and has recently rolled out a refurbished second-hand furniture programmes and textile recycling schemes in a range of markets. It also really things about how its products can help customers to live well and more sustainably. BlaBlaCar is another positive example. The ride sharing company is valued as one of the few European unicorns. It’s an example of mobility changing from an individual asset to a shared one. This is different to ride-hailing services such as Uber, which have not yet had the positive effect that many had hoped for. If we take the example of New York city, we have seen ride-hailing contribute to increased congestion, reduced public transport usage, and even declining public transport revenues as taxi-licence rates, which used to contribute to public transport budgets, have crashed to near nothing.
What are the main challenges from a business perspective?
We need new infrastructure, new products and services, and we need to make the use of these desirable. None of these things are going to be easy. An advantage we now have is that consumers’ aspirations are shifting, and they are actually looking for more sustainable options. At WBCSD, we think that this aspirational shift is an essential precursor to the mass adoption of more sustainable lifestyles: business has a fundamental role to play through the way it communicates with its customers. We have developed a business guide called the Good Life 2.0 Playbook. Produced in partnership with Havas, a global advertising agency, the guide is designed to be used by brand marketing, sales and strategy teams to help them see how their communications could be shifted to inspire customers to live a life that is both more rewarding and more sustainable, placing their products or services into a world where people aspire not to less or to more, but to better.
What are the main challenges from an individual perspective?
Even for those individuals who want to act, it can be hard to know exactly what they can and should do. They have to deal with conflicting advice, confusing labelling and a lack of decent or affordable options. To give people a very easy introduction to the types of steps they can take themselves, WBCSD helped create a set of “Good Life Goals”, which outline personal actions that individuals can take to help support the achievement of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Good Life Goals are simple, collective and impactful actions people can take everywhere around the world – they give everyone a role in making tomorrow better than today.
Are there any particular countries that are ahead of others in terms of sustainability?
Action is being taken all over the world. Europe is often considered to be the leader, but it’s not quite so simple. For starters, where there is scarcity, there is very little waste – so those with the least usually cause the fewest impacts. Secondly, even when countries seem to be lagging, local action can help balance this out – for instance California’s state sustainability strategy is able to counter the actions of the current administration at a national level. And finally, things aren’t always as green as they look. The Scandinavian capitals are frequently featured as the most sustainable cities in the world, but the picture changes once you consider all the goods and services that are being imported. The truth is that people living in these countries are very rich — they go on holidays frequently, they have disposable income to spend, and the majority of people own a house and one or two cars, alongside their bicycles – and thus these cities have much higher emissions when you factor in consumption. The most sustainable cities are small, with well-integrated mobility systems that facilitate walking and cycling in most situations. Increasingly, they are also powered by renewable energy sources, and they have a positive approach in the way they look after their inhabitants, providing access to high quality green spaces, opportunities for healthy living, work-life balance, education, child and elderly care.
How do you see this area evolving in the next five to ten years?
There are some people who will keep ignoring climate change and other sustainability challenges – I say ignore, because the majority now accepts that these changes and challenges are happening. The financial and human costs will continue to rise, year by year.
A big question for the next 10 years is the extent to which we are led by those that choose short-term gains at almost everyone’s expense, versus supporting more long-term planning and the transformation of infrastructure and lifestyles in order to enable over 9 billion of us to live well within environmental limits.
As there are no companies in societies that have collapsed, from a corporate perspective, future profits and future sustainability will emerge from making better, cleaner, smarter lifestyles possible, and developing the infrastructure and policies that will support the shifts that are needed. We see forward-thinking companies working with increased purpose to make this happen – editing product lines, setting ambitious targets and collaborating to make transformation a part of their future.
There will be changes driven by individuals too: they will save energy and water, eat more plants and less meat, and take other actions to improve their own wellbeing as well as help the environment. But they will also interrogate what their idea of a Good Life is. They will ask why they need to work 14 hours a day to afford things they never use; why they take 10 three-day holidays a year rather than a three or four-week holiday where they really get to know a new part of the world; how they can learn to enjoy the world that they actually live in? And that is probably where the biggest sustainability shifts and gains will come from. Because once people aspire to live better rather than live bigger, it is remarkable how much more sustainable their lifestyles become.