Sustainability seems to have cropped up a lot on the radar over recent months. It remains to be seen whether this is simply the latest marketing fad or a genuine desire to maximize efficiency in resource use, but I’ve always been a firm believer in “waste not, want not.” So I’m hoping it will be the latter and that this newfound interest will be sustained, and not simply a blip.

The difficulty for any company where becoming more sustainable is concerned, is getting its customers or consumers on board.

You could argue that this is a risk associated with any new business initiative, but given that the immediate qualities of a sustainable product are likely to be much the same as a non-sustainable product, you really have to have consumer buy-in for that sustainably produced and perhaps more expensive product to succeed.

Driving or responding to the consumer?

Rightly or wrongly, the consumer is still king, and any producer that may choose to go out on a limb for the greater good and fails to engage customers is likely to lose business to competitors that are focusing purely on cost, rather than how sustainably their product is produced and delivered.

There was an interesting example in the U.K. some years back when a long-established food and clothing retailer decided to reverse a long-held policy of sourcing locally. Customers had complained that its clothing in particular was simply too expensive.

The retailer started to end local contracts and source from overseas. The result was that its traditional suppliers had to make redundancies, damaging their local communities, and while the new ranges were cheaper, they came with food and clothing miles. And all of a sudden, consumer interest in locally sourced, sustainable production was ignited.

There is always a risk associated with being a pioneer, although in the above case, it was more a case of the retailer being out of step with the market. In an ideal world, any producer or any business needs to be as environmentally sustainable as it can be. But there is a tradeoff, and in a global market there is the additional difficulty of competing against countries where the regulatory framework is simply much less developed.

Consumers may say that they care about the future of the planet, but they care about their pockets more. That said, a recent study that examined consumer perceptions of the impact of livestock production on climate change found attitudes varied around the world with some groups making a connection that certainly made me think again.

Despite ambivalent consumer attitudes, producers need to take the lead, and not simply play lip service to the latest fashion, before the choice is taken out of their hands and rules and regulations imposed from above. Any science fiction fan who has been to the cinema recently will know what could happen when the earth’s resources start to run out and food production is strictly controlled.

With that in mind, the report referenced above also makes interesting reading.