Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Sustainable buy-outs, sustainable buying

Yesterday’s USA Today ran this story about the trend of big companies buying up small socially and ecologically conscious companies, like Tom’s of Maine (Colgate), Body Shop (L’Oreal) and Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever).

First, this shows the power of consumers in buying responsibly to make these companies with strong values successful. The article quotes the phenomenon as the “Rise of the Ethical Consumer,” and it’s clearly a powerful and growing trend.

Second, there’s the issue of consolidation threatening diversity and hurting the other ‘little guys’ out there. These are valid concerns, but I think the fact that the big guys are starting to really take notice and put their money down is a positive development that outweighs those concerns – at least for now. And the fact that there are so many social entrepreneurs and sustainable small businesses starting up also helps. One’s just got to hope that the positive culture from the little guys flows up to the buyers and not visa versa.

Finally, with regards to the issue of consumerism in general, the article raises an interesting aspect of the shift to sustainability. On the one hand we know we all need to dematerialize in order to stop violating the 4 Sustainability Principles, and cutting out rampant, unchecked, unnecessary consumerism is a huge component of that. This would seemingly make the sustainability crowd pretty much the worst target market if you want to keep sales volumes up, which is still necessary under the ‘old’ business models (before more businesses shift from providing goods to providing services, for example).

But most of us still feel those consumeristic urges (it’s almost impossible not given the power of advertising), and as the article mentions, buying more sustainable products is a way to feel better about giving in to those urges. Many environmentalists would argue that it’s not enough to just buy ‘better’ stuff, and that we really need to get at the root behavioral problem of consumerism (and stop confusing our needs with the satisfiers we use to meet those needs).

I would agree, and I would add that in this period of transition towards sustainability it is also important to support innovative, sustainable products and technologies – to “push” certain technologies, such as hybrids and photovoltaics – so that more sustainable technology and product design is rewarded and pursued, and the transition happens as quickly as possible.

Our collective purchasing power is one of the strongest tools we all have to promote sustainability, so it’s vital that we are all conscientious about what we buy – the little everyday things for sure, but more importantly the long-term big capital investments like cars and houses. Stay going…