How Can We Make Money Encouraging People to Consume Less?

This was the question someone posted on Quora. In case you are unfamiliar with Quora, it’s a site where people post and answer questions. Sounds simple, but the standards of quality are high and the experience is often very good. I highly recommend you invest a little time getting to know the site.

In any case, that question—”How can we make money encouraging people to consume less?”—caught my eye. It has the ring of despair, doesn’t it? How are we going to save the planet? To do so we have to consume less, but how in the world are we going to do that in a market economy that is driven by increasing consumption?

There’s no need for despair, although some of the answers that people posted were pretty negative. take this one, for instance:

Consumption is all about triggering dopamine. The problem is that multiple psychological factors (including childhood abuse, bullying, chronic stress) predispose certain types to any number of addictive behaviors…

Some folks posted some pretty interesting theoretical comments too. But I felt I had to jump in with some specific, real-world examples of how companies are making money while reducing consumption. Some of them are poster children for “sustainable/collaborative consumption.”  Readers of this blog may be already familiar with these examples, but in case you’re not, I’ve reposted them below. If you have other examples or additional thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

ZipCar and other car sharing services make vehicles available to us for just the hours we need them, and not a whole day. We “consume” less of the car; they make money.

Interface carpet recovers and recycles worn out carpet tiles into new carpet tiles. We get our floors covered, but consume less material in the process. Interface makes money. Armstrong World Industries has a similar story featuring ceiling tiles.

Procter & Gamble is an interesting case, for two reasons. They claim to have formulated Tide so that it works as well in cold water as hot water. They are working to persuade consumers to wash more in cold water–and to do it with Tide. Consumption of fossil fuels goes down, profits to P&G go up. At the urging of Walmart, they are offering an expanded set of concentrated formulations that contain less water. Water consumption goes down, P&G makes money.

My final examples predates the use of the term “sustainability.” Fancy food, tiny portions, less consumption, more profit. High fashion, tiny bikini, less consumption, more profit.

My point is that it’s not that hard to imagine low-consumption ways of making money. But it may be a challenge for companies wedded to wasteful business models.

Other thoughts or examples?

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1 Comment

Filed under sustainability

One response to “How Can We Make Money Encouraging People to Consume Less?

  1. Very interesting article. I’ve never thought of the ZipCar example from that perspective. It did make me really think.

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