The consumer conundrum: consume or conserve?

The consumer conundrum:  consume or conserve?

I spoke at the International Builder’s Show last Thursday and started my day with a run on the treadmill.  Warren Buffet was being interviewed on the TV in the fitness room and he said, as have countless other economic experts, “We need to get people spending money again.”  I didn’t think much about it until I walked into the Convention Center a few hours later and saw several “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” banners hanging throughout the hall.  In essence, we’re telling consumers, “you need to go out and buy new stuff so we can bring the economy back and create jobs for your neighbors,”but then at the same time we’re telling them, “Oh don’t go buy a bunch of new stuff, it consumes resources and that’s bad…think about your grandchildren.”

So what’s a consumer to do — save their neighbors’ jobs or save their grandchildren? And as marketers, how are we to strike the right balance?

For now, the emphasis needs to be on recycling.  Consumers understand it (for many green = recycling), they give manufacturers brownie points for it (in our Eco Pulse study they consistently rank companies who recycle as highly green), and we’ve still got a lot of room for improvement in this area (in short, we still make a lot of products that can’t be recycled).

A company who’s striking the right balance is Preserve Products. This company was created as an answer to the question, “what do they do with all that plastic I put in my blue bin every week?”  Specifically, they make personal care, tableware and dinnerware products out of it.  And should any of those products wear out (a toothbrush eventually will), they take those back and make even more products.  They have take-back stations set up at retail all across America for number 5 plastic, and they have deals struck with manufacturers whose products go in plastic (Stoneyfield farms yogurt, for example) to recycle all that, too.

On the Reduce side of the equation, they have a line of dinner plates that look a bit like the sturdier plastic plates you might use at a picnic…and throw in the trash at the end of your meal.  Only you don’t throw Preserve’s plates away.  They’re dishwasher safe (and lightweight), so you just toss them in your picnic basket, take them home and wash them and use them again at the next occasion.

In short, this makes them a consumer products company who would actually like people to consume less.  Some might think this is an unsustainable business model.  Actually, it works just fine.  There are billions of us on this planet, and billions more on the way, so there are plenty of people to buy, it’s just a matter of a shift in the marketing plan.  Rather than counting on repeat business, they’re counting on referral business.  Services firms has thrived under this model for years.  Manufacturers can as well.  And, in the end, we can help consumers save their neighbors’ jobs AND their grandchildren.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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