What sustainable consumption looks like

Three “green” products that recently arrived at my house got me thinking about the idea of sustainable consumption.

Which of these three do you think moves us closer to sustainable consumption?

Which takes us farther away?

This is a bottle of dish and hand soap from Method. The package is made from recycled ocean plastic.

This is an LED bulb from IKEA.

And these are SUNNAM solar-powered lamps, also from IKEA.

Two of these products — the dish soap and the bulb — move us in the right direction. The solar lamp? No. And I say that as an admirer of Method and IKEA.

To understand why, let me try to define sustainable consumption: It’s the consumption of a product that leaves the world no worse off–and ideally better off–than if it were never made. But it’s got to be more than that–the product has to be appealing and affordable, too. Very few products meet that test today. But it’s not hard to see what sustainable consumption would look like–products would be made using renewable energy, and they would be made into something else when they are done. A world powered by renewable energy with zero waste would be sustainable, more or less, or at least a lot more sustainable than the polluting, wasteful, throwaway system of production and consumption that we have now.

That helps explain why I like Method’s dish and hand soap. It’s packaged in the world’s first bottles made with a blend of recovered ocean plastic and post-consumer recycled plastic. The ocean plastic was collected on Hawaii beaches by volunteer groups and Method employees. For now, the product is available exclusively at Whole Foods and at methodhome.com.

Will this solve the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans? Not even close. But it’s a creative and innovative way to point people toward a better world, where everything that’s no longer needed is eventually made into something else. As Adam Lowry, Method’s founder and “chief greens keeper” explains in this video, Method is trying to “raise awareness about the importance of keeping plastic out of our oceans” and “lead by example.” Are you listening, P&G?

Adam says:

We know that only a small amount of plastic will be taken out of the ocean for all of these bottles that we make….That’s not the solution, but we know we can have a much bigger impact if we start to change people’s minds about their role in protecting our oceans.

Exactly right. The bigger drawback of the Method soap is that it’s pricey – $4.99 retail for 11.6 fl oz, compared to $1.49 for 14 oz. of P&G’s Lemon Scented Joy (which, by the way, contains no lemons but is made of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate , Sodium Pareth-23 , C12-14-16 Dimethyl Amine Oxide , SD Alcohol 40-B , Undeceth-9 , PPG-26 , Sodium Chloride , Cyclohexanediamine , Polyacetate , Fragrance , FD&C Yellow #5 , D&C Red No. 33). Still, $4,99 is a lot to pay for superior packaging and a biodegradable formula. As Method grows bigger, the price, presumably, will come down.

I also like IKEA’s LED bulb–because it’s part of a  bigger and more important story at IKEA. In 2010, IKEA became the first retailer to announce a gradual phase-out of inefficient incandescent light in all of its US stores. Now IKEA says it will switch its lighting business to all-LED by 2016. This is good for customers and good for the planet, even though it limits consumer choice. (Consumers who want wasteful old bulbs will be able to buy them elsewhere.)

In a press release, Steve Howard, IKEA’s sustainability chief, explains:

With household electricity bills continuing to rise rapidly and global energy consumption increasing, a small LED bulb can have a very big impact. It uses much less energy than a traditional bulb….Building on our belief that everyone should be able to afford to live more sustainably at home, we will make sure our LED prices are the lowest on the market.

IKEA’s LED bulbs sell for $9.99 to $12.99 and over their lifetime they will cost less than incandescents or CFLs.

Are the bulbs truly sustainable? No, because they aren’t easily recycled (yet). But LED bulbs are built to last. IKEA says they can last nearly 20 years, about 20 times longer than a typical incandescent, and twice as long as a typical compact fluorescent bulb. Like Method, IKEA will encourage its customers to change their habits.

As for IKEA’s  SUNNAN table lamp, the price is right ($19.99 for a desk lamp), the concept is great (no electricity needed) and the design is cool but the product is impractical. The instructions say: “Charging of the solar panel must be performed outside in direct sunlight with the panel angled directly towards the sun.”

Are you kidding me?  I live in shaded neighborhood, with almost no direct sunlight. It’s starting to get cold out, even here in Bethesda, Md.  And what if I lived in a New York City high rise? Am I supposed to take the lamp up to the roof and leave it there all day to recharge?

This kind of thing that gives “green” a bad name. Greener, as my friend Joel Makower likes to say, should be better in some way  — cheaper to own, cheaper to use, healthier, higher performance, more durable, more stylish, repairable, reusable, etc.  I would add  that greener shouldn’t be worse in any big away. A lamp that needs to sit outside to charge is worse than the status quo. (As are the solar-powered outdoor lights byour driveway that don’t give off enough light, but that’s another story.)

Then again, innovation means failing some of the time. The only way we’re going to figure out how to consume sustainably is through persistent bold experimentation. Kudos to Method and IKEA for trying.


  1. Lewis E. Ward says

    Another thoughtful article. I would have reiterated at the end:
    “The only way we’re going to figure out how to consume sustainably is through persistent bold experimentation.”
    [and] “To understand why, let me try to define sustainable consumption: It’s the consumption of a product that leaves the world no worse off–and ideally better off–than if it were never made.”

  2. Alison says

    Just as I don’t understand the need for bottled water – and I know I’m not alone in wondering when we all got duped into thinking we do… I don’t understand bottled soap for the home. Bars of soap require a bare minimum of packing and each bar lasts for months. Not that I’m an expert, but it seems that since soap can be made in the home, its industrial level production methods could also reasonably low in impact… or, buy local! So, I would say that only the LED ligtht bulb is sustainable consumption.

  3. says

    You hit the nail on the head, but the lamp example is a lot more egregious than you needed to be in order to fail your (well put) “sustainable consumption” test. That lamp not only fails sustainable consumption test, it fails the lesser “consumption” test, which I define as “Is the object useful?”

    A lot of objects with integrated PV fail your test for sustainable consumption for the simple reason that PV has a fairly high embodied energy… when generating power under in optimal conditions, it takes most of a year to achieve energy payback, i.e. to generate the amount of energy which was needed to create it. Add in the embodied energy of other components, such as batteries, which would not be needed if the item were not solar-powered, and your energy payback is on the order of 1-2 years… if the PV were placed in the sun for most of this time.

    However, your solar flashlight or cell phone charger probably is not used nearly this much, and if it is only in the sun 1/5 of the time, then your energy payback jumps to 5-10 years, which could easily exceed the useful life of the object.

    • Marc Gunther says

      This is a great point, Tom, thanks. It’s easy to overlook (as I did) the embedded energy (or water or carbon) in a product, which grows out of its manufacture, and only think about its usage.

  4. says

    Hi Marc and as always, I appreciate your comments and perspective. I agree that at least these companies are trying and at a time when so many large companies have all but abandoned their green initiaives (it didn’t “sell”) it is good to see any company that continues to wage the increasingly unpopular war.

    Thanks for another great post!

    Dennis Salazar
    Salazar Packaging, Inc.

  5. Sam says

    What Method is doing is useful. Kudos to them for it.

    As for P&G, the real question for a company like this: when will they begin to drive downstream change so that customers have a real option of using their own packing, like this:

    In that model, bring-your-own-container is a real option and a lower cost option.

    Of course at this point one may reflect on the fact that part of the “value” which companies such as P&G bring to the table is in fact glossy packaging of otherwise rather mundane chemical solutions. That’s not ALL the value they bring, but you must understand that a significant amount of their price premium is based on emotionally jerking the customer around before they put their hand up to the shelf in the store. The packaging is the most tangigle bearer of all that symbolism. It is also kind of unecessary.

    So when you put packaging on the table, you’re actually asking the likes of P&G to cut out part of their own margins (in my opinion a part of the margin that is not defensible from a sustainability point of view).

    Good luck with asking a company that is driven by Wall St and quarterly margins, to radically resize its role and profits in the service of sustainability. Heck even a private company with morals with struggle with this.

    Therein lies a limitation of sustainability advocacy. At some point one must realise that we cannot ask companies to voluntarily obsolete themselves. Nothing short of external legislation is required in some cases, in order to achieve sustainability. And that is not achievable in a climate where it is fashionable in the US to declare government to be useless, “too big”, and “needs to be downsized”, “stay out of my life” etc.

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    • Marc Gunther says

      Sam, I think you make an excellent point here. It’s backed up by the fact that P&G initially resisted efforts by Walmart to shrink the packaging of laundry detergents. As the category leader with Tide, P&G resisted change even though it would have save them money. Plus, as you say, for them packaging is often their best marketing platform.

      I don’t if this is the kind of problem a government could effectively regulate away, but I think a price on carbon and maybe some added taxes on waste, i.e., landfill fees — or pay as you throw pricing for trash — would better align the economics with sustainability.

  6. says

    Actually the solar lamps are attractive, and if IKEA is getting in the game that is good for the 2 billion with no access to the grid. BoP consumers will appreciate their design and hopefully IKEA can bring down the cost. They mostly live in the Global South, where sunlight is very powerful. Does seem like an affectation for affluent buyers, though. I wonder if they are waterproof. Leaving them out to charge in the US would certainly invite them to get soaked.

  7. says

    I’m finding it a little late, but great article, Marc. We talk about a lot of goals like a completely closed loop of supply chain resources, building an economy around the practice of reuse, but a huge component to stabilizing our society’s consumption is to outgrow the practice of needless stuff.

    A prime example of this for me is the iPhone case. Apple has sold hundreds of millions of iPhones to date. Some estimates now have Apple to sell over 200 million in the next 12 months alone. Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone is a great product (I have one myself), but many people will also get a little plastic case that fits around the iPhone for its protection. The explosion of this cheap product that uses tons of material (not to mention packaging) could have been completely avoided. While I understand the methodology behind why people by the case, wouldn’t it just have made more sense for Apple to design the iPhone so that it didn’t need a case? What’s the need for the snazzy sleek design if everyone puts it in a pink/yellow/rhinestone/be-dazzled case anyway?

    We need companies to think ahead to these kinds of issues. If they are going to create an arguably wasteful product, at least figure out how it can be taken apart/recycled/repurposed before they sell it.

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