In a recent poll, respondents overwhelmingly ranked health and environmental sustainability as two of the most important considerations when making purchasing decisions. Given these results, one might wonder why there are not significantly more hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles on the road and further how obesity can be the fastest growing health concern in the western world? Mining the data yields the very predictable insight that people opt for the most healthy and most efficient products when and only when they are as convenient to use, deliver the same or better utility and are available at the same or lower price. In other words, the average consumer will make more sustainable choices for their health and the environment as long as they don't have to sacrifice anything. Altruism be damned; as much as we may wish for the majority of people to do the right thing, the essential fact is that unless we can level the playing field by making healthy and sustainable choices at least as good and as desirable as the hedonistic ones, we will be fighting an uphill battle.
In this reality we have a continuum; a series of choices ranging from forced compliance (legislation and punitive action) to desired choice in which to work. Laws and penalties can be very effective motivators, but they blunt tools and often create resentment and hostility. It is a basic tenet of the human condition, nobody likes to be told what to do! That being said, the fact is that it is much easier to effect people's behavior when you are helping them get where they already want to go. This is where business shines. Businesses are simply the most effective organization at creating and refining consumer wants and needs and then converting them into profitable, desirable solutions.
Recognizing this special role engenders business leaders with a responsibility. In the past it was well accepted that a CEO's prime job was to serve customers and maximize shareholder value. Next, the term stakeholder entered the lexicon requiring that managers also consider the needs of employees, communities and the environment in their search for growth and profits. More recently, consumer expectations have developed such that companies have become the primary protagonist in the story of sustainable commerce. Whether it be healthy choices at the supermarket or the most efficient way of heating your home, consumers expect leadership from the those who are uniquely positioned to deliver (no other player holds as much sway over design, sub-suppliers, technology research and market development than businesses).
The winners in the future will be those companies who take the high road; they understand that they are not simply serving customer desires; they realize they have a pivotal role in helping to both create and shape those wants and needs. They know that the key to sustainable growth and profitability lies in helping customers make choices that are in their best interests. Serving these needs by creating products and services that align is the most sustainable way to operate.