In this blog, we’ll explore what we at Gaia Edge call “The Consumption Paradox”. A dichotomy between ethical consumers and businesses trying to become more sustainable.
All around us we see the same messages splashed across advertising, social media and our TV screens, the same messages that we’ve seen in some form or other for many years, I’ll paraphrase and spare everyone the examples, but it effectively goes “Our product is 100% sustainable, made with eco-friendly materials and is completely non-toxic to the planet” and we all know what’s coming next…. So, buy more, buy loads, buy now!
Ok – so maybe that wouldn’t make it past the Marketing team, but the sentiment at least is pretty clear – buy green, buy better, but buy it and use it, then buy more, please. This approach is growing at pace and doesn’t just apply to products but to solutions, services and in fact pretty much everything that we as individual consumers or as larger business consumers can get our hands on and it’s the same in digital quarters too. We reported some time ago on the growing demands of the digital economy for electricity and power to create the metaverse that we’re running headlong toward.
In this blog we’ll explore what we at Gaia Edge call “The Consumption Paradox”. A dichotomy between ethical consumers and businesses trying to become more sustainable in the face of ever more self-inflicted climate change impacts and a voracious need for consumption and growth. One of the most effective ways to impact change is, and always has been staring us directly in the face.
“consume less, buy less, use less = less product/ service created = less emissions”
Could it really be that simple? Could we ever see a genuine business strategy emerge whereby instead of more (but better) we see organisations advocating genuinely for less (and better)?
As personal and business consumers we’re always looking for better, more exciting, more effective, and well, just more generally. The pairing of business and consumer naturally creates a supply and demand chain in our society that big (and small) business is only too happy to eagerly provide for. In our business quarters we’re naturally looking for more also, but more profit, more efficiency, better results for both ourselves and for our shareholders – all of which plays nicely into the consumer driven, capitalist society that we find ourselves entrenched in.
So, if consumers of all types want more and businesses (again of all types) want to sell more, then what the dickens is the problem? Well – I’m glad you asked – the problem, and subject of today’s debate is what impact “Consumption” is having on our planet and our future as well as the future of the next generations. With very few exceptions our need for consumption is effectively drawing down, little by little, on the world’s natural resources and creating CO2 and other GHG’s in magnitudes that we simply cannot keep pace with. We are, to put it bluntly, slowly buying our way into assured destruction.
Let me paint you a picture, the year is 2060, the human race has become ravenous for more of practically everything – we’ve realised that the only way to reverse the horrific damage that we’ve done to the planet is to reduce our consumption and we’ve decided, “No thanks, I’ll stick to my big screen TV, 24/7 instant connectivity and twice a year trip to Majorca”. In short, we’ve selfishly made up our minds to buy ourselves a one-way ticket to Armageddon. Now, I know what you’re thinking – no one in their right mind would ever make that decision – and you’re right, with a few choice exceptions – but consciously or not without massive, impactful change that is the direction in which we’re headed.
The reality is actually far more worrying than the fiction, the planet is 1.1 degrees warmer today than it was 150 years ago, thanks in no small part to the industrial revolution. Extreme weather events like those seen in Europe and the USA in 2021 are 4.8x times more likely today than they were previously, and the rising temperatures put millions of lives at risk from rising sea levels and of course, the impact of droughts and extreme conditions threaten food production across the globe.
None of this is instantaneous, it’s slow both to see the negative impacts of our consumption and proxy GHG emissions and, as you’d expect, it’s equally slow to see the positive impacts of lower consumption or lower GHG’s. The world of GHG’s then is practically opposite to the world of consumption that we recognise today – an instant gratification of Want + Get, or on the flipside Build + Sell. It’s in this build and sell that we’ll focus for a few moments as it’s a key area to consider in the consumption paradox and one that many organisations will already be trying to get to grips with from all quarters.
According to the SBTi, one of the key requirements for meeting Net Zero standards is “Focus on rapid, deep emission cuts: Rapid, deep cuts to value-chain emissions are the most effective and scientifically-sound way of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. This is the central focus of the Net-Zero Standard and must be the overarching priority for companies. The Net-Zero Standard covers a company’s entire value chain emissions, including those produced by their own processes (scope 1), purchased electricity and heat (scope 2), and generated by suppliers and end-users (scope 3). Most companies will require deep decarbonization of 90-95% to reach net-zero under the Standard”.
Whilst Net Zero standards and The Consumption Paradox are not one and the same, we need to stay mindful that without consumption there is simply no need for goods, services and/or the power needed to create them and therefore no resulting emissions, so whilst they may not be one and the same, they are inextricably linked. With this in mind and echoing the requirements of the SBTi and many other sustainability standards, many organisations will be proactively engaging in measures to drastically reduce the carbon intensity of their first part business practices as well as their supply chains. That could mean engaging in sustainability auditing, deploying ESG personnel and initiatives or, as we would all hope, thinking much further into the future around their sustainability practices. m give the same thought or consideration to how our digital lives impact our carbon footprint, do we?
What that means in practice is a response to pressure, both mandated and from consumers, to reduce carbon emissions and in much the same way as we’ve seen before resulting in big public statements around pledges and promises. Notably, in the digital environment, we see organisations like Microsoft commit to become Carbon Negative by 2030 and commit to removing historical emissions by 2050, Google pledging to operate on Carbon Free energy, everywhere by 2030 and hardware giant HPE commit to Net zero across value chain by 2050. HPE notably have also committed to 30x increase in the energy performance of their products and recognise the impact that of “The rapid growth of the digital universe and its energy consumption is contributing to climate change”. From practically all quarters we see a focus on efficiency, which of course is fundamental to tackling climate change, but in practically every example, every company commitment regardless of linkage to UN, GHG or SBTi goals there is little if any mindshare given to actually helping businesses and/or consumer reduce their consumption. Instead, most organisations, validly so, will look internally and across at how to make their products more efficient, their operations less carbon-intensive and their people contribute fewer GHGs in the course of their daily activities.
Therein lies the consumption paradox – businesses want and need growth to continue to exist and of course, with this they need consumers of all varieties to continue purchasing at scale. This cycle of need, produce, purchase, repeat is not only familiar but essential to the fabric of our society, so it’s rare to see examples where a reduction of consumption (not increased efficiency) is being promoted, but they do exist as per the examples below:
Patagonia are well known for their ethical views on sustainability, production, and contributions to a variety of conservation efforts – but perhaps most memorably created this campaign specifically aimed at reducing consumption. Cynically, many people would argue that it’s easy to create campaigns of this philosophical bent when your turnover sits at $750 Million and perhaps there’s some credibility in that but in the context of our need for consumption perhaps messaging like this is a welcome antidote to current culture?
Not quite a “don’t buy me ad” but a good example of “half in half out” is Levi’s campaign surrounding the durability, lifespan and quality of their products and therefore need for less consumption. The message, in the brand’s own words “is meant to evoke a sustainable future where companies and consumers around the world come together to rethink fashion” but Levi’s also used the opportunity to showcase their products and of course, promote new collections.
Fundamentally Levi’s and brands in all sectors that take this type of approach are raising awareness of the issues at hand and highlighting the challenges with our consumption, but we can’t help but recognise that at the heart of these strategies is the driver to sell and sell more. and perhaps there’s some credibility in that but in the context of our need for consumption perhaps messaging like this is a welcome antidote to current culture?
In 2021 we saw bold statements but perhaps none more so that Vivobarefoot – who proactively said:
“Let’s say NO to Black Friday.
Let’s say NO to overproduction.
Let’s say NO to overconsumption.
Let's say YES to Revivo”
Outlining their approach in no uncertain terms Vivobarefoot highlight the issues that overproduction in response to overconsumption create – in short, that 99% of the billion pairs of shoes produced every year end up in landfill, not to mention the enormous carbon footprint involved in the production process itself. Instead of promoting discounts and cheap stock, the brand used the date to raise awareness of its recycling, upcycling platform – ReVivo. The platform in effect creates a micro circular economy for their own brand of footwear with the sole purpose of recycling the product or storing until a sustainable “end of life” solution can be found.
We highlight Vivobarefoot – a brand that you may not be familiar with because unlike so many providers (of products or services) they are actively advocating for lower consumption and more responsible consumption, moving the emphasis of responsibility from the consumer to the producer for defining both the production process and the end-of-life solution. We expect this approach to become much more prevalent as consumers look for more sustainable brands to fulfil their consumption needs. The question though is whether the message of “consume less” can ever be a long term strategic approach, in product or service industries?
Moving away from fashion to technology and digital we’re faced with a similar reality – in both front-facing applications and infrastructure. ICT, which includes enterprise IT, like many sectors is growing at an estimated 6%-9% YoY – the pandemic and a shift in some of our behaviours have in no doubt accelerated digital trends – which can be seen as having a positive impact on some areas of consumption, namely travel – but in the same framework, we see unprecedented growth in other, perhaps less visible areas.
We need digital technology to maintain our way of life and we expect instantaneous, well, everything – but as we process more and more data, demand more availability, and of course extend our reach into AI, robotics and IoT, the consumption of technology is fixed in a firm upward trajectory.
From both professional and personal quarters, we’re unlikely to consider the carbon impact of checking email first thing or think twice about chairing a Teams meeting. Perhaps we assume that the vendors providing our technology will be responsible across their supply chain. Fundamentally though, should our vendors be helping us consume less in a bid to break the consumption paradox?
For vendors, at both manufacturer and service provider levels – it’s unlikely that a strategic approach that helps actively reduce consumption would be well received at the shareholder level, at least not initially. In debating the consumption paradox, we need to consider not just the immediate future and tomorrow’s EBITDA but the long-term health of the planet. Could it ever be the case that a data center (DC) or provider proactively helped clients to use less storage, less compute power and advocated for using as few resources as possible?
Let’s consider for a moment whether a CoLocation provider approached by a client to provide power, cooling, and connectivity for 50 cabinets could ever present a counter proposal for a more efficient, more effective solution? Perhaps one that only required 40 or even 30 cabinets, one that took a stance on helping their clients to actively reduce the services (and therefore cost and associated emissions) required? Surely as business consumers, we need to be asking for more from our providers in much the same way as we might in our personal lives. Or, as in the example of Vivobarefoot, is it the responsibility of our service providers to look further than their quarterly sales number and create a new paradigm for mutual success and responsible consumption?
In breaking the consumption paradox there is only one answer, efficiency strategies will only go so far – at some point, a critical mass of even the most efficient devices will consume more resources than we are able to sustainably produce, and no amount of offsetting or carbon accounting will be able to reconcile the irreversible damage our consumption.
Breaking the consumption paradox needs all of us to go further than just looking for better efficiency but a fundamental shift in the way in which we consume (or don’t consume) so next time you look for a vendor or service provider ask not how efficient they can help you become but how much they can help you and your customers to reduce consumption by and take the first steps in a brave new world.
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