Session 11

Elephant in the Boardroom: Why Unchecked Consumption is Not an Option in Tomorrow’s Markets
Deborah Drew, Eliot Metzger, Kevin Moss, Samantha Putt del Pino
World Resources Institute, United States of America

The world’s middle class grew by more than a billion people since 2010 and will grow by another two billion by 2030—an expansion ten times the size of the United States population within just 20 years. This will lead to unprecedented demand for goods and services, but companies will not be able to meet that demand while staying within environmental limits without innovating new business models. Few companies have acknowledged this tension; a review of 40,000 corporate sustainability reports between 2000 and 2014 showed that less than 5 percent of companies mention some type of environmental limits. For most companies, success remains predicated on selling more stuff to more people. This is the “elephant in the boardroom” and arguably the biggest impediment to addressing natural resource challenges and achieving sustainable development goals.

Looking across product categories, we find that companies fall into one of three groups. They will:

  • Ignore the consequences of exceeding planetary boundaries;
  • Improve production methods and increase efficiency, but not at a pace that matches the increasing rates of overall consumption; or
  • Embrace radical innovations and shift to new business models that meet demand within environmental limits.

Before companies can identify, test, and scale new models, they must first acknowledge these risks and normalize a conversation about consumption. To help make the case, we use data from the International Resource Panel and other sources to show the impossibilities of tripling current natural resource use by 2050. We outline promising—if modest—steps towards embracing innovative technologies and new business models. Finally, we recommend actions that business leaders can take to address the uncomfortable topic of consumption.