Michael Kuhndt is Director of UNEP/Wuppertal Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP), Germany

For me it happened while managing supply chain issues at a car manufacturer. While working to improve the sustainability of our suppliers it became apparent to me that there was much more to the sustainability story than using better nuts and bolts in our cars. It was the use phase, when our customers were driving our cars, where the real impacts were occurring. With this in mind, I began to engage with research institutions and businesses. I worked to fill knowledge gaps in the business community respecting the linkages between supply chains, consumption and sustainability impacts.

This work led increasingly toward consumption issues as being at the core of our challenges. In 2005 I became head of the newly established Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP). Fundamental to the work of the CSCP was to bring sustainable consumption issues to the policy agenda, to the business agenda, and to the civil society agenda, and we worked with stakeholders from these groups to advance sustainable consumption at both the research and practical levels.

Addressing consumption is challenging. To be successful it is necessary to enable society-wide processes that influence consumer needs and desires. And it is necessary to make sustainable living accepted into the mainstream. For this reason we have engaged intensively with leading businesses to build and test new and innovative business models.

However, for sustainable business innovation to succeed there is also a need for innovation in lifestyles – ways of working, how we spend our free time, the types of living spaces we choose, how we travel, what we eat – all of these and more offer substantial potential for innovation. With this sustainable innovation will come new and long-term opportunities for businesses and consumers alike. The next steps are to bring forward and test our visions and begin to make sustainable lifestyles reality.

Making this happen will not be easy. Many people prefer what they know, a trait that psychologists refer to as path dependence. People also tend to be risk-averse, even in the face of opportunity. Fears of loss tend to outweigh expectations of potential gains. Economists refer to this trait as loss-aversion bias. Overcoming these tendencies will require vision and leadership that create positive visions of sustainability that speak to people from all walks of life.

Image: A worker checks vehicles at a car plant in Craiova REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel