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Our addiction to consumption might just be what saves the planet from destruction

Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing our planet today, but despite global progress in acknowledging the magnitude of the problem, it continues to elicit a lukewarm sense of urgency in the United States. Under the Trump administration and an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) led by a climate change denialist, the indifference seems unlikely to dissipate.

But sometimes you find solutions in the most unlikely of places. Though seemingly counterintuitive, we must use the root of the problem—consumption—as the source of the solution.

Clearly, we need a plan that doesn’t rely on backwards bureaucracies or ill-informed politicians. Rather, we must address the elephant in the room. We’re a nation of consumers, and that consumption comes at a cost. But what if innovators could effectively meet consumers’ demands with products and services that are less harmful to the environment? Then we would have a real shot at mitigating the effects of climate change.

So here’s my capitalist plea from a bleeding heart liberal: let us innovate so that Americans become better consumers. People lead busy lives and don’t always have the time, energy, or resources to “go green.” But when products are designed to solve a Job to Be Done—and just so happen to be more eco-friendly than existing solutions—real change will happen.

Identifying consumers’ Jobs to Be Done

In Competing Against Luck, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen explains that consumers don’t buy products and services, rather they “hire” them to solve a “job” specific to their circumstance. This theory—known as “Jobs to Be Done”—is in stark contrast from the manner in which many companies go about developing new products and services: by relying on consumer demographics that predict average behavior at best. Jobs to Be Done recognizes that purchase decisions are rooted in a desire for progress in a specific circumstance, whether it be functional, social, or emotional. If innovators are able to correctly identify consumers’ jobs, they will be prepared to create predictably successful innovations.

Though jobs are always specific to a circumstance and shouldn’t be oversimplified, it can be helpful to keep these general themes in mind:

1. Affordability

Virtually all consumers factor affordability into their purchasing decisions, as it satisfies both a functional and emotional need (I feel good when I get what I perceive to be a good deal). Consider solar panels—according to a national poll conducted by polling firm Zogby Analytics, cost savings is cited as the number one reason people choose to have solar power installed in their homes. Now, solar companies just need to get the rest of the population on board by debunking perceived price barriers.

2. Ego

As consumers, our purchases often make a statement to the world about who we are. In fact, data collected by CNW Marketing Research showed that of the six reasons cited for buying a Toyota Prius, lower emissions—the environmental benefit—ranked fifth. Most consumers, it turns out, didn’t purchase the environmentally friendly car to help save the planet, but rather because it “makes a statement about me.”

3. Convenience

In today’s on-demand culture, convenience—oftentimes a requisite for functionality—is king. To that end, e-textbooks, which also happen to be more affordable than their paper counterparts, allow students to access the material at any time by simply opening up their laptop or tablet, without the need to lug around the extra weight as they travel to and from class. Eliminating tons of paper is a good start; now, we just need to develop electronics that cause less environmental damage during production.

4. Performance

Though seemingly obvious, consumers’ expectations of performance shift from function and reliability to quality and customizability as products and services mature. For this reason, it’s important that products be developed with the consumers’ expectations in mind. Farmer’s markets that offer local produce, for instance, satisfy the latter. According to Marvin Batte, professor of agricultural, environmental, and development economics at Ohio State University, the most common motive for people to shop local is performance, even at the expense of affordability: “It’s better quality food, it tastes better, it’s fresher,” he explained.

* * *

Asking consumers, or nations for that matter, to act outside of their self-interests will not create the kind of impact that’s needed to curb the effects of climate change. We want it all, and until changes in the climate impact our lives such that we become truly inconvenienced, it’s unrealistic to expect a dramatic shift in lifestyle and consumption patterns. Instead, while climate activists and policymakers do what they can to move the needle, it’s up to innovators to treat our consumption addiction with improved products and services that are less harmful to our climate and solve our Jobs to Be Done. By empowering people to make better purchasing decisions—without sacrifice—we stand a greater chance of protecting our planet and leveling the playing field for disproportionately impacted communities.

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