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The Elephant in the Boardroom: Why Unchecked Consumption is Not an Option (2017)

This discussion paper examines the need for companies to openly acknowledge and discuss the business dependency on consumption, exploring the topic through three different product examples – cars, beef, and clothing.

Primary Functions

  • Normalize business dependency on consumption as a topic of conversation in boardrooms in order to openly discuss challenges facing sustainability.

Detailed Description


There has been a sea change in business leadership on environmental and sustainable development issues over the past 20 years. Many CEOs speak “sustainability,” and many multinational companies have invested resources to build internal capacity on sustainability. It has become common for these companies to establish greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and renewable energy goals and to address water risk and deforestation. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how the historic Paris Agreement on climate change or the United Nations’ wide-ranging Sustainable Development Goals could have been cemented without the support of business.

However, underneath this welcome progress lies an uncomfortable truth: Most businesses’ growth is still predicated on more people buying more goods. The world will have more than 9 billion people by 2050, and the middle class will have swelled by 3 billion by 2030. On top of this, consumer expectations for yet more are being stoked by trends such as fast fashion. The rapid expansion of consumption-driven markets in the coming decades is the anticipated engine for continued business growth.

The problem is that the planet’s natural systems and finite resources cannot keep up. Studies cited in this paper show that we are already at or close to the limits of the planet’s ability to provide. A continuation of business as usual would mean not just a slight additional strain, but three times as much consumption of the planet’s already overused resources.

The purpose of this paper is to begin to normalize the topic so that sustainability professionals, the C-suite, the board, and investors are able to openly recognize and discuss the challenges. It is only by having these conversations that businesses can start to identify transformational business models, models that will enable business to thrive by serving the markets of the future within the limits of the planet’s resources.

Additional information




Topics & SDGs


WWF Mitigation

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