By Lisa Bolton, Jonas H. Anchel Professor in Business Administration

Over the past two decades, public concern has grown about the environment. Unfortunately, company waste is a major contributor to environmental problems.

Indeed, waste arises from inefficiencies in product manufacturing and can give rise to excess use of resources as well as excess disposal of resource residuals. Consider, for example, waste in the fashion industry: The manufacturing of garments involves large amounts of natural resources (fashion is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water) as well as large amounts of resource residuals (fashion is also the second-largest producer of water waste).

What are companies doing to mitigate waste? We asked a small sample of sustainability experts, both academic and practitioners affiliated with Penn State Smeal, to share their views in a recent survey.

We found that sustainability experts believed wasteful resource use is at least as important and environmentally harmful as wasteful resource disposal. The experts also reported that their own organizations were engaged equally in efforts to mitigate wasteful resource use and disposal. Interestingly, however, they believed that consumers would judge wasteful disposal as being more harmful to the environment.

This led us to wonder how consumers react to company waste. Research is surprisingly scant on this topic, so we ran a series of studies.

In a Facebook advertising test, fewer consumers clicked through to learn about fashion industry waste involving resource use compared to resource disposal.

Additional studies (in fashion and beyond) suggest that consumers react negatively to company waste involving resource disposal, but they are relatively insensitive to wasteful resource use because they do not seem to connect it to environmental harm.

Three avenues boost consumer sensitivity to company waste arising from excess resource use: i) increasing consumers’ long-term orientation; ii) educational interventions regarding the environmental consequences; and iii) interventions making salient natural resource scarcity (such as a reminder on a product tag).

What are the implications of this research for business and sustainability?

If consumers are relatively insensitive to company resource use, then companies may be discouraged from adopting sustainability initiatives that focus on conserving resources.

As an example, Outland Denim claims to use “up to 86 percent less water” in its wash and finishing facilities, but our research suggests more consumers would get on board if they also emphasized water as a scarce natural resource or educated consumers about the environmental impact of water scarcity.

Done correctly, waste mitigation initiatives can improve the efficiency of product manufacturing and the conservation of natural resources, which presents a win-win situation for business and society.

Photo by Steve Tressler