“The last mile is always the hardest,” goes an old adage. Well, that’s never been more true than where sustainability is concerned.
In telecommunications, the “last mile” refers to the point where all of the infrastructure built by networks finally connects with the retail customer. (Examples offered by Wikipedia include copper wire subscriber lines, coaxial cable service drops that carry cable television signals from utility poles into homes, and cell towers that link cell phones to the cellular network.) Such final steps in the process of connecting customers to the system’s capabilities could be likened to the “last mile of sustainability,” by which I mean getting the consumer to become an active participant in programs set up by both corporations and government to conserve energy and resources.
In recent years, an awful lot of work has gone into the business of sustainability, from building material recovery facilities designed to process recyclables and providing ‘blue bins’ to feed those facilities to the creation of programs to curtail air and water contamination. But such investments and corresponding initiatives still tend to lack one key component, and that is the link to the consumer. From what I’ve observed, the public, by and large, is not nearly as involved in today’s sustainability efforts as it ought to be. That’s not to say that many people aren’t depositing their recyclables in the blue bins, for example – but the fact remains that we’re only recycling about a third of our packaging in this country. For such an initiative to really grow and prosper – in other words, to be sustainable in the long run –it has to be led by the consumer, much the same as reform efforts introduced by politicians have to resonate with the voting public in order to succeed.
This connection can be a matter of providing some direct material benefit to the consumer – for example, points redeemable for products and services along the lines we have done in Greenopolis, or in pricing, such as automakers do with high-mileage cars or utilities do by promoting energy-efficiency programs. On a broader level, it can be achieved by turning customers into stakeholders and partners who stand to gain in some more consequential manner from seeing the initiative succeed – even if what they’re getting out of it is simply the moral gratification of having participated in a worthy cause. Part of that should consist of creating an awareness of what companies are specifically doing to facilitate sustainability, so that consumers can make it a point to reward such efforts — for instance, by only buying products made from the materials they’ve been depositing in those blue bins. An excellent example of this approach is the “Made in America” campaign that urges people to purchase domestically manufactured goods whenever possible, thus combining good citizenship with economic security.
But something is going to have to take place in order to take sustainability to the next level – and it’s going to involve finding new ways (or reviving old ones) of traveling that “last mile of sustainability” in order to reach people where they live.