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How to ensure your sustainability initiatives don't backfire

We need to get better at marketing sustainability.

Label that says recycled cotton on t-shirt

Sustainability labeling can cause less purchases. Image via Shutterstock/Anneleven Stock

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

For society as a whole it is an absolute must that businesses look to become more sustainable. Simply put, the planet and its people will not survive if we don’t change our ways, and become more sustainable in our consumption.

Previously, we’ve been guilty of overindulging in unsustainable products, but the tide is turning. Now, consumers are demanding more readily available sustainable products, while businesses are increasing their sustainable operations. We are moving in the right direction.

Common sense would suggest that becoming more sustainable is always a positive for a company’s image. However sometimes the conscientious decision of a business to become more sustainable can actually backfire causing consumers to actually have a more negative opinion of the brand and its projects. But why is that the case? Surely a business becoming more sustainable should be regarded as a positive by consumers?

With my colleagues Diletta Acuti from the University of Portsmouth and Sara Dolnicar from the University of Queensland, we sought to answer this question. We reviewed almost 100 previous academic research papers, focusing on key areas of sustainability, to discover the specific reasons why a move towards greater sustainability can backfire, and why organizations face negative side effects and public perceptions from doing so.

We found three key reasons as to why these sustainable initiatives can backfire. Firstly, the information provided around the products was often a key reason deterring people from buying it. Sustainable products often have increased labeling and information on the product packaging, as companies clearly want to communicate the sustainability to their consumer base. But this overload of information can actually have the opposite desired effect. Consumers often see this overload of information as ambiguous or even contradictory, and can be too much for consumers who want to easily identify products.

Consumers are also naturally skeptical of companies that make an active effort to come across as a sustainably-focused brand. Companies that shout about their sustainability are more likely to be thought of as "greenwashing" brands and consumers are left doubting and questioning just how sustainable they actually are.

Secondly, sustainable products are often associated with a lack of quality, taste or performance, in comparison to non-sustainable products. General consensus is that the company has compromised on another aspect of the product in order to make it more sustainable. Overall, consumers tend to believe that both luxury and sustainability are incompatible — and if a product does have both, it will be incredibly more costly. This perception is of course untrue. It is entirely possible to have a luxury and good-quality brand that is also sustainable in today’s day and age.

And lastly, switching to becoming a more sustainable product can backfire because of the negative perceptions and connotations consumers think others will associate to them for using a sustainable product. All products have perceptions that create a stereotype of a consumer, and sustainable products are no different. Often consumers worry the will be labeled as "hippies" or "feminine," and potential consumers may feel as though they’ll be judged by their peers if they purchase these sustainable products. This can lead to potential customers actively avoiding your products and choosing less sustainable ones.

This is particularly the case for male consumers too. Men are much more likely to avoid sustainable products over fear of judgement, and potential being seen as less masculine, because of their purchases. However, on the positive side, these stereotypes are changing, and "traditional masculinity" is becoming less attractive. With this, sustainability is becoming more attractive to male consumers.

So, how can companies navigate this problem?

In the short-term, the labeling and information around sustainable products needs to be simpler and more effective. A huge reason why these products suffer on uptake is because their labeling is confusing, there is an information overload or these products come across as overselling their sustainability focus.

The sustainability focus of the product should not be exaggerated too much. This can come across as inauthentic. This is only going to deter consumers.

It must be simpler so a person can identify a sustainable product without having to closely read all the the information on how and why this product is sustainable than others. More general wording is needed so that anyone reading the product can understand very easily its sustainability offerings.

But also, the sustainability focus of the product should not be exaggerated too much. This can come across as inauthentic. This is only going to deter consumers and make them more skeptical of sustainable companies. If brands are seen to be greenwashing that could drastically affect the sales. Packaging should be subtle, simple and informative.

From a long-term point of view, it is clear that greater and better communication around sustainable products is needed. The stereotypes that surround not only sustainable products, but also the people that consume these products too, are completely outdate, and positive communication around this is increasingly needed.

Previously, it may have been true that sustainable products in the past have had to compromise elsewhere, but today’s technology has allowed companies to move further in producing good-quality sustainable products. And yet this view still endures. There needs to be greater communication around the fact that choosing a sustainable product does not mean choosing one that is less robust, less tasty or less likely to last. Sustainable products work in the exact way that traditional products do — this needs to be better communicated.

Urgently, we must also actively look to change the negative connotations and stereotypes that are linked to people who buy sustainable products. This perception is certainly changing slowly, but more needs to be done to market the sustainable consumer as a conscious, smart and aware, and not "hippie" or "feminine."

Companies might not be able to do this all on their own. It will need to be a joint effort between them and governments. Both must do more to change the perceptions of sustainable products. Good marketing and communication practices can help create the best possible packaging, better communicate the positives of sustainable products, and change the pesky stereotypes that come with them.

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