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What's in It for Me?

[Editor's note: In this exclusive excerpt from Joel Makower's new book, "Strategies for the Green Economy," he describes how to tap into the prevailing mentalities of most shoppers in order to make green products appealing. Previous excerpts can be found here and here.]

Ted Levitt, the Harvard marketing professor whose name is often preceded by the word guru, famously said: "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarterinch hole." Levitt's point is that people usually buy things because they have needs or desires that demand solutions or fulfillment. Rocky Mountain Institute cofounder Amory Lovins, one of the pioneers and innovators in energy efficiency and conservation, expressed the same sentiment: "People don't want heating fuel or coolant; people want cold beer and hot showers." That is, their interest is less in products than in the benefits those products provide.

When it comes to the environment, hardly anyone shops with a mind-set to "save the planet," despite what many marketing professionals seem to think. They want what everyone in developed economies want: comfort, security, reliability, aesthetics, affordability, status, and pleasure.

And yet, so many green-minded companies end up selling "quarter-inch drills." They'll explain:
  • Why the world needs their drill ("The polar bears are dying!" "We're running out of resources!")
  • The benefits of their drill ("Uses less energy and emits fewer toxic emissions." "Recyclable, so it won't end up in landfills.")
  • The drill's technical makeup ("Made of 100 percent plant- and mineral-based ingredients." "Uses 20 percent less energy than the competitor.")
  • What the drill doesn't contain ("No petroleum-based products or artificial dyes or preservatives.")
  • How it's better than competitors' drills ("The highest percentage of recycled material on the market." "Available wherever you buy organic foods.")
  • The benefits to the planet if everyone bought their drill instead of the competitors' ("We'd reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking 135,000 cars off the road." "We would save 11 million gallons of water, 23,000 acres of trees, and enough energy to power Toledo for a month.")

But little or nothing about the quarter-inch hole-about how this product will get the job done, whether the "job" is cleaning my house, transporting me from hither to yon, satisfying my hunger, or making me feel attractive and cool.

Much of environmental strategy and marketing seems disconnected from most people's lives. Indeed, research shows that many shoppers view the environmental movement as traditional, dated, and somewhat out of touch with current society.

This is ironic perhaps. Many environmentalists I know believe that they have a better understanding of the state of the world than do other people. And they might. But that's of little consequence. The millions of "Security Moms" and "NASCAR Dads" who haven't yet tuned into how climate change and fisheries loss might mess with their kids' future aren't about to be beaten into submission by the latest technical arguments or evidence. They're not about to make purchase decisions based on a maybe-someday rationale for stemming environmental problems. They want to know: What's in it for me, today?

So, big news: Most consumers may be shallow, misinformed, selfinterested, and unsophisticated, but they're also our neighbors, colleagues, and relatives. And they're likely your clients, customers, or employees. If you want to move them toward greener behaviors and actions, you'll need to deal -- carefully and creatively -- with all the sobering reality of the green economy: that the overwhelming majority of shoppers in developing countries are, to put it mildly, self-absorbed. They want what they want-a safe and cleaner world, of course, but also a life filled with comfort and joy. No matter that the former may be directly linked to the latter. In the day-to-day struggles of work, family, finances, and all the rest, most people can't be bothered with the bigger picture-shifting social mores, political trends, changing family values, or the declining fate of the Earth. They're important, to be sure, but for most folks, saving the planet usually takes a back seat to saving the day.

Consumers find no irony in jumping into a sports-utility vehicle with underinflated tires and driving several miles out of their way to buy their favorite brand of recycled toilet paper. It eludes them that the environmental impacts of getting to and from the store might outweigh any of the green choices they can make up and down the aisles.

We want it all: inexpensive products made by companies that don't pollute and pay their workers well; luxury without guilt; safe, roomy, classy cars that don't use much gas; wind and solar power plants, as long as they're not nearby or in view; simple solutions to complex problems; and changes without changing.

Some of this is possible, technically speaking. We may yet reach the day when vehicles are powered by sunlight and oxygen, emitting nothing but air and water. We may clean up conditions in factories in the developing world-the ones that manufacture our dirt-cheap goods -- without raising the prices of the things they produce. We may reinvent our manufacturing systems so that they use renewable resources and closed-loop systems, eliminating smokestacks, drainpipes, and dumpsters. We may even curb rampant consumption, somehow deciding that less is more and that the lavish lifestyles of a relative few are bad for us all.

Maybe. But the road to a greener, cleaner economy will be long and arduous, with roadblocks, speed bumps, and detours at every turn. It will be more evolutionary than revolutionary, and we may never reach the state referred to as sustainability, in which we are able to conduct our affairs and live the way we do for eternity while ensuring quality lives for others.

But we'll try, and smart companies will prosper in the process. 

Joel Makower is executive editor of Excerpted with permission from Strategies for the Green Economy, by Joel Makower, published by McGraw Hill. © 2008 Joel Makower.

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