Moving Green Consumer Purchasing From 'Me' to 'We'

Moving Green Consumer Purchasing From 'Me' to 'We'

Brands in today's rapidly growing sustainability marketplace face ever-increasing challenges reaching consumers, since they must rise above the tide of competing products and services, and the marketing pitches that go with them.

Market research (see the Hartmann Group and the Shelton Group) reliably finds that the majority of consumers are most likely to put their dollars toward greener options when they perceive a clear, personal benefit such as saving energy, avoiding toxic chemicals and enhancing health; or don't have to make sacrifices or pay much more. In line with these results, marketing experts advise companies that they can maximize sales of environmentally oriented offerings by emphasizing what's in it for consumers.

This strategy is on target in many cases, but has its limits. Not all green products have immediate, perceivable returns for the end-user, such as renewable energy. The personal benefits of others have been the subject of ongoing debate, or might not be a sufficient draw on their own. For example, the lower bills that result from replacing an inefficient major appliance with a new energy-saving model may not seem worth the ticket price for some buyers.
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Many environmentally preferable options cost more due to smaller economies of scale, adherence to higher-level sustainability practices that internalize more of the lifecycle cost or lack of financial incentives provided to mainstream counterparts. Organic foods involve farming methods that are more labor-intensive in the absence of synthetic agricultural chemicals and don't qualify for agricultural subsidies oriented to non-organic farms.

Companies with these types of products and services face a more complex marketing challenge, since consumer purchasing interest is far lower for things that appear to benefit some broader "we" more than the individual, "me." Yet, they also face an opportunity to advance business as well as the greater good, as there's clearly a significant gap between the actual size of the green marketplace and its potential.

Businesses and society will benefit economically by maximizing revenue and income distribution across industries leading the way toward better practices. We'll address environmental issues like climate change, non-renewable resource depletion, water scarcity and pollution more successfully, in line with their actual scope and planetary carrying capacity. Society will see more equitable resource allocation and improved environmental health as we right-size our environmental footprint on a broader scale, addressing key issues largely left out of the green business boom.

Education is key to achieve this -- focused on both the benefits themselves and the issues behind them. In communicating benefits, combining those related to the personal and the greater good makes for a stronger impact with broader appeal. Taking organic foods as an example, marketers can highlight the absence of chemical residues and hormones as a personal benefit, bolstered by a spotlight on how organic farming addresses climate change by improving soil carbon sequestration over non-organic methods and foregoing the use of petroleum-based fertilizers.

To help individuals relate to indirect benefits, it's essential to help them understand the underlying environmental issues. The Shelton Group found that the majority of green-leaning consumers are fuzzy on concepts like climate change, indicating they simply lack a sufficient basis for evaluating a product's full impact and choosing better options.

Education can also help show how environmental impacts "somewhere else" are personally relevant, further increasing the value proposition for greener choices. For example, when citizens will understand how greenhouse emissions and water pollution somewhere else impact global climate or make their way to local communities, they'll have more reason to put their dollars towards the greater good.

Engaging consumers to invest their dollars in positive change beyond their immediate, local context is critical to move the green marketplace to the next level and address environmental issues at a appropriate speed and scale. It's also an essential strategic direction for corporate sustainability programs -- shifting from protecting and enhancing an individual business in the short term toward long-term stewardship of people and planet, and ultimately commerce. Perhaps marketers might also focus their messaging inward to drive business and markets forward at the same time.

Melissa Schweisguth is director of membership development and education for the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association and an independent consultant on CSR/sustainability and marketing/communications.

Photos CC-licensed by Flickr users David Sifry and Muffet.