Selling Sustainability: What’s in it for consumers?

The rise in corporations making outlandish claims of sustainability and ethical motives has been driven by “go green” as the new marketing strategy being utilised to captivate increasingly conscientious consumers. The decisions consumers make in either purchasing mainstream products or switching to more sustainable choices has become a deceptive web of green-washing narratives which also relies on consumers to “put your money where your mouth is”.

To a modest degree, customers are now buying more sustainably. From 2013 to 2018, products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that weren’t. Despite these positive movements, the difference between the two markets is fiscally chasmal. In a 2017 study on US consumers, 87% said they would buy a service or product from a company because they advocated for an issue that they cared about. However, only 52% said they had actually done this in the last 12 months. Millennials seem to be the group most likely to minimise this gap, being 8% more likely than the national US average to expect corporate social responsibility from businesses. 

Clearly consumer intention is there but there has not been a definitive translation from customer beliefs to purchasing actions. So, what can be done to bridge this gap?

Transparency and telling a story

Telling a compelling and authentic story that illustrates a key environmental or social problem being tackled by an organisation is the first step. These narratives provide further motivation when presented via several communication vehicles, with 79% of consumers saying they are more likely to believe corporate social responsibility commitments when shared through multiple channels, compared to one-off advertising. 

Transparency is becoming the norm for businesses that are attempting to display their sincerity of care for customers. However, this should the default baseline because being transparent doesn’t actually require businesses to make sustainable actions. Real impact results from intentions that are then followed through, with 82% of consumers saying they believe a company is socially responsible when they actively communicate the results of their efforts, not just the claims themselves. 

By displaying transparency and results, businesses can begin to build trust, with 81% of consumers from a 2019 eight-country study, saying they “must be able to trust a brand to do what is right”. However, there must be more than trust involved for people to genuinely make change in their purchasing habits, as only 21% of these consumers said that the brands they use actually have the best interests of society in mind.

Thus, the initial step in engaging consumers involves relevant education around the issue that a business is tackling. Telling a compelling story then allows the consumer to make an authentic emotional connection with the subject.

Familiarity and the mainstream market

The root of the problem is that few consumers make logical ethical thought processes when making purchasing decisions. This is often done in hindsight, also called “post-hoc rationalisation”, where emotion rules first, with justification for the response then being made later. This highlights the importance of forming an emotional connection with customers as early as possible, incorporating a balance between familiarity and novelty within the marketing strategy.

In many cases more sustainable products and services require larger upfront costs than their standard alternatives. So while 89% of Americans have said they would be likely to shift brands to one that is associated with a “good cause” given the same price and quality, we need to examine what happens when these brands are more expensive?

There seems to be a public perception that ethical and environmental options are sacrifices, with purchases offering lower quality and higher costs. In some cases, such as the fashion industry, sustainable options by definition need to be more expensive. On average this will involve a 1-3% price increase on individual garments to provide living wages and safer working conditions.

However, the view that sustainable options are inconvenient to buy or offer lower quality, can be tackled through the same marketing approaches which have led to the success of more mainstream products. This involves attending to the key attributes alongside convenience and price that influence how consumers buy, namely: Identity, Value, Experience, Community, Quality and Need.

Confusion over labelling and certifications

Consumers must see that sustainability is core to a business and not just a contrived add on that is being used as a box-ticking exercise. This goes far beyond transparency, by involving action and measurable impact that is then verified. While mission statements are a useful start, they only imply that a business is making some effort rather than genuinely succeeding at a sustainable goal.

The assumption that having a mission statement implies sustainability has been globally hijacked by some of the most unlikely corporations. For example, a number of natural gas and petroleum companies have launched climate change and biodiversity initiatives with statements about “making a difference”. The issue here is that language and imagery is used to frame a message for customers that may not reflect what these companies actually do. While a minute proportion of their efforts may be going towards renewable energy sources and sustainable policies, their well-crafted marketing materials portray a message that is not fully representative of what they do.

Official certifications can be an effective way of overcoming corporations that make unbacked claims of their sustainable efforts. Some of the most well-known certifications include Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and the Soil association. The visibility of these logos on products allow consumers to make sustainable purchasing decisions more efficiently, and 76% of the British public believe  that independent third-party certifications are the best way to verify a product’s sustainable claims. The rapid increase in certification schemes has however led to a new issue in confusion over what each certification actually means. A 2011 study by Defra showed that 70% people believe buying sustainable fish is important, but only 30% say they actually buy sustainable fish, claiming confusion over labelling as a key reason.

So, what should sustainable businesses do?

Green-washing and the need to stand out in an increasingly congested commercial market involves consumers going beyond liking a product to genuinely trusting the business. We need greater visibility of sustainability issues, transparency at scale and verifiable claims to confirm their impact. This can be undertaken through the use of sustainability reports, social media engagement, certification or eye-catching campaigns. The key is to inspire consumers so that they engage with the message of how sustainability relates to their own lives.