How Do We Motivate “Non-Green” Customers to “Buy Green”?

Susan Shelton of the Shelton Group, a self-described former ad agency-cum-consumer engagement firm, gave a talk at LOHAS about a subject that’s top of mind for many in the sustainability world:  how do we get people who may not otherwise consider themselves green to vote with their dollars and support the growing green economy?

Shelton’s firm conducted a great deal of research with many customers, though they deliberately excluded the bottom rung of the ladder, the 15% or so of people who just couldn’t be less concerned about environmental issues.  Thus, consumers had to be somewhere already on the scale of very light green to very deep green to be included in the research.

The firm drew six major insights.

1.  Green is mainstream.  No surprises here.  Her data, however, showed that green purchases are much more skewed toward purchases of inexpensive products.  The conclusion is that people are willing to try something that they might not otherwise have tried a few years ago, so long as it’s not going to cost them much.  Good examples include personal care products and food.

2.  People know a lot less than we’d like them to know.  For instance, when asked to name one single trait of a ‘green’ home, over half were unable to name even one.  Similarly, when asked if a product can be organic and not sustainable, 50% did not know.

3.  Most people don’t go green to save the planet.  While data showed that interest in green products continues to rise, concern about global climate change has simultaneously dropped off.  One major takeaway here is that there is an emotional and intellectual side to each decision, and motivations for this, whether it’s a baby wipe or a ream of paper, vary greatly from product type to product type.

4.  Comfort and convenience are huge motivators and de-motivators.  In 2008, when we thought we were on the cusp of the second Great Depression, respondents to Shelton’s survey, if given $10,000 to spend, were likely to replace an old HVAC or add insulation.  By 2009, most consumers had retreated back to aesthetics and comfort items like remodeling a kitchen or bath.

5.  Consumers are skeptical.  Again, no surprises here.  People don’t know what labels to trust. Only 6% of respondents believe that companies marketing themselves as green do so because they actually care about the environment. So how to get around this?  Shelton suggested that the best way to combat this is total transparency.  Shelton showed a handful of commercials:  Clorox GreenWorks, Apple MacBooks, Hanes underwear, and SunChips compostable bags.  Each had emotional and/or intellectual appeals.  Among both her focus groups and the audience at the event (we texted our responses in for a live poll), the Sun Chips ad was hands down the best.  It was both factual and emotional, and made its factual appeal in a animated and entertaining way.

6. Conversations matter.  Shelton’s study found that 68% of consumers who’d had conversations with their children about sustainable products were led to a behavior change as a result.  It was slightly less for co-workers, but the bottom line remains.

Scott Cooney, Principal of and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.