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The Missing Ingredient in the Sustainable Consumption Sauce? Excitement!

| Tuesday May 21st, 2013 | 2 Comments

beckhamWhat makes you excited? Is it Google Glass? A new iPhone app? The latest Star Trek movie sequel? Or maybe just David Beckham in general? While it would be hard to guess what specifically makes you excited, it’s probably not a sustainable product, brand or culture phenomenon.

In their ongoing quest to scale up sustainable consumption and make it the norm rather than the exception, companies have managed to identify multiple obstacles – from cost and availability to lack of consumer awareness. These are all important parts of the big picture, but today I’d like to focus on one factor which I believe can be a real game changer in sustainable consumption – the excitement factor.

Excitement can overcome almost any known obstacle, helping turn unlikely products, brands, or even presidential candidates and political movements into stellar success stories. But, excitement alone will only get companies so far. To make sustainable consumption work, they also need the other staple ingredients in the sustainability sauce, aka materiality (make it relevant) and storytelling (make it aspiring).

Still, excitement, I believe, is the secret sauce ingredient and can make the difference between small incremental progress in sustainable consumption and becoming the norm. But how can companies do it exactly? How can they get consumers excited over sustainability? While the keys to excitement may vary from one brand to the next, we have identified four points that can help make sustainable consumption exciting:

1. There’s nothing exciting about being less bad – Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart wrote more than a decade ago in Cradle to Cradle how “less bad” is a depressing vision of our species’ role in the world. “…To be less bad is to accept things as they are, to believe that poorly designed, dishonorable, destructive systems are the best humans can do,” they wrote.

Not only were they right, but that this concept is still dominating the sustainability universe is also very unexciting. Just think about one of Apple’s core values, as described by Tim Cook back in 2009, “We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products.” Now, this is not a guarantee of sustainable products (as we well know in the case of Apple), but this is a guarantee for exciting products that people will desire no matter how much they cost.

Zero might be a powerful idea, as John Elkington explains, but let’s face it – when it comes to consumers, it has very limited appeal unless we talk about zero calories. Somehow, it seems that great products have greater chance to emerge out of “100 percent good” design thinking rather than a zero-based thinking.

2. Reimagine the sustainable horizon – Google Glass is a product that is going to cost about $1,500, doesn’t really meet any user needs and certainly doesn’t aim to solve any of the important problems we have on this planet, but yet this is the most exciting and anticipated product we have seen in a very long time (or at least since the first iPhone was released).

“… This is the first step in getting to that HUD Terminator experience that captured so many imaginations 30 years ago,” writes TED editor Isaac Wayton who tested out Google Glass. “That Star Trek future where we speak to a computer that Hollywood had been dreaming of for decades has arrived,” added TED’s Product Development Director Thaniya Keereepart.

We need people to talk like that about sustainable brands and products in order for them to become the norm. To get there, companies need not just to think in a creative and disruptive way, but also to think about the sustainable horizon as the place where science fiction, Hollywood, playfulness and personal dreams meet. No matter if the product you work on is low-tech or hi-tech – to get consumers excited about it you need to think in these terms.

3. Give consumers Beckham, not Vanessa – Most companies keep selling their old unsustainable products while trying to advance lines of products that are more sustainable. The problem is not only that it’s difficult to make sustainability the new norm when you still market both sustainable and unsustainable products, but also that marketing is still focused on the latter rather than the former.

What it means is that “regular” lines of products still get a better piece of the marketing pie. Take H&M, a fast fashion company with sustainability ambitions. The company is very proud of its eco-friendly Conscious Collection and this year, Vanessa Paradis is promoting it, “wearing pieces in the campaign that are both on-trend and also more sustainable.”

Vanessa is really great and I’m truly a fan of hers, but just compare it for a second with another campaign H&M ran earlier this year, this time for its bodywear line with none other than David Beckham promoting it in a short video clip directed by Guy Ritchie.

Which campaign do you think got consumers more excited? The YouTube viewership numbers can give you a hint – 9,638,073 for Beckham vs. 253,798 for Vanessa Paradis.

So, if you really want to get the masses excited about sustainability, get them Beckham, not Vanessa.

4. Be aware of the curse – In his report, The Curse of Innovation: Why Innovative New Products Fail, Harvard Business School Professor John Gourville explained that innovative new products fail many times because consumers systematically undervalue and firms systematically overvalue the innovation relative to what an objective analysis would suggest. He called this phenomenon, the “curse of innovation.”

We can see this phenomenon with sustainable consumption as well. One example is electric cars where manufacturers initially overestimated the value of electric cars for consumers, while downplaying issues like range anxiety or cost-effectiveness and, as a result, saw a significant gap between their forecasts and actual sales.

This is also very true when it comes to excitement – many times companies are super excited about their new sustainable products, only to find out later that consumers are not that enthusiastic about them. The lesson is to be aware of the curse and evaluate the level of excitement from the consumer point of view, taking into consideration the degree of behavior change the new products require and the real gains and losses consumers will have by buying them.

[Image credit: Bitch Cakes, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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  • Sandeep

    More than excitement, it is the conditioning done in the last 60-70 years where talking about People & Planet when discussing profit has been frowned upon. So much so that we condition our next generation of MBAs to only understand a bar graph with two words, the higher one is – Profit and the lower one is loss. It is never profit and less profit. And then we trained the generation as to how one can get away from the long arms of law by creating lawyers who never consider moral as a virtue

  • AndreaLearned

    Much as we wish it weren’t so – we do need to speak the language of our audiences in spreading the sustainability word. It really is too easy for those of us inside this sustainability/CSR realm every day to lose sight of the learning curve and excitement curve for those just beginning to take it all in. I’m hoping we all don’t have to use David Beckham to get our points across – but more clever use of social media is one hope! Great piece, Raz.