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Want to Sell Your Sustainable Product? Stop Being So Gloomy!

Alison Monahan | Wednesday October 9th, 2013 | 1 Comment

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gloomyA few months ago, I noticed that the Seventh Generation toilet paper in my friend’s bathroom had changed. The packaging was bright, modern, and — dare I say it — cheerful. Interesting, given that the actual product was brown, and pretty much as hippie as it gets (100% recycled paper, 80% post-consumer, unbleached, etc.). Hum, I wondered, what’s up with this?

Now I know, after attending The Science of Inspiring Good Behavior panel at SXSW Eco, featuring Joey Bergstein of Seventh Generation, Catherine Davis of Vizeum Americas, Dave Schiff of Made Movement, and Morgan Clendaniel of Fast Company talking about ways to reach the 86 percent of “consumers who care,” most of whom aren’t moved by stories of gloom, doom, and impending climate catastrophe. What does motivate them? Empowerment, efficacy, and fun.

Want to sell more of your sustainable products? Time to drop the green finger wagging and start peddling a more joyous life. How? Read on.

Who is Buying Sustainable Products?

As Bergstein noted, 86 percent of consumers reportedly care about sustainability and purchase at least one eco-friendly/sustainable product. That being said, they might be buying sustainable laundry detergent and driving a Hummer, so there’s a lot of potential to expand sustainable purchasing behavior more broadly within this group.

As for who’s willing to pay more for sustainable products, Davis identified two key groups:

  • Reactive Millennials, younger consumers who are externally focused and motivated by a desire to share their purchases with friends and gain status on social media
  • Conscientious Explorers, typically moms with older kids who are more internally motivated and are seeking information to help them make healthy, responsible purchases

For anyone marketing sustainable products, Schiff noted that it’s critical to hone the messaging and pull the right levers. Within the “Made in the USA” concept, for example, you’ve got a number of different selling points, including local jobs, fair labor and environmental practices, a lower carbon footprint, better quality, etc. Someone who is highly motivated by the idea of creating American jobs might care less (or not at all) about the product’s carbon footprint. And that’s okay! Whatever works.

What are Consumers of Sustainable Products Looking For?

Number one, people are looking for something that works. Of course the true believers might buy really lousy dishwashing detergent and deal with bits of stuck on food, but the average consumer isn’t going to pick leftover cornflakes off the coffee mug every morning. They need a product that actually cleans the dishes.

That’s why this Seventh Generation ad starts with the glass-top table getting sparkling clean with plant-based cleaners. But where it goes next is key. We don’t see a dour narrator intoning about how using this cleaner helps save the fish (although that’s probably true). Instead, we see a bunch of excited kids eating birthday cake right off the table. Imagine doing that with 409! Ick.

The messaging here is clear: Fewer harmful chemicals = a more joyous life. Who can argue with that?

Consumers are also looking to support companies that share their values, whether it’s to make themselves look cooler on social media (think of all the people who “badge themselves” with shares or retweets promoting sustainable products) or to satisfy a more internal desire for health and wellness.

Here, Bernstein identified a trend they’ve seen from pre-recession, where the focus was abstractly on “the environment,” to the recession years, where the focus was on saving money, to the emerging post-recession context, where the focus is shifting towards the health and wellness of the individual consumer. In this new highly-personal context, empowerment is in and guilt is out.

Also emerging as a potential persuader is the idea of modernity. As in, don’t be that dinosaur who still uses unnecessarily polluting chemicals in your child’s playroom. No one wants to be left behind, which can be a powerful impetus to explore sustainable products (as Schiff put it, “most people are interested in surviving,” even if they’re resistant to gloomy messaging about impending environmental catastrophe).

What’s Next for Sustainable Companies?

Selling more sustainable products is all well and good, but is it really going to save the world? As Bernstein explained, Seventh Generation (and other similar companies) are taking things a step further by “doing good as a company” and working for more systemic changes (which, incidentally, would often benefit their businesses).

For example, Seventh Generation is trying to create a coalition of businesses and consumers to support the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, a federal bill that focuses on preventing chemicals from entering the market until proven safe. Better for the world? Probably so, but also better for companies who already create their products from non-toxic chemicals.

Ultimately, working together for systemic change is one more way for sustainable companies and potential consumers to deepen their relationship in an empowering, public way. Who can resist a campaign for a toxin-free generation? I think I’ll go tweet about it right now!


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  • rêve en vert

    Great article with some really interesting points – especially the part about consumers’ environmentally-unfriendly habits offsetting their more sustainable lifestyle choices. On the other hand however, Rome wasn’t built in a day; this growing awareness of climate change is the important part, even if only baby steps are being taken to get there. Ethical fashion brand rêve en vert talks about the huge amount of toxins we spray on our cotton here: http://revenvert.com/fact-organic-clean-cotton/

    Would be really interested to read more on this topic, thank you Alison!