Why Sustainability Needs a Makeover

Even though the sustainability movement has come a long way, it’s clear that it could benefit from some rebranding. At Sustainable Brands ’11, key insights from consumer research shed some light on where practitioners can refocus their efforts.

OgilvyEarth recently released results of a 2011 study called Mainstream Green: Moving sustainability from niche to normal. The study focused on what OgilvyEarth refers to as the Green Gap – the gap between what people say they intend to do and what they actually do when it comes to green. Here are some key findings:

Half of Americans think green products are targeted to rich elitist snobs or crunchy hippies. These are not particularly appealing archetypes, especially for something that needs a critical mass. If we want sustainability to reach the mainstream, we need to stop with the niche marketing. As OgilvyEarth’s Freya Williams says, we need to be Bud Light, not Stella Artois. A return to Marketing 101, with a goal of mass appeal, would rely on the fact that humans have a herd mentality and the majority of us just want to fit in. OPower embraces this and influences people to reduce their energy use by comparing them to their neighbors.

82% of respondents said going green “is more feminine than masculine.” Sustainability emblems include tote bags, hemp clothes and smaller cars. No wonder green skews female. The new ad featuring a polar bear thanking a man for driving a Nissan Leaf is a good example of how messaging for this electric car doesn’t match up to what appeals to males in conventional car ads. Tesla Motors, the electric answer to the Porsche, is an excellent example of bridging the gap.

The words “green” and “sustainability” have been stigmatized. It’s in our best interest to drop these terms if we want to bring new people to the table. Method is a great example of a successful sustainable company that doesn’t position itself as “green.”

Guilt-provoking messages don’t inspire behavior change. Sustainability should be framed through fun experiences, not sacrificing oneself for the greater good.  Research shows that people are motivated by doing things they enjoy and not by righteousness.

The bottom line is that people are self-interested – even the greenest of us. Brands and causes need to integrate this aspect of human nature into their efforts and appeal to the human in us all, not the altruist.


Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.

Ali Hart

Ali Hart is a media strategist and content producer helping change agents harness the power of humor. From developing creative TV and web concepts to managing comedians to strategizing grassroots campaigns, she has devoted herself to exploring which messages and messengers inspire behavior change for good. Ali holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, where she currently laughs.

3 responses

  1. I very cursorily looked over the report but it definitely seems like Psychologists were left out of all this discussion. For example the question “Do you think the green movement is more masculine or more feminine?” simply leads the respondent, not actually finding out if they find femininity, moreso than other factors, strongly associated with sustainability. Also a psychologist would have told you that guilt DOES work, IF you provide a reasonable/actionable way to relieve that guilt.
    As for your “bottom line”, branding humanity as selfish and not altruistic misses the fact that altruism is itself (from the psych literature) selfish, in that we act “altruistically” when it benefits us. And there ought to be no shame in this. The bottom line ought to be that humans will generally do the right thing, like being sustainable, when they have empathy. Making people empathetic to the damages they cause is crucial.
    That said the report is probably right that someone like Mike Rowe ought to be a symbol for masculan sustainability.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Matthew. I think the point about guilt is that sustainability efforts have used guilt messaging too much and that can be problematic. Who wants to hang out with a bunch of Debbie Downers?

    I agree with you that altruism is rooted in selfishness but sometimes the messaging can be focused on the selfishness to the exclusion of altruism, especially to appeal to a wider audience. You’re definitely right that it’s all about empathy – this was a hot topic at Sustainable Brands and one that I’m sure we’ll be hearing about more and more.

  3. I think you are making the mistake of talking about consumers as though they all think one way. Niche marketing is right for those who buy into deep green thinking and have sustainability as a top buying choice. There are other segments and each needs a tailored message. That is the challenge and opportunity of sustainability communications.

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