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Gateway Drugs for New Green Consumers


By Chet Van Wert

Some environmentally conscious consumers just get it. They instinctively realize that every product they buy is either a vote for sustainable business and a greener world or a vote for business as usual.

It took me a long time to get the message, and my discussions with friends and strangers have convinced me that I’m not the only one who is slow to understand. For many of us, it’s a long and winding road. Our green customer journey starts with one sustainably-made product and then, over time, extends to additional products and categories. Ultimately, the result is a consumer who really gets it, but it can take years.

A crucial job for sustainable business is accelerating growth in the number of consumers who will make the effort to find and buy green products. I’m convinced that this challenge is not just about communicating a sustainability message, but also about getting people to actually use and enjoy a green product. This is the gateway drug, so to speak, of sustainability. Through repeated use, not only does the consumer become attached to the gateway product, but they also become susceptible to the allure of other sustainable products.

So, which products can most effectively play the gateway role to creating green consumers? Here are a few ideas. I’d love to hear yours.


One source says that 2 billion T-shirts are sold globally each year. That seems low to me, considering that there are 6 or 7 billion of us, but the key is that T-shirts are inexpensive and everywhere. They often display a message, logo or affiliation, so adding a small sustainability message would not be difficult. I think it is quite possible to encapsulate in a logo and a few words the fact that a T-shirt is made sustainably and why that is important.

As the organizations you are involved with source new T-shirts, be sure to buy organic and include in your design a message promoting that fact and why it’s important. Can you believe that the T-shirts sold this year on Earthday.org -- on the 45th Earth Day -- were 65 percent polyester, with no mention of anything sustainable in the supply chain or operations?

Baby clothes

Which onesie are you going to buy for your baby, or as a gift – the one produced with pesticides and toxic dyes … or the organic option? Lots of organic baby clothing brands are springing up, making these relatively easy products to find. Put a little promo piece in the package with the organic baby product and, voila, you might turn a whole family green!

Whatever your product (well, maybe not coffee, although moms certainly use a lot of it), is there a baby version that offers your company a simple way to spread the sustainable products message?


Coffee crops are enormous users of pesticides and destroyers of ecosystems globally. Sustainably-produced coffee – delicious, organic, fair trade coffee – is increasingly available in grocery stores and online. This is also an easy and inexpensive switch to make. With the switch, though, we have to find teaching moments. I loved Fresh & Co. New York's switch to organic coffee, proudly announced with street signage. But I wondered if the sign could have done just a little to communicate why organic coffee is important. How about, “No rainforests cleared, no pesticides needed to bring you a delicious cup of coffee”?

The human race drinks 1.6 billion (with a “b”) cups a day. Be sure your office/church/book club/event is using organic coffee and letting everyone know why. It’s a great opportunity to talk about your sustainable business.

The intro offer

Whatever your product, leverage your existing customer base to share it with their like-minded friends. In just the past month, I’ve converted two personal friends to organic coffee. All I had to do was tell them it was available and at least as good as what they were already drinking. A friends-and-family discount offer would have been the perfect push to make sure I shared that message widely, and it would have been so easy for me to share via email.

Successful sellers of gateway products know it’s all about the free trial. Make your special introductory offers as generous as possible, and a regular part of your marketing activity – not just a one-time effort. Kindly Coffee, for example, offers a free 4-ounce sample package (plus shipping charge) on its website. I’d guess it’s their most cost-effective new customer acquisition tactic.

Please share your thoughts about gateway products and how they can be used to spread the sustainable product message.

Image credit: 1) Flickr/Sunny_mjx 2) Chet Van Wert

Chet Van Wert is a long-time direct / digital marketer in New York. His blog and directory at GreenerDailyLife.com was created to help consumers make the journey to environmentally sustainable living and to help sustainable businesses find receptive audiences for their products.

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