15 October 2021
How Do We Sell Sustainability to Consumers?
In 1969, John Lennon said, “we’re trying to sell peace, like a product…like people sell soap or soft drinks”. That same approach is needed today to sell sustainable goods and services and we need data to help us figure out how to get them to resonate with people.
Some of the most popular sustainable behaviours according to Mintel’s research are driven by frugality, led by meal planning to avoid wasting food (61%) and buying fewer new clothes (58%). The sustainable consumer groups we have identified are more likely to agree with the statement ‘I have a budget that I try to stick to as much as possible’. It is this ‘return on investment’ mentality we need to appeal to when pushing solar panels and EVs, not just environmentalism.
Sustainable products and services should also appeal to people’s sense of well being and self-preservation. A sharp indication of just how seriously UK consumers are taking climate change and pollution is shown by the proportions interested in buying air conditioning (30%) or air purifiers (32%) to make their homes cleaner and safer. Health also informs the growth in greener transport behaviours seen this past year and those who have walked (45%) or cycled (17%) more often.
Sustainably-minded consumers have stronger peacock tendencies, being more likely to agree with the statement ‘I like to stand out from the crowd’. Refurbished tech reseller Back Market appeals strongly to these values, addressing the growing problem of e-waste by selling products 70% below their new price, all delivered in a Freedom campaign that celebrates being ‘different’ from the sheep who line up en masse to pay more for the latest phone.
There’s still time to make a personal difference
The good news is that a small majority (54%) still believe we have time for redemption, and slightly more (56%) believe that their personal actions can make the difference. For brands, the opportunity here is to become the chosen partners of those consumers looking to make a difference. The challenge thereafter is for brands to maintain that relationship by proving what difference they’ve made and reporting back on that impact. So how can they do this?
1. Don’t cross consumers’ ‘red lines’
When asked to choose their top five considerations when purchasing coffee, socks or soap, consumers typically select two or more sustainable features, but they won’t sacrifice product quality, efficacy or brand familiarity for sustainability. We should never forget that a sustainable coffee must first and foremost deliver pleasure, taste and quality before anything else. These rules apply to packaging too: its primary role is to protect the product within to ensure that the energy and other resources that went into its production are not wasted. Their footprint will be much higher than that of the packaging itself. Patagonia is one of the very few brands to have had the courage to explain its reasons for using plastic in these terms.
2. Educate on and disclose impacts
Consumers are fixated on ocean plastic (62% say it’s a top three environmental concern) yet even accounting for its production using fossil fuels, its incineration and disposal it generates less than 4% of annual GHG emissions. More consumers prioritise ocean plastic than a loss of biodiversity in the oceans as a concern, but Sea Shepherd’s revelation that 46% of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually fishing nets, confirms that fishing and food have a far greater impact than packaging when it comes to damaging the ocean and the role of its biomass in storing carbon. It’s the duty of brands to be transparent on their business’s biggest areas of impact when it comes to releasing carbon or methane.
3. Offer tangible, local solutions
When it comes to accepting the reality of climate change, it’s a case of ‘seeing is believing’, with national levels of concern around climate change grounded in what people experience in their own countries. The visibility of ocean plastic is one of the reasons why it resonates so highly and this element of tangibility will also be key in whether people engage on issues. This may hardly seem an earth-shattering insight, but it signifies the importance of tangibility and localism when it comes to delivering sustainable solutions, confirmed in characterisation studies showing ‘sustainably-minded consumers’ to be distinguished by the high emphasis they place on values like ‘community’ and ‘localism’. This means that corporate initiatives – wherever possible – must deliver local visible benefits like cleaner local air from brands using EVs or investing in urban tree planting schemes.
4. Sell in the science
Just 45% of UK consumers agree that “science can provide solutions to the climate crisis”, which is pretty disappointing when we consider how intrinsic available technologies (solar panels, batteries, fuel cells, hydroponics) and those still in development (carbon capture, climate engineering, zero-carbon manufacturing materials, chemical recycling and lab-grown foods) are to us achieving emissions reductions. The pandemic has afforded us a zeitgeist moment to seize upon the speedy and spectacular successes in RNA vaccine development and trust in science needs to be built up by brands to help us achieve progress to net zero. Brands need to be brave enough to explain the benefits of science and synthetics instead of taking the easy option of celebrating ‘natural’ for all of its’ supposed purity. Palm oil, beef and coal are all “natural” resources, but they are finite and threatened and release GHGs in their production.
5. Use clear metrics and language
What will convince consumers to purchase products that claim to have environmental or social benefits?
To build belief in science and to convert potential into actual purchases, companies need to offer a new sustainability lexicon and use simple data and metrics that consumers can understand. Some 44% of UK consumers want labelling that shows a product’s environmental impact and 40% want this communicated in terms they can understand (eg litres of water used or km travelled). Mondra has developed colour-coded on pack “eco scores” that will go on trial in the UK this autumn and go some way to meeting that need.
Richard Cope is a Senior Trends Consultant at Mintel and author of the Sustainability Barometer. Join Richard at our Start Up Day 2021 event on 11th November. He'll be hosting a session on understanding sustainability trends in the UK right now - an unmissable and informative event for all small businesses wanting to start up sustainably.