Taking green to the mainstream

Sensemaking / Taking green to the mainstream

New consumer research shows that sustainability is still the preserve of the few. We have to make it normal, says Sally Uren.

08 Aug 2011

New consumer research shows that sustainability is still the preserve of the few. We have to make it normal, says Sally Uren.

Time to make sustainability normal. So says the latest research on how to take ‘green’ to the mainstream, unveiled at the Sustainable Brands conference in California in June. Mainstream Green, by communications agency Ogilvyearth, asks why the purchasing behaviours of the middle green haven’t shifted, despite massive growth in sustainable marketing.

The discovery of the ‘middle green’ – the 60 to 70% of mainstream consumers who said that they would do sustainability if it was made easy for them – made the prospect of putting consumption on a sustainable path a real possibility.

Four years on, and the consumption of everything has taken a very different path. Sustainability is still the preserve of the minority – those who didn’t need much convincing to embrace low-impact lifestyles in the first place.

Green claims have simply failed to cut through into the public consciousness. Why? The Ogilvy study, based on interviews with over a thousand US consumers, cites a number of reasons. Among them: the premiums often dolloped on the price tag – think organic carrots versus non-organic. Then there’s the general confusion: “Is organic really sustainable? Or does it have to be local too?” And also the fear of being seen to be a bit weird (“Don’t folk that eat organic carrots wear funny sandals…?”).

Not to mention that, for many of the men-folk questioned by the Ogilvy team, sustainability is most definitely a feminine issue. In their eyes, the jute bag handed out at supermarkets is no better than a ‘man purse’. Green is the new pink.

Where next for mainstreaming sustainability? Again, the report makes some sensible suggestions. My top four, based on their survey and my own experiences, are:

  • Get the right products and services to market. This means innovating like crazy. I’m not talking incremental improvements – a bit of lightweight packaging here, a bit of ingredient substitution there. I mean replacing the glass jar with a paper-based pouch, or making the yoghurt carton edible.
  • Wave goodbye to the sustainability tax. Why is the ‘green’ washing up liquid often more expensive than its harmful cousin? Sustainable products, manufactured with super-efficient supply chains, should be cheaper to make than products made with energy-intensive processes. It’s time to pass that benefit to the consumer.
  • Put yourself into the head of someone who isn’t hardwired to be green. What is important to them? Slapping a green label on a product won’t be enough. It needs to read: good price – and green; cheaper to run – and green; looks good – and green…
  • Make the most of brands that people already recognise and trust. When asked from whom would they buy sustainable goods and services, 73% of the respondents in the Ogilvy study said they would opt for a mainstream brand – because they are familiar, and ‘normal’.

One last word. The whole question of sustainability needs a new context. In it, we stop selling more and more stuff to more and more people. Above a certain income per capita, stuff doesn’t make us happier. How about leasing services that actually do us good – instead of selling tat that simply looks good? Market that!

Sally Uren is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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