A few years ago, I was shopping for a bottle of wine to take to a friend’s dinner party. It had to be high quality and sustainable—such would be expected of me as a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. The owner of my local wine store suggested Frog’s Leap, saying that “it has a rating above ninety on Wine Enthusiast, and it is made with organically grown grapes. It’s a win-win.”
I looked at the bottle and asked, “How do you know it’s certified? There is no organic label.” He said he knew the winery owner personally, so I took a chance and bought the wine. At home, a cursory Google search uncovered that the vineyard was indeed certified organic. I also came across an interview with John Williams, founder of Frog’s Leap. He said there was no advantage to marketing the company’s wine as organic but that the company was pursuing sustainability anyway because it led to higher-quality wine.1 I later found quotes from other organic-certified winery owners declaring that they would not put “organic” on their labels because it confuses the public. As an environmental economist, I was intrigued.
As I researched wineries further, I discovered that only one-third of those with organic certification labeled their bottles as such. This was puzzling, since consumer surveys indicate that more than 70 percent of people actively seek responsible products wherever possible. Why would wineries go through costly organic certification without promoting it to their customers?
They discovered that selling sustainability is more complicated than it seems. Consumers come in many forms, and the context of the purchase matters. With wine, it may be that a relatively new term such as organic undercuts the legitimacy and legacy of vintages and vineyards. Or perhaps consumers see a trade-off in quality, despite organic wines being rated higher by experts. Maybe they aren’t concerned about health benefits when they’re drinking alcohol. Whatever the case, many winemakers found that an environmental benefit such as “certified organic” didn’t resonate with their target audience. It affected their bottom line, and that has implications for the health of our planet.
Something similar happened to Nike in 2005 when it launched Considered, its first line of environmentally friendly shoes. The company had high hopes for its walking boot, which was made with brown hemp fibers. It looked earthy, obviously communicating that the shoe was sustainable. But critics panned the line, calling the $110 shoes “Air Hobbits” because of their forest-dweller appearance, and took Nike to task for releasing a design that detracted from its high-tech image. The boots also sold poorly, and they were off shelves within a year.2 After the debacle, Nike decided to go green quietly instead and to stop communicating about the sustainability of its products. The Air Hobbit’s big mistake was overlooking performance.
Both cases illustrate a central reality of the modern green marketplace: it is complicated, and it is interwoven with human psychology and the history of industry and advertising. As a result, companies trying to sell sustainability have frequently missed the mark with broad-based appeals to a general sense of environmentalism.
Both cases also show that there is opportunity for businesses to take advantage of the growing but largely untapped consumer market for environmentally sound goods and services. This book provides strategies to understand specific audiences and what moves them in order to tap this market.
It almost goes without saying that the sum of our individual and household behaviors has a massive impact on the environment. Increasing awareness of environmental issues has led to a rise in conscious consumption, a movement consisting of those who seek ways to make positive decisions about what to buy and look for solutions to consumerism’s negative impacts. But it remains challenging for citizens to relate their personal behavior to large-scale problems such as climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, and natural-resource depletion.
In theory, markets can provide effective solutions by helping those who care about the environment act responsibly through personal choices. When consumers are armed with information about the impact of environmental products, each purchase becomes a vote for the planet, and this can be incredibly powerful in driving firms toward sustainability. With advances in science and information technologies, it is possible that in ten years we will live in a world of green transparency—that is, we will know almost everything about how our lives impact the environment. We could receive a detailed weekly carbon-footprint report based on commuting, eating, and housing choices. With that information, we can make each consumer choice a better one for the environment. This, in turn, would drive a sustainability revolution for entire corporate sectors. In this future, Walmart sells only organic because its consumers demand it. The number-one seafood offering in grocery stores and restaurants is sustainably farmed fish, spurring a recovery in ocean fish stocks. The popularity of high-carbon products such as beef would decline in favor of alternatives that involve fewer greenhouse-gas emissions.
There is evidence this vision will become reality. Markets fueled by sustainability information have expanded rapidly over the last decade. Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) is a multibillion-dollar market of consumers focused on the well-being of the environment, themselves, and other people. Consumer demand for organic food has grown by double digits nearly every year since the 1990s, while the overall food market grew only by single digits.3 From 2006 to 2011, the green-building segment grew 1,700 percent, whereas the overall construction market contracted 17 percent.4 More companies now communicate about the greenness of their products and practices to take advantage of these markets: green advertising has increased almost tenfold in the last twenty years, and has nearly tripled since 2006.5
This rapid development has attracted many firms, but few have been able to harvest the fruits of green markets. Some hold a naive view of green consumers and fail to get the response they hoped. Others provide inaccurate claims about the greenness of their products, hampering the development of the sustainable market by damaging consumer trust. Many green-information strategies have failed by overlooking the essential components of such strategies. Most executives know they need to address the challenge of sustainability, but they are unsure how to reach their customer base.
“More information” is an incomplete answer. It has to be the right information presented in the right way. Consumers face a dizzying array of green choices at supermarkets and other stores. They are confused by the state of green-product information or even distrust it.
With the rise of social media, consumers wield unprecedented power to demand that companies align with their values. They can publicly access a wealth of information and rate the performance of firms. And, often in concert with activists, they can hold companies accountable for poor environmental records. This ability is cultivating smarter consumers who get information through a multitude of channels and quickly turn their backs on firms that lie. Well-designed information strategies create the opportunity to engage these consumers in a more positive way.
The bottom line? Token marketing campaigns are no longer enough. A coat of green paint that hides a brown reality no longer works. In an increasingly open, digital world in which honesty and authenticity are paramount, businesses need to keep up with growing demands for ethical behavior and transparency in their own operations and supply chain.
This book offers a way to cut through the noise and realize the potential of sustainable business. With insight from sustainable business and from behavioral economics, this book provides evidence-based approaches to overcoming barriers and participating effectively in green markets.
Successful strategies demand a holistic approach. A company must not only demonstrate a commitment to sustainability on multiple organizational levels but also ensure that sustainability measures come with benefits or attributes consumers will pay for. In the case of Nike, the “green look” of the shoe was not valued. With organic wine, firms failed to effectively communicate the personal benefits a consumer could expect, including better taste.
“Dark green” consumers, those willing to accept trade-offs for the environment, remain a small minority. Most people will not buy environmentally friendly goods if there is any perceived sacrifice in quality. Many are convenient environmentalists: they say they are willing to buy green, but their actions tell another tale. These people are reachable, but businesses must appeal to something more than pure altruism—they must combine altruism with personal benefits.
Information strategies that target altruism alone reach only the small minority of truly passionate green consumers. With what we call the “green bundle”—natural or implicit cobenefits of environmental goods and services—companies can strategically appeal to both the altruistic and egoistic values of consumers. Broadly, green bundle cobenefits include the following: quality, status, health, money, and emotion. Messaging that pairs sustainability with these private benefits creates a win-win for consumers. They are not only doing right by the world but also doing right by themselves. In a sense, they get to have their cake and eat it too—benefiting psychologically from altruism and benefiting in a more tangible sense from added value.
In this book, we describe the elements of effective information strategies that will help managers guide consumers along the difficult path from knowledge to consumption. We evaluate the attractiveness of information strategies for sustainability based on the form of the communication as well as the content of the message.
First, as noted, products need to provide benefits beyond environmental ones to reach the vast majority of consumers. They must be developed in a way that connects sustainability to other positive attributes that people often value more. Second, environmental claims need to be easily understood and credible. Green bundle strategies differ from the traditional communication techniques used for conventional products. They include the goal—explicit or implied—that a consumer is doing something to better the environment in addition to promoting her individual well-being. Brand credibility is important for conventional products, but it is even more important for green products. We describe ways of preventing green-washing while providing accountability and transparency.
This book intends to speak to managers, policy makers, activists, and students—anyone who wants to use market forces to lead organizations down a sustainable path. We describe the elements of effective information campaigns based on case studies from different industries. The explosion of sustainable markets presents a huge opportunity, but it cannot be taken advantage of haphazardly. This book offers a thoughtful approach to capitalizing on these markets in a way that ensures future success.
In chapter 1, we lay out the context for this book. We describe how consumers have changed in the last decade, becoming not just more conscious about the environment but also more sophisticated, more suspicious about green messages, more convenience oriented, and less likely to put in extra effort to go green. In chapter 2, we introduce the framework of the green bundle, whereby configurations of environmental and private benefits with clear and authentic messaging can be designed to appeal to a majority of consumers, creating a tipping point in green consumption. We describe the psychological mechanisms that lead consumers to be attentive to green messages and motivate them to make the leap to green consumption.
Chapters 3 through 7 describe the green bundle—a series of strategic paths based on the cobenefits of environmental products and services. In chapter 3, we start with quality, highlighting how performance, functionality, durability, comfort, and convenience can all be bundled with sustainability. In chapter 4, we describe how status can be a powerful tool to compel green behavior in the marketplace. In chapter 5, we explain how the realization of the connection between environmental damage and poor health triggers stark modifications in consumption patterns. Chapter 6 addresses the complex relationship between money and sustainability; it also addresses how the context in which premiums or savings are framed is particularly important in convincing consumers to buy green. Chapter 7 emphasizes how storytelling can generate emotional responses that deeply engage consumers and amplify the cobenefits of green products. In chapter 8, we talk about how to avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing, which can foil sustainable-marketing strategies. Finally, in chapter 9, we discuss the signaling elements of the green bundle and provide strategies for sending clear and authentic messages to consumers. We conclude with a summary of the context in which bundle strategies are the most effective.
Returning to the example of organic wine, it’s clear that none of these approaches are simple to execute, but we will provide clear and understandable ways to do so. With communications, sometimes less is more; with wine, it may be best to promote the quality benefit of better taste without heralding its sustainability. The message would still be there, but it would be subtle and perhaps more effective.
Given our history, it may seem incredulous that we can get the forces of business and the environment to go hand in hand in a way that benefits the planet, consumers, and bottom lines at the same time. And yet this is clearly the direction things are headed. With innovations and the rising power of green markets, these unlikely bedfellows are in it for the long haul. And with global environmental problems ever more pressing, we need these forces to work together as fast as possible. This book shows how to make that happen.
3. Organic Trade Association, “U.S. Organic Industry Survey 2017,” https://ota.com/resources/organic-industry-survey; US Census, “Retail and Food Services Sales 1992–2016,” https://www.census.gov/retail/index.html.
4. McGraw-Hill Construction, “The Green Outlook 2012,” http://biggreenopportunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Big-Green-Opportunity-Report-FINAL-WEB.pdf.
5. TerraChoice Group Inc., “Greenwashing Report 2010,” http://sinsofgreenwashing.com/findings/greenwashing-report-2010/index.html.