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Sustainability Marketing Needs 'Here's How' Not 'Just Say No'

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Telling customers what they can't have will send them elsewhere. Earn their trust and educate them to promote sustainable purchasing.

In the 1980s, the Advertising Council attempted to empower people -- mostly young people -- to 'Just Say No' (to Drugs). While the effectiveness of the campaign is questioned today, it is often cited as an example by people seeking to encourage behavior change.

Because balancing the issues around climate, health, wellness, societal 'good' and cost are interrelated, the question is far more complex than a simple Boolean (yes/no) choice. Because these goods often come with a higher price, for example, people may find themselves torn between the immediate needs of their family with the longer-term benefit to the planet or society.

Experts point out that while percentage of consumers who will pay a premium for 'green' products is growing, it remains a small portion of the overall market. As a result, some of the more strident activists are increasingly calling for the elimination of certain products that do not meet their criteria for environmental or social standards. Get rid of the 'bad,' their argument goes, and consumers will have no choice but to purchase 'superior' products. But as we saw with prohibition, outright banning of a product (or class of products) for which there is a strong market does not force societal change; it creates a 'black' market that often gives rise to other social ills, such as the rise of organized crime.

Companies would do well to recognize that in a competitive marketplace, any company that makes the decision to eliminate products and services that its customers demand is likely to find itself sacrificing customers and risking market share potentially to disastrous financial effect. That is why sustainability efforts that are true to the concept of people-planet-posperity and building a virtuous cycle seek to find way to promote conscious consumerism.

One of the true pioneers in sustainable and green marketingSuzanne Shelton and her company have conducted research into Americans' attitudes and behavior when it comes to environmentally responsible products for years. "Most Americans will try a greener product if it is comparably priced and offered by a known brand," Shelton points out. Her research also points at the comfort and convenience remain powerful considerations for people. That's why messages such as 'if you're cold, put on a sweater' in the 1970s environmental movement are far less effective than 'a programmable thermostat lets you come home to a warm house, but doesn't waste energy -- and money -- while you're not home.'

This supports a more reasoned and reasonable approach, as I described in an earlier post to leverage one's expertise to make the healthier, socially responsible, environmental choices compelling to customers. Customers who trust you will be receptive to messages offer information (rather than condemnation) about the impacts associated with different products. By empowering them to make choices that match their values -- even as their values may shift over time and as economic circumstances vary.

People often find themselves choosing between powerful value drivers; such as early economy cars that offered terrible reliability, questionable safety, marginal comfort and poor performance in exchange for better gas mileage. While higher prices at the pump may be the primary reason for increasing sales in this segment, the fact that these cars manage to combine fuel efficiency with other desirable features such as power, performance, 5-star safety ratings, navigation systems, keyless entry, Bluetooth, etc. is certainly part of the equation.

In the end, success will not be defined simply by making sustainable product available, but by the percentage of your sales they encompass. Somewhere between 0 and 100 percent is the 'sweet spot.' And then, by using your expertise to make the products superior in the eyes of customers, you can work to increase the proportion.