Harvard Business Review

The elusive green consumer: Who are they and how can you win them over?

Harvard Business Review
Climate Change: The Silver Linings, Marketing
16 minute Read

On the surface, there has seemingly never been a better time to launch a sustainable offering. Consumers — particularly millennials — increasingly say they want brands that embrace purpose and sustainability. Indeed, one recent report revealed that certain categories of products with sustainability claims showed twice the growth of their traditional counterparts. Yet a frustrating paradox remains at the heart of green business: few consumers who report positive attitudes toward eco-friendly products and services follow through with their wallets. In one recent survey 65% said they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, yet only about 26% actually do so.

Narrowing this “intention-action gap” is important not just for meeting corporate sustainability goals but also for the planet. Unilever estimates that almost 70% of its greenhouse gas footprint depends on which products customers choose and whether they use and dispose of them in a sustainable manner — for example, by conserving water and energy while doing the laundry or recycling containers properly after use.

We have been studying how to encourage sustainable consumption for several years, performing our own experiments and reviewing research in marketing, economics, and psychology. The good news is that academics have learnt a lot about how to align consumers’ behaviors with their stated preferences. Much of the research has focused on public interventions by policy makers — but the findings can be harnessed by any organisation that wishes to nudge consumers toward sustainable purchasing and behavior. Synthesizing these insights, we have identified five actions for companies to consider: use social influence, shape good habits, leverage the domino effect, decide whether to talk to the heart or the brain, and favour experiences over ownership.

Use social influence

In 2010 the city of Calgary, Alberta, had a problem. It had recently rolled out a program called grasscycling, which involves residents’ leaving grass clippings to naturally decompose on a lawn after mowing, rather than bagging them to be taken to a landfill. The city had created an informational campaign about the program that highlighted its benefits: grasscycling would return valuable nutrients to the soil, protect the lawn, and help the soil retain moisture. What’s more, this sustainable behavior actually required less work from the individual. But initial adoption rates were lower than the city had expected.

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