Our obsession with the green consumer “problem” goes much deeper than knowing the way to sell products.
By Henk Campher
It seems as if everyone in the sustainability world is obsessed with the consumer, or at least with finding more consumers who are treehuggers at heart.
This is the holy grail of sustainability after all – getting more consumers to buy into the idea of sustainable products. Or more specifically, get more consumers to buy sustainable products. But lately there’s a sense of discouragement in the air.
Marc Gunther, one of the people I admire the most in the sustainability field, wrote an article last year about the elusive green consumer, pointing out that while market research shows that consumers want greener products, their purchasing behavior doesn’t follow suit. Similarly, Triple Pundit has shared statistics about consumers (becoming) increasingly skeptical of green products.
More recently, at the GreenBiz Forum in New York, we were told we need a dose of reality when it comes to the presence (or absence) of green consumers. And although I agree with some aspects of this theory, I think we also need to reassess our expectations and redefine how we measure success.
Reassessing our Obsession with the "Green Consumer"
Companies will fail if they try to sell products based primarily on their sustainability merits. No one buys a car to go from point A to point B. They buy the dream of wind blowing in their hair and driving the road less traveled – and then we wake up stuck in the hour-long commute to work. It is exactly the same for a green product.
We need to sell a purpose AND a promise. A promise of a dream and a vision. Consumers buy products for many reasons and to fulfill a variety of needs. They won’t buy it just because we built it green.
Our obsession with the green consumer “problem” goes much deeper than knowing the way to sell products. It goes to our MTV-generation, which expects instant gratification. But the change in consumer behavior is not revolutionary – it is evolutionary. Things are constantly changing, and evaluating the state of the green consumer today, without considering the progress (or regress) over the last few years, gives us an incomplete picture.
It's incorrect to think that consumer behavior hasn't changed.
Of course it has. It has changed around us every single day – and continues to change today. But it is difficult to see it grow. Like everything else in evolution it moves slowly but surely. But don't expect to see a big moment in time where it hits you in the face. You'll have more luck watching paint dry or the kettle boil. But over time, we have to recognize the changes.
The Thing About Change…
Just consider how much the world has changed over the last 20-30 years. Remember when Fair Trade was just a little sparkle in the eyes of activists? Today it continues to grow at a rapid pace, outstripping the growth of more "traditional" ways of doing business – growing globally by 12 percent in 2011 alone.
And how are those hybrid sales going? Yes, they may still be behind traditional car sales but sales of electric and hybrid cars grew by 72 percent in 2012 and were the fastest growing sector in the U.S. automotive industry. And how about those Method guys? And TOMS? Have you noticed changes in your milk lately and how it doesn’t have as many hormones or other unsavory ingredients in it anymore?
And water filters? And cleaning products?
Have you noticed how organic products have grown way faster than most other consumer products? And clothing companies like Levi's and Timberland are constantly bringing new sustainable products to the consumer? Walk through grocery stores today and you’ll see the huge variety of green, ethical, organic goods on the shelf today.
Imagine how few of those products were on that same shelf 20 years ago. Many of these products have become mainstream.
No one is thinking of Stonyfield Farms as some hippie yogurt business anymore. Or Ben & Jerry’s as some small ice cream company. Sales continue to grow each year and new products create breakthroughs almost continuously. And consumers are buying them. Some are growing fast and some not so fast. That is simply the nature of the beast - it grows and will continue to grow.
Just don't expect a revolution. It's not - it's an evolution.
Our Pursuit for Innovation: Learning to Love Failure
And if true innovation is what we’re after, we need to steel ourselves for the likelihood that some ideas are bound to fail. No truly cutting-edge company has hit a home run with every single release. Who remembers the Apple Newton? Kellogg’s breakfast mates? Pepsi A.M.? Have you ever eaten a McDonald’s Arch Delux? Or what about Kitchen Entrees by Colgate? Who owned an IBM PCjr?
More recently, who thought Qwikster was a great idea?
These companies have succeeded despite the occasional flop – and I’d venture to guess they learned a great deal from their mistakes. No one stopped investing in Apple, IBM, Ford, McDonald’s or any of the companies I've listed just because of one product failure. Or even multiple product failures. It is the nature of all business.
A key lesson for those in sustainability – get used to failure as it is inherent across every sector and simply a part of the evolutionary process of business.
Not only do consumers buy more sustainable products each and every day but companies are using this evolution to transform their products and brands to drive new growth in sales and consumer support. For instance, Timberland Earthkeepers played a key part in transforming the business during a difficult time for the company. Even today Earthkeepers is Timberland’s fastest growing and largest product line.
And how about Dove soap? It was “just another soap” until Unilever adopted real beauty for women, a popular social issue, and turned that into a core brand quality and differentiator. After all, social issues is one of the three pillars of sustainability.
A thousand words in, the point is: we need to grow up and realize that sustainable products have grown up faster than we did – and so have consumers. We are wrong when we think consumers aren’t buying it. They are but not the way we want it.
That’s our problem, not theirs.
For me the biggest question isn’t whether consumers are buying green or sustainable products but whether it truly matters, and whether consumers’ purchasing behavior can really impact our world in a positive way.
But that is another debate for another day.