Taking Sustainability Mainstream

The key to greening consumer behavior? “Move sustainability from niche to normal,” claims Freya Williams, the SVP and Strategy Director of Publicis Kaplan Thaler. Williams joined us in New York City for the Sustainable Business Series, hosted by the Bard MBA in Sustainability. During her talk, Williams argued that it is human nature to want to fit in, so the only way to increase sustainable consumption is to normalize it. She claims, “normal is sustainable.”

headshotIt has been well know for many years, within consumer products industries, that there is a gap between people who claim to buy green products and those who actually buy green products. This has been named the “green gap.”  The key to successfully marketing green products is closing this gap; in other words, we must capture the consumers who could be sustainable consumers, but currently aren’t.

Williams conducted research to help understand public perceptions of green consumption in order to help marketers correct those perceptions and make green consumption more mainstream. Here are just a few of her fascinating findings:

  • “Half of Americans think that green products are targeted to rich elitist snobs or crunchy granola hippies.”
  • 82% think being green is more feminine.
  • #1 barrier to green consumption is cost, which sends a mixed signal that we are taxing sustainability when in reality, it is something that, by its very nature, should be available to everyone. This contributes to the elitist reputation of the concept.

So what can we do when it comes to marketing and branding to fix these perceptions?

  • We must “lose the crunch.” As Williams says, “green doesn’t mean that it has to be packaged in burlap.” Think of Method vs. Seventh Generation.

    Tesla Model S
  • “Turn eco-friendly into male ego-friendly” e.g. Tesla vs. Nissan Leaf
  • Don’t stop innovating. We should be making products that are greener and better. For example, Nike’s new flyknit shoe is made with a single piece of material on the upper part. This creates a better shoe and decreases its environmental impact.
  • Have fun with sustainability! Humor is a great way to reach people. We need to eliminate the doom and gloom stigma.
  • Stop taxing sustainability. Larger companies can change their pricing structure in order to make the green option cheaper.

The key to selling more green products is mainstreaming sustainability. People just want to fit in. Williams argues that “a lot of green marketing has gotten it all wrong”, because their marketing targets the 16% of consumers who already seek out sustainable products. “Mainstream marketing drives mainstream behavior,” so we need to lose the crunch and focus our energies and resources on making green normal.


Photo Credit: autoblog.com and The Guardian 


By, Christina Wildt  MS/MBA ’16


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