For a product to succeed, being “green” isn’t enough

By Alistair McCaskill (Guest contributor from The Switch Report).

In the last couple of years I’ve interviewed the owners and managers of over 45 companies that are each contributing in some way to the move towards a more sustainable way of life. In the process I’ve met a lot of dedicated people for whom sustainability is a passion, and often business just happens to be the way in which they pursue it.

One question I often ask is “what motivates people to buy your product?” And more often than not, the answer has little to do with its green credentials. The simple fact encountered by most people marketing sustainable products is that “green” doesn’t sell.

Why not? After all, 60-80% of Australians claim to be concerned about the environment (we’re a fickle bunch; it varies from year to year). But when it comes to actually doing something, we’re a bit apathetic. While 29% participate in some form of environmental activity, this mostly comprises signing petitions and donating money. Just 2% attend demonstrations or rallies on environmental protection.

Depressingly, and based on conversations with sustainable businesses, that figure of 2% also roughly represents the fraction of the market who primarily base their buying decisions on environmental considerations.

I’ve looked at some of the reasons why “green” doesn’t sell on The Switch Report, many of which suggest potential solutions. But for many businesses that are doing good, their success in the market place has little to do with sustainability. What is it, then, that makes them thrive?

KeepCup XS. Image courtesy of CobaltNiche.

KeepCup XS. Image courtesy of CobaltNiche.

Let’s start with KeepCup. One of their aims is to make a dent in the 500 billion disposable coffee cups thrown away each year. Sustainability is one of the messages conveyed by their website, but fun takes precedence. Design your own cup with unique mix of vibrant colours, get involved in coffee culture and feel good by supporting a good cause. Cafés are a willing sales channel because they save on the significant cost of disposable cups and in some cases they even offer attractive discounts to KeepCup users. Rounding off the package is very effective use of social media, including the exposure provided by influential bloggers. (And let’s not forget that, thanks to the design input of CobaltNiche, KeepCups work very well too).

Stable Group and Archiblox take different approaches to delivering buildings with low energy requirements that utilise sustainable materials. Stable Group focuses on commercial buildings and apartments, and aim to deliver projects for a similar cost to conventional buildings. Archiblox build prefabricated homes with an eight or nine star energy rating, yet the sustainability page is the least visited on their website and there is a cost premium. So what helps both of these companies succeed is that buyers are attracted by greater comfort, lower running costs and the pleasant indoor environment. Other benefits are unexpected. Some businesses that moved into Stable Group’s first office building saw their level of staff turnover plummet. It provided an environment in which people like to work, and that adds real value to the bottom line.The Esplanade by Archiblox. Image courtesy of Archiblox.

The Esplanade by Archiblox. Image courtesy of Archiblox.

The Esplanade by Archiblox. Image courtesy of Archiblox.

Anyone with a passing interest in sustainability would expect that, if you came up with a packaging material that works just as well as current materials, is made from a renewable, plant-based resource, is water-soluble and completely biodegradable, then it would dominate the market. But with just such a product, Plantic has only achieved a low level of market penetration. Their success has come from another product that performs better than the opposition. It keeps food fresher for longer, and that can help to cut food waste. As with the other companies, sustainability rates a mention, but it barely figures in the ultimate buying decision.

And that’s the take home message. It doesn’t hurt to make passing reference to the environmental benefits of a product, but for most buyers this is just a fringe benefit. But when there is a choice between two products or services, if the primary selling benefit of one offering is that it is good for the planet, it will face a real uphill battle.

Imbue it with other qualities, whether subtle or bold, real or perceived, and the greenest of offerings can find a market with the least environmentally conscious consumer.

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