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illustration of green products on shelves

How Brands Can Help Consumers Green Up Their Act

Hal Conick

illustration of green products on shelves

As consumer demand for sustainable products has risen, brands have become greener. But are greener products and marketing enough to change how consumers behave?

Hotel Felix bills itself as Chicago’s first green hotel. Inside, hidden from view, hotel staff separates the contents of guests’ trash bins—recyclable material is picked out from the items that go to landfills. The decade-old hotel boasts Silver LEED certification, Earth-friendly cleaning supplies and carpeting made of 45% recycled material in guest rooms. Each facet is meant to signal the hotel’s environmental friendliness. But area general manager Todd Van Winkle says that the hotel doesn’t use much green messaging in its marketing, nor does it push guests to participate in its green mission.

Hotel Felix is in a challenging spot—both geographically and financially—and must focus on what makes the most money. The hotel has 228 guest rooms and targets an occupancy rate between 82% and 86%, all while trying to attract tourists in the posh River North neighborhood where you can’t walk a block without stubbing your toe on a hotel. Choose Chicago reports that in Chicago’s business district—of which River North is a part—there were a record 15.6 million rooms available in 2018. That same year, after Deutsche Bank filed a foreclosure lawsuit against Hotel Felix, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that the hotel defaulted on a $47 million loan, then restructured its mortgage to narrowly avoid foreclosure.

lobby of Hotel Felix Chicago
Hotel Felix bills itself as Chicago’s first green hotel.

Competition is fierce and Hotel Felix has fought to stay alive, but Van Winkle doesn’t believe that eco-friendliness can win enough new business to be the focus of the hotel’s marketing, nor would forcing guests into being greener be good for business. Hotel executives care about reducing their carbon footprint, but it doesn’t matter as much financially as maintaining cost and upkeep. Hotel Felix aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 1% each year, saving $5,000–$10,000 and gaining 2–3% of its business per year from green consumers, but price and quality attract the most new guests. The hotel gives guests the option to refuse housekeeping and linen laundry services—5–10% of guests participate each night, Van Winkle says—to save energy and water. But like any hotel where people stay when visiting a city, Hotel Felix is first and foremost a place for them to lay down their bags and sleep.

“That’s why we use the linen reuse [service], because we can’t stop you from taking a shower,” he says. “We can’t tell you, ‘Hey, it’s a five-minute cutoff.’ … We try to influence the consumer as much as we can, but it essentially boils down to [whether the] consumer is doing their part.”

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The same is true of all businesses, Van Winkle believes. If consumers want brands to become greener, consumers must lead the charge—brands can only do so much. If 10% of Hotel Felix’s guests are green-minded enough to forgo housekeeping service, he says that’s a positive mark on the world. But what else can the hotel do, especially amid such fierce competition? Van Winkle doesn’t believe that knocking on doors to tell guests to stop showering or using so much energy is a moneymaker, so the hotel cuts energy consumption where it can and hopes that guests will at least turn their lights and TV off when they leave for the day.

Can brands do more to push consumers toward acting greener? Or like Hotel Felix, do they simply hope consumers follow their lead?

The term “sustainability,” as we use it today, comes from the United Nations’ 1987 “Our Common Future” report, also known as the Brundtland Report. “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” the report says.

In the 30 years since the Brundtland Report, two major factors have driven the change among businesses, according to Alexa Poortier, founder of sustainable tourism advocacy group itmustbeNOW. The first factor has been consumer brands, such as Unilever and Patagonia, driving the change from the C-suite—the executives wanted green changes and made them happen. Hotels, such as the Taj Group and Soneva, have moved toward carbon neutrality and green certifications, just as Hotel Felix attained the Silver LEED designation. Even so, Poortier says that few hotels have committed to becoming rigorously sustainable, and those that claim to be lack transparency. Airlines merely talk the talk, Poortier says—flights produced 859 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2017, according to the Air Transport Action Group, but Poortier says that few airlines have committed to sustainability.

“Sustainability is a powerful marketing opportunity and tool, but it must be rigorous with transparency and this makes a lot of companies nervous,” Poortier says. “It must focus on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The second factor has been consumer desire for sustainable brands. Most companies only change when consumers demand it, Poortier says, and that desire for change is increasing with younger generations. For example, Nielsen reports that sales of sustainable products hit $107.3 billion in 2014, but they’re predicted to reach anywhere between $142 billion and $150 billion by 2021, with a 2015 report from Nielsen reporting that millennials will pay more for sustainable products than older generations.

But green marketing has a dirty little secret, says Jacquelyn Ottman: Consumers of all generations use green products the same way they do any other product—often, they’re wasteful. Consumers have grown comfortable with what’s familiar and their pattern of consumption is hard to change.

Sales of sustainable products hit $107.3 billion in 2014, but they’re predicted to reach anywhere between
$142 billion and $150 billion by 2021.

Ottman, author of The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools, and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding, realized this secret after working as a green marketer for 30 years. She saw that people would give their money to greener brands but still use the products wastefully, which eventually led to her quitting her work as a green marketer. Now, Ottman serves as chair of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, which advocates for zero waste in New York City.

Ottman, author of The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools, and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding, realized this secret after working as a green marketer for 30 years. She saw that people would give their money to greener brands but still use the products wastefully, which eventually led to her quitting her work as a green marketer. Now, Ottman serves as chair of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, which advocates for zero waste in New York City.

“If Poland Spring contacted me today … I would not work with them,” Ottman says. “I would turn down the project. I don’t want to sound holier-than-thou, but I would rather spend my time and expertise advocating for consumer culture change than switching out a regular, single-use bottle for one that’s 100% recycled. Why would I want to spend my time giving people an excuse to continue to drink bottled water?”

Like water bottles, most green products can still be used wastefully—even easily recyclable water bottles tend to end up in landfills. An airline can change its boarding processes and on-flight utensils to be more sustainable, as United Airlines recently did, but each passenger on a coast-to-coast flight still creates just under a metric ton of carbon dioxide. A writer for The New York Times recently calculated that his family’s trip from New York to Miami created enough carbon dioxide to melt a pick-up truck-sized chunk of arctic ice. Even Patagonia, a green-friendly clothing company with environmentally conscious consumers, has trouble changing how its shoppers behave. After Patagonia launched its clothing repair program, the Common Threads Initiatives, its sales rose 30%, according to Fast Company. Patagonia’s faithful looked at Patagonia’s advertisement for the program—a full-page ad that said “Don’t Buy This Jacket”—and bought the jacket anyway.

That’s one of the problems of green marketing, Ottman says: There are opportunities for brands to change how shoppers consume, but they don’t come passively.

87% of consumers said that they were concerned about the environment and would shop with that concern in mind, but only 33% said that they had bought green products or were ready to do so.

“We need to change the default from buying new to acquiring used or sharing, swapping, donating, borrowing, lending, renting, buying and selling to each other as an alternative to buying new,” she says.

Although the younger generation demands more sustainable products, Ottman’s advocacy for reusing, trading and borrowing feels retro. Buying new is a relatively recent trend that built steam between the 1920s and 1940s on the back of credit, new technology and plastic production, which increased by 300% amid World War II, according to the Science History Institute. Consumers who had their milk delivered soon found containers of milk they could buy, throw away and buy again on their next trip to the store—eventually, the refillable delivery bottles were all but gone, a quirky relic or premium service rather than the norm. With plastics and other disposable containers making production less expensive, brands offered consumers products in a convenient way and consumers became used to that convenience.

Far away from the dairy aisle, landfills piled up with plastic bottles and wrappers. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased about 30% since 1960, according to The National Academy of Sciences, which has coincided with NASA and other groups finding rapid temperature warming since the 1970s. While these facts are often debated politically, there’s little debate among scientists and researchers that the Earth’s climate is changing and much of it is due to how modern humans live. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most greenhouse gases come from transportation, electricity and industry, which all entail how we consume, travel and throw away our trash.

The need now, as it was in 1987 when the Brundtland Report was released, is merging the need for sustainability with the desire to make money. The report called this need “a new era of economic growth—growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable,” echoing the concern of Van Winkle and countless other brands attempting to go green while staying profitable.

Many brands have tried to reduce their impact on the environment by making changes to products and suggestions to customers, akin to Hotel Felix. Patagonia asked people not to buy its jacket and Colgate asked consumers to “Turn off the Faucet.” In travel, green consumers can now buy carbon offsets, which send money to carbon reduction projects to make up for the carbon they produce by traveling. For example, United’s Eco-Skies CarbonChoice program allows travelers to streamline the process of creating and offsetting their carbon in one fell swoop. In hotels, Poortier says that the larger groups—Hyatt, Marriott, InterContinental Hotels and AccorHotels—create their own sustainability programs, but most don’t or can’t prove that they match the rigor of a group like the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, an independent nonprofit which offers accreditation for sustainable tourism.

With these actions, the brand changes and suggests greener practices to consumers, but the consumer is still left to act on their own. Green consumers will likely act green, but no one knows exactly how many people comprise this group, meaning the results are often incalculable. If the product and its packaging are produced in an eco-friendly manner, but consumers still send them to landfills, is the product actually green?

To get consumers to change their actions, brands must present products and services differently, reframing a new, green action as essential. Not only must the greenest action be truly green—greenwashing, an attempt to capitalize on the demand for sustainable products, has led to multiple lawsuits against brands—the new action must seem easy, obvious and beneficial to the consumer.

Operated by recycling company TerraCycle, Loop sends consumers refillable bottles of products through a UPS delivery in a tote bag.

A number of consumer goods companies are now experimenting with whether they can change consumer action through a project called Loop. Operated by recycling company TerraCycle, Loop sends consumers refillable bottles of products through a UPS delivery in a tote bag. Once Loop customers are finished using the products, they put them back into the tote bag and schedule a pickup. The empty containers are retrieved, cleaned, refilled and replaced at the consumer’s door. For now, Loop is only available in Paris and parts of the Mid-Atlantic region, but it already has 300 branding partners, including Coca-Cola, Mondelēz and Clorox. Andrea Rudert, associate director of corporate responsibility for Clorox Co., says that one reason the company got involved in Loop was to better understand consumer demand for “circular economy solutions.”

“We anticipate we’ll learn more in the future when we take a step back and examine the trends from Loop consumer activity,” Rudert says. “By developing actionable insights on consumer sustainable shopping behaviors, we can influence the products that we sell and how we sell them. Ultimate success is if Loop becomes a mainstream hit, scales nationally and becomes economically sustainable for all participants.”

Loop seems like a return to the days of the milkman, a step back in time to take a step forward toward sustainable consumerism. In an interview with GreenBiz Group, TerraCycle’s CEO and co-founder Tom Szaky echoed Ottman, saying that brands can’t recycle their way out of the garbage crisis—they need a foundational shift to change the way brands work and how consumers consume. Szaky sums up TerraCycle’s vision with a question: “How do we solve for disposability at the root cause, while matching the benefits?”

Consumers have long said that they desire green products and sustainable actions, but their behavior often doesn’t match their desires.

In a 2007 survey from McKinsey, 87% of consumers said that they were concerned about the environment and would shop with that concern in mind, but only 33% said that they had bought green products or were ready to do so. As a 2004 article in MIT Sloan Management review put it, “When consumers are forced to make trade-offs between product attributes or helping the environment, the environment almost never wins.” This seemingly hasn’t changed over the past 15 years, as an article in the July-August 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review found that the “intention-action gap” is still intact—65% of consumers say that they want to buy from brands that advocate for sustainability, while 26% of consumers actually buy from those brands.

How to Move Toward Sustainability as a Brand

Alexa Poortier, founder of sustainability tourism advocacy group itmustbeNOW, gave six steps for how brands can move toward becoming sustainable.

  • Have a brand custodian, someone who sincerely wants the brand and the world to be better in the future.
  • Review the values of the brand, integrating sustainability in every strategy and in each action.
  • Budget resources, both financial and people, and form a core sustainability team.
  • Join an accredited sustainability program with certifications.
  • Assess the operations to understand existing challenges.
  • Draft a Vision 2030 and action plan in line with the Paris Agreement.

The intention-action gap plays out in many different ways in travel and shopping. This year, a group of researchers published an article in the Journal of Global Scholars of Marketing Science titled “Recycling on vacation: Does pro-environmental behavior change when consumers travel?,” which studied how vacationers in North Carolina recycled. The article found that even environmentally friendly vacationers were significantly more likely to recycle at home than they were while on vacation. Of the group of vacationers who didn’t recycle, 67% said that they didn’t know how or where to recycle, while 15% forgot and 14% said that it was too messy or too much of a hassle. Their values were those of a green consumer, but their actions were confused, dismissive or forgetful.

Jason Oliver, an author of the vacation study and associate professor of marketing at Roger Williams University’s Gabelli School of Business, says that this intention-action gap has always existed in the green movement, whether customers are on vacation or at the store. There’s a small group of consumers who are fiercely green and will spend money on green products or abide by green practices no matter what—Oliver says that this is about 7% of consumers; other measures of hardline-green consumers vary—but there’s a larger group of consumers who avoid green products. The puzzle green brands must figure out, he believes, is how to win over the largest group: the people in the middle.

About 60% of all consumers fall in this middle ground, Oliver estimates, and they’re on a spectrum. The spectrum ranges from those enticed but not won over by promises of green products to those who likely won’t care about a green promise but also won’t be dissuaded by it. Generally, Oliver says that this middle group is more likely to be won over by ease, price and quality—these are the areas where he believes that brands must place the buying decision.

65% of consumers say that they want to buy from brands that advocate for sustainability, while
26% of consumers actually buy from those brands.

If a green product and its equivalent non-green version have the same cost and quality, Oliver says that the average consumer will usually choose the greener product. But most green products still aren’t equal in price and quality. Patagonia, for example, has high-quality clothing, but its prices are also high. Oliver does believe that price, quality and greenness are starting to level out in the market. Because of that leveling, brands can reach consumers in the middle with a green product, even if the consumer’s environmental values aren’t well-defined.

So far, Oliver believes that most consumers are sticking with what they know because green marketers are targeting known customers for easy sells. By solely advertising a product’s sustainable values, green marketers are preaching the benefits of their products solely to the top green customers—the people who are already won over—and ignoring the larger group in the middle that needs to hear more about the product’s benefits.

Too often, brands trying to appeal to the middle group tend to focus on easy wins, a cynical move that’s more likely to win a moment of good PR than loyal customers. Consider companies that have banned or reduced the use of plastic straws, including American Airlines, Starbucks and Hyatt: Of the 9 million tons of plastic waste created each year, research shows that straws account for about 2,000 tons, a tiny percentage of the problem. Getting rid of straws is an easy win, but are Starbucks’ recyclable plastic lids any less likely to end up in a landfill? What’s the true benefit of these moves, other than a moment of good PR?

Brands also try to use alarmist tactics to win business from the middle group—Oliver mentions the oft-used traditional green ad model of showing a polar bear on a shrinking block of ice to illustrate what happens if you don’t buy this product—but he believes that the average consumer will turn away from alarmist or fear-based marketing and brands will most certainly lose consumers less apt to care about green issues.

Instead of such thoughtlessly narrow segmentation, easy wins and fear- or shame-based marketing, Oliver says that brands should sell the product’s primary benefits to the middle group. In the case of Loop, the company touts its benefit of easily replacing products—green is a benefit, but it’s not the only benefit. That may be why so many brands quickly joined Loop. Those brands can offer consumers a way to buy their products without having to leave home—just stick a tote bag outside and the product will be refilled. Reducing waste can be the primary or secondary benefit, depending on the consumer, which is likely to win over a larger segment.

Or take an LED lightbulb, known for lasting as much as 50 times longer than an incandescent lightbulb. Oliver says that the marketing collateral could address how consumers can get rid of their step ladder and save money on the electric bill. If the product is a roll of sustainable paper towels, Oliver says that the brand can discuss the towel’s improved quality or quantity—that is, after all, why the average consumer buys paper towels. And if it’s recycling on vacation, properties can find a way to make recycling easier, more rewarding and perhaps even Instagrammable. Brand marketers must ask themselves how to get people engaged with the product or process, Oliver says—is there a way to make the green action the one that appears to be the best value, quality or most socially acceptable? Simply changing the materials likely won’t engage consumers, nor will it change their actions.

illustration of green products on shelves

Todd Weaver, a professor of business at Point University in Georgia, says that the big message for brands is that whether a product is green is not the most crucial factor to every consumer. When brands ask consumers to shop or consume differently, they must offer them good trade value. If price and quality are equal in green and non-green products, Weaver says that gives the green product a big advantage.

Weaver, who co-authored a 2018 article in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing titled “The Intersection of Sustainable Consumption and Anticonsumption: Repurposing to Extend Product Life Span,” says that repair and reuse of old items must be part of the answer. Companies such as Patagonia—which allows consumers to repair and trade in clothing—and Eileen Fisher’s Waste No More are finding a niche in repairing, trading and reusing old clothing. Weaver’s paper found that consumers enjoy the process of trading, repairing or repurposing products not for environmental reasons, but for pleasure. Still, this gratification won’t be enough to win most customers over, Weaver says. Just as there are few one-issue voters, most consumers consider multiple factors when shopping. If the product is bad, too expensive or if its benefits are unclear, people will likely buy what they’re familiar with and use it in a customary way.

Green marketers must make their products’ value proposition clear, all the better if there are multiple selling points. Oliver gave the example of Tesla and how it markets its vehicles. Tesla’s stated mission is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy,” but you’ll likely hear more about the car’s literal acceleration. For example, most YouTube videos about Tesla being a green car have about 30,000 views or fewer, but search for reaction shots to its Insane Mode feature—which allows the car to accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in 2.5 seconds—and you’ll find reaction videos totaling 7 million views.

Even if the product’s benefits aren’t cool enough to accrue millions of hits on social media, benefits should be easily explained. Think big picture, Oliver says: Why should the consumer buy one product over another? The answer can’t simply be “because it’s good for the environment.” A vacation property that wants guests to recycle should be able to provide visitors with instructions and benefits—if the benefits aren’t there, the company should consider creating them. For example, in a future experiment, Oliver is considering offering vacation property guests 10% off their next stay if they can remain under a limit of energy and water consumption. “If you act responsibly, we’re going to incentivize that behavior,” he says.

Perhaps most importantly, a brand that highlights the other values or incentives of its green products helps the consumer live with more integrity. A customer that feels good buying a brand’s product is likely a loyal customer. A 2018 survey by Futerra finds that 96% of consumers believe that actions such as ethical buying and recycling can make a difference; 88% of consumers want brands to help. But the same survey finds that 43% of consumers believe that brands make it harder for them to have an effect and 29% say that they don’t know what role brands play.

Being green is ultimately a perception issue for both brands and consumers, Oliver says. Without knowing it, consumers likely ask themselves a question when they see a green product: “Is this something I can actually use, or is it just something I’ll waste money on so I can feel good about myself?

“That’s why I like the other approach to say, ‘OK, how can we get people on board through convenience or performance or cost savings?’” Oliver says. “There’s a way to get people on board. You just have to figure it out.”

If brands can influence a change in consumer behavior, they’ll have to take the lead. In a 2017 research paper from the Journal of Marketing Research titled “Turning Off the Lights: Consumers’ Environmental Efforts Depend on Visible Efforts of Firms,” researchers found that brands can lead consumers to act greener by example, namely by “visible (costly) evidence of the firm also expending effort on environmental efforts.”

“[W]e show that programs should always couple their requests to consumers with proof that the firm is also exerting effort,” the researchers say. “We also show that reactance is a part of the underlying process of consumer response to firm programs, driving both consumer perceptions and consumer behavior.”

If a consumer feels that a brand is instructing them to be greener without any evidence that the brand itself is green, researchers write that “a host of negative perceptions can be activated and compliance can decrease.”

So, Hotel Felix’s Van Winkle was at least partially correct: A green company can have quality, compete on price and ask but not demand for its consumers to participate. That will at least partially convince consumers to be greener. Hotel Felix clearly invests in being greener—it uses expensive and environmentally friendly L’Occitane soaps; its staff spends hours picking through garbage for recyclable items; and its guest rooms are free of microwaves, refrigerators and coffeemakers, by mandate of LEED certification. Even its recycled artwork is a sign that the hotel spends on sustainability, and perhaps a reminder that you can also help by refusing your housekeeping for the day.

But beyond leading by example, there’s a new generation of green brands thinking of creative ways to change consumer actions as they change their own. Once businesses start going green, Ottman says that they investigate the ways they can create innovative models to save consumer time and money while providing them better service. Done correctly, green innovations can mean more loyal customers, more money saved and a better brand reputation.

“In my mind, green marketing has evolved,” Ottman says. “It’s not slapping ‘green’ on the label, however much it’s in line with the FTC Green Guides. It’s actually promoting positive change in consumption culture.”

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at halconick@gmail.com or on Twitter at @HalConick.