Mainstream Green: Moving Sustainability from Niche to Normal

If you are a reader of this site, chances are you’re already a “green” person, or at least trying to be. As someone who lives and breathes this sustainability stuff, I am constantly amazed by how little interest, effort and concern there is for sustainability among the mainstream population (even in my native Sweden). According to a new report released by OgilvyEarth, I shouldn’t be.

Their research shows that when it comes to motivating the mainstream American consumer to act, the messages and techniques offered by marketers, governments, and NGOs around sustainability have been missing the mark. The study, “Mainstream Green: Moving sustainability from niche to normal” provides new insight on how to close the Green Gap that persist between what consumers say they do and what they actually do around sustainable living.

When asked if they wanted laws or norms, Americans chose norms. They don’t want to be told what to do, but they do want to be told what is the normal and acceptable behavior that they should strive for. In other words, they want society to agree upon a set of cultural guidelines rather than submit to the imposition of strictures from government or some other “elitist” constituency.

When asked if they wanted laws or norms, Americans chose norms. They don’t want to be told what to do, but they do want to be told what is the normal and acceptable behavior that they should strive for. In other words, they want society to agree upon a set of cultural guidelines rather than submit to the imposition of strictures from government or some other “elitist” constituency.

“Research shows that many of the environmental messages are not just failing to close the Green Gap, but are actually cementing it by making green behavior too difficult and costly from a practical, financial and social standpoint,” explained Graceann Bennett, Director of Strategic Planning at Ogilvy & Mather, Contributing Strategust at OgilvyEarth and co-author of the study. “Many of the world’s leading corporations are staking their futures on the bet that sustainability will become a major driver of mainstream consumer purchase behavior. Unless they can figure out how to close the gap, there will never be a business case for green,” added Freya Williams, Co-Founder and Director of Strategy at OgilvyEarth and co-author of the study.

taking into account variables such as stated behavior and attitudinal questions.  Between the two extremes, you have a group that sees themselves as somewhere in the Middle in terms of how green they classify their lifestyle. This is the mainstream consumer.

taking into account variables such as stated behavior and attitudinal questions. Between the two extremes, you have a group that sees themselves as somewhere in the Middle in terms of how green they classify their lifestyle. This is the mainstream consumer.

The study found that 82% of Americans have good green intentions but only 16% are dedicated to fulfilling these intentions, putting 66% firmly in what OgilvyEarth calls the “Middle Green” segment. Considering sustainable behavior on a continuum, most of the dialogue and marketing to date has focused on Super Greens on the one hand and Green Rejecters on the other. There has been limited success in motivating the masses or the Middle Green, for a number of reasons that were uncovered in the research.

We may be used to thinking of China as the world's worst polluter, but when you look at consumer attitudes, they are way ahead of us. There is no great Green Middle, and the Super Green segment is proportionally three times larger in China than it is in the US. Green Rejecters, quite common in the US, are virtually non-existent in China. The Super Greens are already the norm in Chinese society.

We may be used to thinking of China as the world’s worst polluter, but when you look at consumer attitudes, they are way ahead of us. There is no great Green Middle, and the Super Green segment is proportionally three times larger in China than it is in the US. Green Rejecters, quite common in the US, are virtually non-existent in China. The Super Greens are already the norm in Chinese society.

In commenting on the study, Bill Becker, Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project said, “This study offers revealing new insights into how companies can reach their customers with information about green products. We’re in a time of great environmental challenges, unprecedented communication tools and a daunting array of consumer choices”

So, what are the main issues, according to the study?

Green Feels Niche
The Mainstream Green Study reveals that half of study respondents think the green and environmentally friendly product category is for “Crunchy Granola Hippies” or “Rich Elitist Snobs” rather than “Everyday Americans.” No wonder the Middle has proven difficult to motivate: marketing has inadvertently been positioning the category as niche rather than mainstream, sending the Middle the signal that it is “not for them.” We don’t market Budweiser the same way we market Stella Artois, so why are we trying to motivate the Green Middle with the same tactics we use for the highly motivated Super Green niche? As marketers know, you can’t motivate a mass movement with niche marketing.

Conventional brand prices are, on average, much higher than sustainable brand prices. Money is the number one barrier holding Americans back from sustainable behavior.

Conventional brand prices are, on average, much higher than sustainable brand prices. Money is the number one barrier holding Americans back from sustainable behavior.

High Costs of Green
The number-one barrier Americans claimed was holding them back from more sustainable behaviors was money. The price premium many eco-friendly products carry over “regular” products is not just a financial barrier; it also says to the regular consumer, “this is for someone sophisticated, someone rich…not you.” But the costs are more than financial. Our research found that the valiant minority that venture into the green space do so with a relatively high social and emotional cost. Upper Middle and Super Greens told us they feel ostracized from their neighbors, families, and friends; the mainstream said they fear attracting the negative judgment of their peers if they go out on a limb to purchase green products. Being human, those in the Middle don’t want to feel different, they want to feel normal. Until green products and services feel normal, the Middle is unlikely to embrace them.

Green Guilt
Green is a major mood kill. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel guiltier “the more they know” about how to live a sustainable lifestyle. Super Greens feel twice the guilt as the average American. People told us they feel guilty about everything from their flat screen TV to their Sunday paper to their Christmas tree. Flooded with guilt, they want to retreat to the comfort of ignorance. Now that we understand this, we can see where sustainability marketing has gone wrong. People don’t need to know about the state of polar bears in the Arctic to turn off the lights — paradoxically, it may be stopping them from doing so.

Goodlifer: Mainstream Green; Feminine or Masculine?

Green is the New Pink
The barrier is even higher for men. Fully 82% of our respondents said going green is “more feminine than masculine.” No wonder then that men clustered to the left, less-green side of our continuum while the greener, right side was dominated by women. This feminization holds men back from visible green behavior like using reusable grocery bags or carrying around reusable water bottles, and even from driving a Prius.

There’s a Big Opportunity for Mainstream Brands
We asked Americans if they would rather purchase the environmentally responsible product-line from a mainstream brand that they’re familiar with (such as Clorox’s Green Works) or purchase a product from a company who specializes in being green and environmentally responsible (such as Seventh Generation). Seventy-three percent of Americans opted for the known, mainstream brand. A legacy of inferior performance prevents consumers from taking the leap to an unknown, eco brand.

Don’t underestimate the protective nature of a mother. When selling products that involve children and that could impact their health or safety, the less eco-friendly choice could win out, even with the most Super Green consumer, if it evokes a stronger feeling of security.

Don’t underestimate the protective nature of a mother. When selling products that involve children and that could impact their health or safety, the less eco-friendly choice could win out, even with the most Super Green consumer, if it evokes a stronger feeling of security.

Higher Stakes than Whiter Whites
While consumers are loath to sacrifice convenience for sustainability, our research showed they aren’t always just being lazy; they may be weighing higher-stakes consequences. If I let my kid ride his bike, will he get hit by a car? If I use the less-efficient green cleaning product, will my baby get E. coli ? When it comes to a choice between saving a little gas and your kid’s life, it’s easy to see how the less eco-friendly choice often wins out.

The Complexity of Carbon Calculus
Is it worse to use cloth or disposable diapers? To stick with your old SUV or buy a new Prius? Eighty-two percent of Americans from our survey don’t have a clue on how to calculate their carbon footprint. Maybe that’s why 80% of Americans would rather cure cancer than fix the environment; they need topics to be personal, positive, and plausible — which the environment, as of now, is not.

Now, that we are aware of some of the issues, how can we break through the clutter and motivate consumers to buy sustainably? In the report, OgilvyEarth outlines 12 steps to closing the gap. These are grounded in the populist and popular thinking that is relevant to the mass consumer. They call for a shift from an over-emphasis on changing attitudes to working on normalizing green behaviors. Here are the top 5, download the entire 131-page report (PDF)—full of informative graphics and well-worth a read—for the rest.

Make it Normal: The great Green Middle aren’t looking for things to set them apart from everyone else. They want to fit in. When it comes to driving mass behavior change, we marketers need to restrain the urge to make going green feel cool or different and make it normal. OPOWER does this brilliantly by showing you how your energy bill compares to your neighbor’s.

Goodlifer: Mainstream Green: Loose the Crunch

Lose the Crunch: Just because a product is green doesn’t mean it must be packaged in burlap. We need to ditch the crunch factor of green and liberate ourselves from the stereotypes. And the best way to do it may be not to mention the “G” word at all; that or push sustainability down the benefit hierarchy.

Eliminate the Sustainability Tax: We’re taxing people’s virtuous behavior. The high price of many of the greener products on store shelves suggests that we are trying to limit or discourage more sustainable choices. We must dismantle the informal luxury tax placed on green products if we are to close the Green Gap for the mainstream American consumer. Eliminating the price barrier eliminates the notion that green products are not for normal citizens.

Make Eco-friendly Male Ego-friendly: Carry a tote, give up your 4WD truck, wear hemp t-shirts, compost… the everyday domestic choices we need to make in favor of sustainability do not make the Nascar fan’s heart race. Sustainability could use its Marlboro Man moment. In the male-dominated world of automobiles, those environmental brands grabbing male attention are doing so by relying on old-fashioned sleek and stylish ads emphasizing performance and design, with credible environmental messages woven into the appeals to primal desires to go fast and look good doing it.

The green space can seem full of self-righteous killjoy moments and people. Help consumers see all the fun they can have on the green side of life.

The green space can seem full of self-righteous killjoy moments and people. Help consumers see all the fun they can have on the green side of life.

Hedonism over Altruism: The emotional tenor of sustainable marketing to date has been focused on appeals to Americans’ altruistic tendencies, but our research shows that this is to deny human nature. The study reveals the simple truth that people are motivated by things they enjoy doing, like having fun, so rather than making sustainability choices seem like a righteous thing to do, wise brands are tapping into enjoyment over altruism and seeking to hit the consumer’s “G-spot.” The study shows that it is time to forge a new era of sustainability marketing. It’s time to acknowledge human nature; self-interest will always trump altruism. It’s time to focus on changing behavior, not attitudes. And it’s time we all agree that “normal” is neither a dirty word nor a boring strategy. Normal is mainstream; normal is popular; and above all, normal is the key to sustainability.

Even if you are not marketing a product, these same principles can be used to more efficiently talk to your friends and family about sustainable living. Happy Earth Day, Goodlifers!

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
5 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Hi Johanna~
    thanks 4 all those comprehensive viewpoints.
    As a business owner artist, I am recently researching the best Earth friendly shipping materials, I was surprised to read in your article that maybe I should not over highlight my choice of super environmental packaging. huh. interesting we humans. I look forward to a day that loving the planet is everyday.

  2. Hi Kara Rane,
    We’re all definitely navigating a landscape of highly complicated consumer attitudes. I think it’s all about who you are talking to. If your customers are mainly “Super Greens,” as this study refers highly educated consumers, then I do think you can—and should—talk about your Earth-friendly shipping materials and the effort you put into researching them. For those marketing to mainstream consumers, however, I do think that sometimes it’s best to play up the real benefits (vs the added, “green,” ones) in your product.

    I, too, look forward to that day. 🙂 Keep on fighting the good fight!

  3. thank You Johanna ~

  4. Thanks for the detailed post Johanna:

    For those who would live to dive deeper into the findings and implications of this important study join Graceann Bennett, co-author of the “Mainstream Green” report for a lively discussion and networking cocktail at NYU’s 11 West 42nd Street midtown location from 6-9PM EST on May 23rd:

    http://mainstreamgreen.eventbrite.com (Space is limited so please RSVP via Eventbrite)

    If you can’t make it in person you can join in online via uStream and ask questions using facebook or Twitter (no RSVP required):

    http://www.ustream.tv/channel/mainstream-green

    Hopefully you will be able us to learn 12 ways to close the “Green Gap” before you head fro the left coast!

    Don

  5. Thanks for the detailed post Johanna:

    For those who would live to dive deeper into the findings and implications of this important study join Graceann Bennett, co-author of the “Mainstream Green” report for a lively discussion and networking cocktail at NYU’s 11 West 42nd Street midtown location from 6-9PM EST on May 23rd:

    http://mainstreamgreen.eventbrite.com (Space is limited so please RSVP via Eventbrite)

    If you can’t make it in person you can join in online via uStream and ask questions using facebook or Twitter (no RSVP required):

    http://www.ustream.tv/channel/mainstream-green

    Hopefully you will be able to join us before you head for the left coast!

    Don

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