Communicating with sustainability cynics just got a whole lot easier – “We’ve cracked the Code”

Shelton Group researchers and a noted behavioral scientist have collaborated to “crack the code” on the green marketing conundrum: How do you overcome cynicism and skepticism to persuade consumers to buy sustainable products?

Working with scientist and author John Marshall Roberts, Shelton Group researchers Lee Ann Head, vice president of research, and Karen Barnes, vice president of insight, have created a sophisticated new system to communicate with consumers to spark real, lasting behavior change.

“This truly is a major breakthrough for reaching consumers who are skeptical or cynical about green products,” said Suzanne Shelton, founder and CEO of Shelton Group. “It’s akin to discovering a secret decoder ring for persuading even the most diehard cynics to go green.”

The research combines the Shelton Sustainability Segmentation system with the Roberts Worldview Assessment framework, research based on the work of Dr. Clare W. Graves.

The research distinguishes three kinds of environmental skeptics and suggests a number of ways to reach them. Among the recommendations:

  • If possible, disarm the skeptics by showing you understand that they view the green movement as a scam.
  • Suggest that China is beating the U.S. in sustainability (or, conversely, that China doesn’t want U.S. consumers to be sustainable)
  • Focus on purity — the lack of toxins and pollution created by your green products.
  • Avoid discussing global warming at all costs.

The research started with Shelton’s Sustainability Segmentation system, found in Shelton Group’s latest proprietary study, Eco Pulse 2011. The Shelton researchers then collaborated with Roberts on his Roberts Worldview Assessment, which segments people into various thinking styles or “colors” based on their personal values and outlook.

The joint research revealed that:

  • 27% of Americans are “Copper” or Individualistic thinkers: They are defined by the drive for personal power, profit and status. They believe in survival of the fittest, that life is a game.
  • 20% are “Navy” or Absolutistic thinkers: They are characterized by an unwavering respect for authority figures, and a deeply held belief that there is only one right way.
  • 17% are “Jade” or Humanistic thinkers: They believe that personal connections and relationships create meaning and happiness. They value equality and community.
  • 18% are “Gold” or Systemic thinkers: They see the world as a complex and interrelated system that evolves. Their outlook is dominated by innovation and simplicity.

Head, Barnes and Roberts further analyzed the survey data and found:

  • Those least likely to be looking for greener products were Navy thinkers (only 61% of Navy respondents were searching for greener products) compared to Jade (75% were seeking greener products) and Gold (70%) thinkers.
  • Navy (43% of Navy respondents) and Copper (42% of Copper respondents) thinkers were less likely to say they would change their behaviors even if they learned they harmed the environment. Jade (56%), Gold (51%) were more likely to change their behaviors.
  • A company’s environmental record made very little or no impact to Navy respondents (33% of Navy respondents said a company’s environmental record impacted their purchase decisions) and Copper thinkers (27%), but played an important role in a purchase decision for Gold thinkers (57% of Gold respondents).

Said Barnes: “This breakthrough research has created the most insightful, actionable tool in the sustainability communications marketplace.”

With this research, Head added, “We can win the hearts and minds of even the most ardent skeptics or detractors. Most importantly, it means we can inspire true, lasting behavior change to create a more sustainable world.”


Shelton Group is an advertising and marketing agency located in Knoxville, Tennessee, focused exclusively on motivating mainstream consumers to make sustainable choices. The agency conducts a multitude of proprietary consumer opinion studies annually, including Eco PulseTM, Energy PulseTM, Utility PulseTM and Green Living PulseTM. 

John Marshall Roberts is an applied behavioral scientist who has crafted his career around communicating with cynics. He is the founder of the innovative communication strategy firm, Worldview Thinking.