Selling Sustainability to Consumers: An Uphill Battle?

A-1956-Chevrolet-car-in-C-007To move towards a sustainable economy, consumers need to want it and that’s a challenge for communication professionals

Advertisers have long since abandoned any effort to sell their wares on the basis of functional performance. Instead, they sell on the basis of dreams, of myths – speaking about our feelings rather than the facts.

In the myths of advertising, cars are not devices for moving slowly among thousands of other cars from one shop, school or office to another: instead they are expressions of personal identity that streak along deserted mountain passes, glide through chrome-plated Bladerunner cityscapes and jauntily position us at the centre of an unbearably exciting social life. And food is not a source of nutrition consumed in hurried mouthfuls between one demand and another: it is an opportunity for happy family time, or for luxurious indulgence, or for helping us to be thin.

One of the main means by which advertising and marketing agencies assess our mythological needs is market research, particularly the archetypical focus group. Gather together a number of individuals from your target market – “young urban professional males”, “time pressed suburban mums” – and expose them to your new campaign, the messages you’re considering, the images you have in mind. Invite reactions, questions, gauge their response, look for the other aspects of the myth that will increase the chances of your success; just how wide does the sky need to be as the car hurtles to the horizon?

I have never sat in a focus group to discuss cars but I’ve conducted innumerable other groups and am completely certain that, as “young urban professional male” watched the sleek fold of Italian design move like mercury towards a glistening future, he did not call out: “Yes, but how many grams of CO2 does it emit every kilometre?”

And yet, every car advertisement carefully addresses this very issue. Footnoted and very small font, to be sure, but it’s there because European regulation means that is has to be. And from an environmental point of view, this is surely a good thing. Cars emit loads of CO2; regulators are on the case; car manufacturers are under pressure to produce more efficient vehicles, and are obliged to tell us. Great stuff.

Except that, in the matter of sustainable consumption, this is virtually the whole story. Sustainable consumption consists at present almost entirely of “supply push” rather than “demand pull”. On the supply side, a combination of regulatory and legislative obligation, business-to-business peer pressure and, slowly, a developing cultural norm mean that a growing number of enterprises are taking sustainability seriously.

Turn to the consumer side of the equation, however, and the story is very different. The number of people taking sustainability seriously has remained stubbornly low for the past 20 years.

Perhaps two or three consumers in every 100 are actively trying to minimise their environmental footprint on a consistent, across-the-board basis. The majority find it too hard, too overwhelming, too complicated – too much hassle given all the other things they need to think about.

And the advertising folk know this, too. So – as Brook Lyndhurst’s recent research for WWF showed – food retailers such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are genuinely doing good things, but they do not present the whole picture. Instead, they tell of environmental mini-myths about “sustainably sourced fish” and food grown locally. The producers, too, work with myths that consumers will find digestible, most notably – as we discovered in our work for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) exploring consumer perspectives on animal welfare – in the matter of chickens that do athletics and cows that earn salaries.

Consumers don’t really understand these things; hardly anyone calculates their carbon footprint, never mind decides which car to buy as a result and consumers prefer not to think about the actual living conditions of the animals that arrive in nicely packaged chunks in the supermarket. Food retailers and producers know that if they confront consumers with the real implications of sustainable choices, they would run a mile.

And this points towards something very troubling. Businesses generally prosper when they produce something that someone, somewhere, actually wants. You want the feeling of freedom and individuality? We have just the car/hair-product/shoes for you. Here, look – it says so in the advert!

Selling stuff that people don’t really want is like pushing a rock uphill: you can do it if you’re strong enough, or if you yourself are being beaten hard enough, but it’s very hard work – and you can’t keep it up forever.

In the end, for a sustainable economy, we need consumers who actually want it. And, to sell it to them, we’re going to need myths. Want a sustainable future? Look! Relaxed time with friends and family! Healthy and long life, a meaningful job, an opportunity to make a contribution! Choose this, and get this!

But what kind of products and services are these? And what kind of myths will sell them and can “business” figure out how to provide them and still keep the shareholders happy?

This article was originally published on the Guardian website
David Fell is an economist, editor of online debate at London Remade and founder and director of Brook Lyndhurst. He conducted research into green claims in marketing on behalf of the Defra, and is currently advising the European Commission on greenwash.