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3 Reasons Why Going Green Might Lose You Customers… And How To Fix It

New research identifies three key reasons why producing a more sustainable product may actually lose a company its customers.
New research identifies three key reasons why producing a more sustainable product may actually lose a company its customers.
  • New research finds three key reasons why launching a more sustainable product can actually deter consumers
  • Outdated negative perceptions of sustainable products still persevere, hampering progress
  • To overcome these challenges, greater communication around sustainable products is needed

Consider this scenario… You own a large luxury clothing brand, bought and worn by millions of people around the world. In line with the UN’s sustainable development goals, and a commitment to making a more positive impact on the planet, you decide to start using recycled materials in your clothing, creating more environmentally friendly products at no extra cost to the consumer.

There’s a big launch of the new product – a huge marketing campaign focused on informing the consumer on how sustainable your new line is, promoting it as a better alternative to the products you previously sold. After all, not only are your creations retailing at the same price as previous pieces, but their creation, and their purchase is also good for the environment. It’s a win-win for customers, right?

But, the product flops. No one buys it, despite the increased focus on sustainability and the many positives that brings with it.

You might think the above is a highly unlikely turn of events, especially in the increasingly progressive, socially active world we’re living in. But, as companies such as Nike, whose early attempts at producing greener footwear via it’s “Considered” range failed to impress customers so much that they were quietly abandoned only a year later, the problem is a very real one.

Why can customers be so resistant to such well-intentioned sustainability efforts? New research from emlyon business school could have the answer.

Conducted by Marta Pizzetti, a Professor of Marketing at emlyon business school, alongside colleagues Diletta Acuti from the University of Portsmouth, and Sara Dolnicar from the University of Queensland, the study reviewed almost 100 sustainability-focused academic research papers to discover the specific reasons as to why a move towards greater sustainability can backfire, and why organisations face negative side-effects and public perceptions from doing so.

The research identified three key reasons as to why the shift to producing a more sustainable product may actually lose a company its customers.

1) Labelling

Firstly, increases in labelling, packaging and information that highlighted products as sustainable, can actually serve to be a deterrent to customers, the research shows. Whilst companies want to communicate their sustainability efforts to their customer base, the overload of information can actually have the opposite desired effect. Consumers can see this information as ambiguous or even contradictory.

Consumers, the researchers say, are naturally sceptical of companies that make an active effort to come across as sustainably-focused, and are more likely to think of them as “greenwashing”. Instead of valuing companies for their eco-focused efforts, consumers are left doubtful of what they’re presented with, and question just how sustainable these organisations actually are.

2) Quality

Secondly, despite the fact that sustainable products are often of a higher quality when compared to “normal” alternatives, the researchers found that many customers actually believed the opposite. Sustainable products are often associated with a lack of quality, taste or performance, in comparison to non-sustainable products as consumers believe compromises on another aspect of the product have been made in order to make it more sustainable and to keep the costs the same.

3) Marketing

And thirdly, sustainably-designed products that have purposely been marketed on the fact they are sustainable, can generate negative perceptions and connotations amongst consumers, say the researchers. Often consumers worry they will be labelled as “feminine” or “hippies”, and potential consumers may feel as though they’ll be judged by their peers if they purchased the product in question. This can lead to potential customers actively avoiding products and choosing less sustainable ones as a result.

However, persistence pays off. Such perceptions are slowly changing and more and more customers are choosing sustainable options. Either they are either no longer being judged by their peers, or are less concerned about it, say the researchers. This is something Professor Pizzetti believes is important for businesses to keep in mind.

“It is clear that all companies must move towards becoming more sustainable and having less of a detrimental impact on society. Yet, if they are finding that consumption is reduced when doing so, it is only a deterrent to becoming more sustainable”, says Professor Pizzetti. “But it is not the sustainability of the product that is reducing customers, rather attitudes and perceptions that come with this – of which, most are untrue. It is important we start to change the public image of sustainability, not just launch more sustainable products”.

So, how can companies navigate this problem?

The researchers offer a number of ways. Firstly, in the short-term, labelling and information around sustainable products needs to be simpler and more effective. This can help to prevent confusion, as well as information overload for consumers. The sustainability focus on product labelling needs to be toned down too, as it can come across as inauthentic, deter consumers and make them more sceptical of sustainable companies. If brands are perceived to be greenwashing, this could drastically affect their sales. The researchers advise that packaging should be subtle, simple and informative.

In the long-term, greater and better communication around sustainable products is needed. The stereotypes that surround sustainable products are rapidly becoming outdated, as today’s technology has allowed companies to move further and faster in producing good-quality sustainable products, meaning there is no need for companies to sacrifice quality in favour of conscience. The researchers say there needs to be greater communication around the fact that choosing a sustainable product does not mean choosing one that is less robust, less tasty or less likely to last.

Companies cannot do this on their own however, they warn. A joint effort between industries and governments is needed, and both must do more to challenge those lingering poor perceptions of sustainable products. A movement is already underway as younger generations increasingly make socially conscious choices with the brands they choose to engage with, but having a good marketing and communication strategy in place can help to challenge the most stubborn minds, and create the best possible push for change.

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