Book Review

How to Make Sustainable Products More Appealing to Consumers

Magali Delmas proposes a “green bundle,” combining environmental good with product traits — quality, healthiness, performance, status — that have always sold

When it comes to buying green products, consumers’ words don’t match their actions. While they increasingly say they’re worried about climate change, the dangers of pollution and other threats to the environment, their concerns rarely translate into purchases of environmentally friendly goods and services, which remain a small fraction of the market.

In The Green Bundle: Pairing the Market with the Planet (Stanford University Press, 2018), UCLA Anderson’s Magali Delmas lays out a strategy for bridging that gap. The key, she writes, is to reach the vast majority of consumers who are “convenient environmentalists.” This group talks green but has lots of excuses for not buying sustainable products: they’re too expensive or of low quality; the environmental benefits aren’t clear; or companies’ environmental claims aren’t trustworthy.

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Magali Delmas

The book, written with David Colgan, communications director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, challenges two flawed assumptions about reaching potential green consumers. One is that consumers would buy green if only they had more information about a product’s environmental benefits. The other is that an altruistic desire to help the environment is inevitably in conflict with a consumer’s selfish interests.

To counter those notions, Delmas proposes “the green bundle,” which links the environmental benefits of a product with advantages that appeal to consumers’ personal values, such as quality, health, status, wealth and positive emotions.

Some parts of the bundle fit more naturally than others. It’s easy, for instance, to pitch the health benefits of environmentally friendly products; people buy organic foods because they believe them to be more healthful. Others can face more resistance. Many consumers have doubts about the quality of green goods, but performance, durability and attractiveness can still be powerful selling points. Tesla’s electric cars, Delmas notes, can appeal to convenient environmentalists by combining high performance with low environmental impact.

Price, on the other hand, is a lot more complicated. In some cases, a high price can be used to signal that a green purchase conveys high status — consider the premium paid by early buyers of the hybrid Toyota Prius (which also flagged its green cred with a unique design). At the same time, a high price can be a barrier to a product’s widespread adoption; Delmas notes that demand for organic foods falls off when price premiums are above 20 percent.

When it comes to price, how costs and savings are framed can make a big difference in consumer behavior. Energy conservation, for example, promises cost savings, but they are often too small or come too far in the future to motivate consumers to change their habits. In that case, Delmas recommends focusing more on potential losses than on possible savings — a message that consumers are losing $5 a month by not turning off their lights might be more effective than one that says turning off lights would gain $5 a month.

No matter how effectively a product is marketed, many consumers remain suspicious of green claims, a problem made worse by widespread “greenwashing” — exaggerated or false claims about a product’s environmental benefits. Much of the problem, Delmas writes, can be avoided if companies were simply more modest when making environmental claims and more transparent about actual progress toward sustainability. Honesty in eco-labeling — on products endorsed by government and industry, such as appliances bearing the Energy Star label, for example — can also help.

Is it possible to “pair the market with the planet”? Delmas shows how it can be done, but it won’t be easy. In some cases, it is simply a matter of highlighting how consumers benefit personally from green products. But in others, companies may need to do more than come up with persuasive marketing campaigns. They may also have to dramatically change the way they do business.

Reasons consumers avoid environmentally friendly products*

  • Green products are too expensive or lower in quality: 67%
  • Insufficient information about the products’ environmental benefits: 45%
  • Environmentally friendly products are hard to find: 38%
  • Environmental claims can’t be trusted: 18%
  • Environmental issues aren’t a priority: 10%

*Percent of respondents who agree or strongly agree.

EXCERPTS:

In theory, markets can provide effective solutions by helping those who care about the environment act responsibly through personal choices. When consumers are armed with information about the impact of environmental products, each purchase becomes a vote for the planet, and this can be incredibly powerful in driving firms toward sustainability.

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Quality and sustainability often go hand in hand. Performance, functionality, usability, durability, comfort and convenience can all be bundled with sustainability. This bundle is not only possible but may even be a natural outcome of product design. There doesn’t have to be a tradeoff of quality for sustainability.

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Status is a powerful tool to compel behavior in the marketplace. It should be strongly considered when promoting sustainable goods and services. People care a lot about how they are perceived within social groups. We want to be or look like those we admire, especially when they possess high status like movie stars and fashion models. We want our neighbors to think well of us, and we certainly do not want to be called out for antisocial behavior. We will even go so far as to compete with one another to peacock how green we are.

About the Author

Magali Delmas is a professor of management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. She has written extensively on business and the natural environment, and The Green Bundle is part of her continuing research into effective communication strategies for promoting environmental action and developing green markets. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, on NBC News and in other popular media. Delmas is also director of the UCLA Center for Corporate Environmental Performance.

— Reviewed by Michael Totty

 

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