5 ways businesses can nudge their consumers to go green

Sustainability appears to be at a tipping point. Businesses large and small increasingly incorporate initiatives to address climate change, plastic waste, deforestation, pollution, human health and a host of other environmental challenges into their operations, supply chains and strategic planning.

Consumers, however, remain stubbornly out of step. While surveys indicate that consumers say they want to act more sustainably or buy greener products, research finds that few actually do. Indeed, with the exception of money-saving LED bulbs, virtually no green product commands significant market share.

This must change for 2020 and beyond. In our latest research, published in “Sustainability: The Journal of Record,” we argue that businesses should take the lead and nudge consumers to honor the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

Why? Because corporate environmental performance depends on how consumers buy, use and dispose of companies’ products. Additionally, research finds that some businesses can save money by encouraging consumers to conserve resources, such as shutting off the lights or reusing towels in hotels. Finally, because businesses know their customers, they’re in the best position to develop greener products that can satisfy consumer needs and make a difference.

How can businesses nudge their consumers to go green? We identify five principles for businesses to follow, drawn from academic literature, case studies and the latest marketing trends, to make greener products and behaviors more appealing to mainstream consumers.

1. Promote the consumer value of green products. Just because a product has green attributes doesn’t mean consumers will want it. Indeed, consumers are most concerned about their own savings and benefits when choosing products.

Fortunately, many green products have inherent mainstream consumer benefits that can be promoted, such as money savings, health and safety, convenience, status or performance. For example, nontoxic carpet cleaner may not capture mainstream consumers’ attention, but when positioned as “safe for babies,” it appeals to the desires of parents wanting what’s best for their families.

2. Win hearts, not just minds. As shown decades ago with the successful “Don’t mess with Texas” anti-littering campaign, which connected the act of keeping Texas highways trash-free with Texans’ feverish pride of their beloved home state, green needs to tap consumers’ emotional values, sensibilities and self-perceptions. The swaggering “Don’t mess with Texas” slogan told the story that trashing highways simply was unbecoming of real Texans, and the campaign was credited for drastically reducing roadway litter.

Academic research finds that messages that resonate with consumers’ identity, aspirations and worldviews can be much more powerful to motivate certain behaviors than simply presenting facts.

3. Make green normal. Green products and behaviors are often viewed as being out of the ordinary, which can inhibit their adoption. Consequently, normalizing greener consumption through messaging and social influence is crucial. This year’s Super Bowl ads from General Motors, Porsche and Audi showcased their electric vehicles as “normal”(and manly), with celebrities declaring that they were impressed by the performance and design of their vehicles, which just happened to be electric.

4. Leverage mainstream social media influencers. In this age of ad blockers and commercial-free music and video streaming, marketers increasingly turn to social media influencers to reach consumers and promote their products. While green influencers exist, we suggest engaging with mainstream Instagram ambassadors, celebrities and athletes who can position green products and behaviors as normal and a part of influencer’s daily lives and aspirations. This allows green marketers to tap broader audiences and leverage the power of social influence to nudge social media savvy consumers in the right direction.

5. Dialogue with public policymakers. Public policies, such as subsidies, tax incentives and energy-efficiency mandates, are crucial to shape adoption of green products, such as electric vehicles, solar panels and energy-efficient light bulbs. LED bulbs, for example, are expected to achieve 70 percent market share worldwide this year, saving consumers billions of dollars in energy costs. LED bulbs’ market success has been through a combination of rapid technological improvements and cost reductions, spurred by government energy-efficiency mandates from around the world that steered the industry toward LED technology. Light-bulb manufacturers supported the policies because they created certainty in the marketplace, assuring that investments in LED technology and infrastructure ultimately would pay off.

It is crucial for companies to dialogue with policy makers to help shape policies and incentives that favor the most feasible sustainable technologies and products and to encourage consumer adoption.

For 2020 and beyond, we encourage businesses to take our five principles to develop strategies for nudging customers to go green and make a difference.