Sustainable Innovation

5 Myths of selling sustainability
October 26, 2017, 12:00 am
Filed under: Directions for Sustainable Innovation | Tags: , , ,

Investor pay for build solar farm

‘How do you sell sustainability?’ is one of the most challenging questions today. Imagine this: You have just developed a great new product with clear, measurable environmental benefits. After the product launch, you expect to see the sales skyrocket. But they don’t.

What went wrong? Did you overlook something? Why are these new products, which are obviously better for the environment and better for people, not selling? There are a number of myths around selling sustainable products that you need to know. Understanding these misconceptions will help you find the best possible arguments, get full value out of your sustainability claims and improve sales.

Myth #1: Sustainability will sell itself

Many people assume that sustainability will conveniently translate to higher margins. Unfortunately, this often does not work out in practice. Maybe your customers want your products to be green, but they don’t emphasize this. In some cases, sustainability is a unique selling point but only ranks 4th or 5th on the list, and only when framed in a very customized way. On a positive note, research shows 65% of consumers are willing to pay more for products with an environmental or social benefit. It is important to take a systematic approach to make full use of the sustainability benefits. Different customer group may care about different specific social and environmental causes. If you understand these causes and know how to articulate these benefits well, you have good chances. One interesting approach is the WRI SHIFT model.

The truth: You have to take a systematic approach to study your customers’ needs and concerns and then frame your message accordingly.

Myth #2: Telling a good story will do

We live in an age of storytelling. Many of us are even trained to do so in a compelling way. Some share personal breakthrough moments to underline their commitment to sustainability, others use stories of their organisation to open the door to have a meaningful conversation. Stories are very powerful ways to bring up a topic. However, when it comes to sustainability, and the story lacks proof points and fails to make a connection with the world as viewed by your target audience, it will not resonate.

The truth: You must connect your sustainability story with your customer concerns and use verifiable facts and figures related to your business and products

Myth #3: Carbon footprint is the silver bullet

You may have put some work into calculating the carbon footprint of your product. This provides great information however it says little about other topics such as freshwater use, the protection of forests, or labour rights. Climate action is key to reduce the worlds greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon footprint is a very important but only one aspect of sustainable development.

The truth: You must look at the big picture when it comes to sustainability. Understand the complexities, and assess the full environmental and social impact of your product.

Myth #4: Sustainability is a nice extra

Having a sustainability strategy in place is a great asset. It will boost employee engagement and contributes to a feel-good factor It is a misconception however to see sustainability only as a nice add-on, something extra that you might as well leave out. For many organisations environmental and social performance have become a licence to do business, close to a hygiene factor. People use different benchmarks or labels to come to their decision to buy specific brands or products. Companies look for suppliers that demonstrate high performance in industry sustainability benchmarks. It is essential to understand which sustainability issues exactly motivate your customers and align your R&D, product portfolio and marketing accordingly.

The truth: You need to have a solid understanding of your customers’ key sustainability indicators and potential differentiators, then build that into your value proposition.

Myth #5: Just go for the millennials

Millennials continue to drive consumer trends when it comes to sustainability and purpose-driven companies. According to a recent Nielsen study, millennials see “the orientation on purpose as an important shopping criterium”. So, many businesspeople think, “We should target millennials in our product placement! Spread the news and our product will fly off the shelves!” Not so fast. The Millennials group is not an easy target audience persé, nor a homogeneous group. Besides, not only millennials are interested in social and environmental causes connected with products and services. It is an illusion to think that Millennials will immediately buy your product because of the ‘good cause’ you support. Besides it makes sense to carefully explore the market landscape beyond Millennials. Environmental and social causes are certainly also of importance for the Babyboom generation, Gen X and Gen Z, although this might be for slightly different reasons (leaving a legacy, setting the example for kids, etc.).

The truth: You should define your target audience and their interest in environmental and societal goals in detail, then shape your marketing and channel strategy accordingly.


Addressing environmental and social causes can bring promising new avenues to market and sell your products better. It provides a great source for inspiration and excitement – but keep in mind a single magic formula to sell sustainable products does not exist. It’s a question of thorough customer understanding, integrating meaningful environmental and social causes in your value proposition, and applying your best marketing & sales skills. This will help you to better sell your sustainable products for the benefit of society and business.




Green products also attractive to people with a material orientation

Some people doubt about the good intentions of companies selling ‘sustainable’ products. However, under certain conditions they still find green products attractive and are happy to buy green products. How come ?

Robbert Elderenbosch and David Wijland, of the Marketing Management Master at the Nyenrode Business University in The Netherlands, studied the buying intentions of different consumer groups related to products with sustainable claims. 

Consumers that are intellectually oriented buy green products because they are really searching for product advantages related to society and environment. Other consumers are more materially oriented and can be sceptical about sustainable claims of suppliers.

Would it be possible to persuade mainstream customers, and notably the materially oriented, to buy green products ? The answer is : Yes.

Based on case studies with propositions for a new (Calvé) mayonaise, Elderenbosch and Wijland found that even sceptical consumers focussing on material advantages, are willing to buy products with sustainable advantages under the following condition :

First functional and personal advantages should be communicated (such as healthier, more simple, more effective), secondly the sustainable aspects (lower energie consumption, less toxic, less packaging).

Communication about ‘traditions’ and ‘authenticy’ related to products tends to be  connected with the sustainability claims and are positively perceived for some consumer groups. 

Confidence also grows when additional information is offered on specific websites to explore the sustainability claims that are made.

To conclude : It is possible to develop products with sustainability advantages ánd reach mainstream markets.  Best would be communicate first about the personal, cost and functional benefits and secondly (and shortly) about the sustainability advantages – possibly with a link to a website for further details.

Source :