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.



Consumers prepared to pay a premium for products supporting social or environmental causes

More and more companies take an active approach to produce products in a sustainable way. But do consumers really care? The recently published The Nielsen Global Survey results point out they do.

A majority of consumers is prepared to pay more for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impacts. This proportion is higher in Asia-Pacific (64%),  Latin America (63%) and Middle East/Africa (63%) than in North America (42%) and Europe (40%) – and in all regions the proportion is increasing.

Proportions per region preferring products that support sustainable cause

Consumers care and willing to pay more from sustainable companies.
Source: Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility, Q1 2014

What are the social or environmental causes that get the most support? Nielsen asked respondents to specify the causes they are most passionate about. 67% are willing to pay more for products associated with an increased access to clean water, 63% that help to improve access to sanitation and 63% products that ensure environmental sustainability. Amongst the Top 10 are also ‘eradicating exterme poverty and hunger’, ‘combating non-communicable diseases’, ‘reducing child mortality’, ‘improving maternal health’.

Percentage of respondents willing to pay more for sust causes

Social and environmental causes consumers care about.
Source: Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility, Q1 2014

Notably the Millenials (age 21-34) and Generation X (35-49) are prepared to pay more for sustainably produced products. Checking the packaging to be assured about the social or environmental impact is most important in Asia-Pacific, Latin America and Middle East/Africa (63%, 63% and 62%) whereas in Europa and North America, this is only 36% and 32%. (Perhaps the jungle of eco-labels has made people lees receptive?)

And it is not just about buying products. Half of the Millenials prefer to work for a sustainable company, and a quarter of the Generation X likewise.

Proportions responsive to sustainability actions

Millenials most prominent in preference for sustainability actions
Source: Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility, Q1 2014

So: embedding sustainability in product development can create additional business value. That is encouraging news. Off course, just having a social or environmental cause associated with your product won’t do the trick. Old-school product-performance, a reasonable price, splendid marketing and communication skills are also essential. But if you are determined to produce great products that also support Planet and People, and you have the right conditions in place, nothing should stand in your way to create a successful business. As a bonus, you’ll be preferred employer of choice as well.