According to a 2017 Unilever International study, 78% of U.S. consumers said they feel better when they buy sustainably produced products, yet green companies in both the B2C and B2B sectors have nowhere near that kind of market share. What gives?
Savvy market researchers would tell you the statistic cited by Unilever, while technically correct, lacks salience. What's that? Imagine if a survey asked if you liked the color blue. Most people would, of course, say, "Yes, blue is a fine color." However, a more accurate representation of fondness for that spectrum wavelength could be measured by asking the question, "Do you like blue or red more?" Now the respondent is forced to prioritize, leading to a more accurate metric of the popularity of blue.
We've seen the same dichotomy pop up time and again in public policy polling. When asked if climate change is a threat, large majorities say it is; however, when the same sample responds about the importance of climate change as opposed to funding public schools, tax rates, national defense, health care, and budget deficits, climate change consistently sinks to the bottom of the priority list.
Why? Well, yes, it's true climate change is still an abstract issue for most people, comparatively speaking, but the real reason is that we all have to make choices and those choices are made based on what we value most.
Consumer behavior is no different. You might like Italian food, but tonight you choose Chinese. You still love Italian food, but since your stomach couldn't eat two dinners, you had to make a choice.
With that in mind, a more accurate barometer of the number of green B2C and B2B consumers in the Unilever survey is the 33% of consumers who say they are now actively buying from brands based on their social and environmental impact. That's a $1 trillion market, not including the one in five consumers who said they would actively choose brands if they made their sustainability credentials clearer on their packaging and in their marketing.
So whether you're in the B2C space like non-toxic cleaning products or in B2B like renewable chemicals or carbon capture, the lesson is clear: while you might not be able to be at the top of everyone's radar screen, there's a significant and devoted sector of consumers who want to hear your story.
Proclaiming your company's mission or devotion to sustainability won't get your company lasting loyalty, though. It only gets consumers to look at your brand. If you want to cement a bond with your audience, you have to build trust in your brand, according to Nielsen reports.
Look at REI, for example, one of the most trusted brands in America. Their ethic of quality, sustainable outdoor clothing goes hand-in-hand with their support of nature, whether that's trails, mountains, lakes or rivers where their consumers use their products. Their brand story is reinforced every time you walk into an REI store, visit their website, take one of their classes or read their online journal. That devotion to our big, blue marble shines through, and its why REI has such a dedicated base of customers who wouldn't even think of shopping at one of their competitors.
The flip side of the coin is Volkswagen. Their fake emission testing scandal has ruined years of marketing efforts to position the company as a pioneer in low emission vehicles. While VW has redoubled its commitment to sustainability through initiatives like building an ultra-green factory in Tennessee and a car they've released called the Eco-Up, there is a chasm of trust they will have to rebuild with green consumers.
At the other end of the auto spectrum is Toyota, who pioneered the hybrid with the eponymous Prius and now has an almost cult following among people who want to be seen as driving with their values, a bond that has only strengthened over the two decades since the hybrid was released.
There's no doubt having a green mission is positive in the eyes of consumers, and even a driving factor for some, but you can't just plant the tree of sustainability in the minds of consumers. You have to water and nurture that sustainable brand by adhering to your brand story every day in all of your digital and in-person touchpoints to ensure that perception matures. And whatever you do, don't saw off the branch you're sitting on because dead branches don't grow back, and it's one less branch you can use to climb back to the top.