10 Things I’ve Learned About Engaging Consumers on Sustainability

GreebBizAmy Skoczlas Cole is the head of environment and director of the eBay's Green team. In GreenBiz.com yesterday, she offers tips about getting and then keeping consumers interested in sustainability. Amongst other things, she notes that "cool" is more important than "green," and that transparency is a winning road to take.  More interestingly she notes that the marketing community could benefit from a stronger eco-vocabulary because "green" and "eco-friendly" are ubiquitous and trite.

Posted August 16, 2010

By Amy Skoczlas Cole, Greenbiz.com 

I’ve spent the last 15 or so years following what might appear to be a
quixotic passion — to engage mainstream consumers in making more
sustainable choices. 

As co-founder and vice president of Conservation
’s Center for
Environmental Leadership in Business
, I had the privilege of
partnering with many of the early adopters of corporate sustainability
thinking, such as Starbucks and Walmart. My universal take-away: It is
hard to build sustainability thinking into a mega-brand’s DNA. And it is
infinitely harder to help a multinational company figure out how to
connect with their customers and influence behavior. 

Now, as the head of environment and director of the eBay's Green Team, I realize that the
conventional wisdom that it is hard to change consumer behavior might
not be as true today as perhaps it once was. 

Look at how consumers have changed the way they shop in the last decade.
Going to the mall is being replaced with online shopping, while mobile
commerce through smart phones is the new trend to watch. Tapping into
these moments of change, and building sustainable thinking into them,
could hold the key to affecting change at scale. But to do so, the
sustainability community will have to be savvy both in spotting these
inflection points as well as in connecting with consumers through them.

Here is a snapshot of lessons I’ve learned — many of them the hard way
— about engaging consumers in making more sustainable choices:

1. Cool is More Important Than Green

For years, the environmental community has championed the benefits of
acting responsibly: buying greener products, avoiding waste, and
thinking about what our actions will mean for future generations.
Unfortunately, for how far the green movement has come, especially
recently, it’s still not top-of-mind for consumers. That’s why, if we
really want sustainability to be mainstream, we need to lead with
messages that consumers do care about – style, price, function – and let
sustainability attributes be the icing, rather than the cake. 

2. Radical Transparency = Humility

Radical transparency has my nomination for the sustainability buzz
phrase of 2010. At its core, though, it’s a principle fundamental to
engaging with consumers: being humble. Being upfront about the
challenges you face is the most certain way to ensure your
accomplishments are credible.

3. Accept That the Best Ideas Probably Won’t Come From You

There is so much talk about how we can use Web 2.0 technology and
thinking to promote our brands and our programs and not nearly enough
about what it can do for us. We have an unprecedented opportunity to
peer into the hearts and minds of our customers –  all we have to do is

4. Trade Up, Not Trade Off

At eBay, because we have the good fortune to run a marketplace with a
large volume of used products being traded in it, we’ve been able to
start to break from the stereotype of what a ‘green’ product looks
like.  By highlighting that environmentally preferable choices — in
this case, pre-owned — can be style-savvy and pocketbook friendly,
we’re able to engage with our consumers around greener choices by
showing them how it adds value to their life, rather than demanding

5. Materiality Matters

The corollary to the above — consumers aren’t naive, either.  A green
claim has to feel like it’s in line with the core offering and impact of
the product. Otherwise, it just doesn’t ring true. Look at the backlash
surrounding bottled water’s attempt to ‘go green’ to see what happens
when you take a fundamentally unsustainable product and layer on some
green messaging.

6. We Need a New Lexicon

Just about any sustainability professional will admit to feeling
hamstrung by the inadequate language in our field. Words like ‘green,’
‘eco-friendly,’ and ‘ethically-sourced’ have become so ubiquitous as to
nearly render them meaningless. Plus, so much of our lingo focuses on
just one aspect of a complex and interwoven set of issues. I know there
are people much savvier than I am working on this, and I can only hope
that they get there, and fast.  

7. Don’t Be a Conversation Hog

Once a brand ‘gets’ the green religion, their next instinct is often to
develop a traditional communications plan around it. Problem is, no one
is listening these days. Engaging consumers means just that:
establishing an open, two-way, ongoing dialogue. It’s much harder than
issuing a press release, but way more effective.

8. Peer Pressure Can Do What You Can’t

The influence of ‘word of mouth’ has never been more relevant than in
today’s world of online social networks and increased cynicism towards
traditional marketing. Invest the time in converting true believers
which, as in eBay’s case, might first be your own employees, and watch
the network effect take off. Social media has only begun to be tapped as
a powerful agent for social change; there’s definitely more to come.

9. Question What Business You’re Really In

How much of Starbucks’ success is due to how they see their corporate
mission, “to inspire and nurture the human spirit,” rather than just
providing a good cup of coffee? Ford Motor Company CEO Bill Ford now
talks about being a transportation business rather than a car
manufacturer. Visionary. And just in time, given the rise of models like
ZipCar, it's one of many examples of transitioning a business model
from product to service.  The dematerialization and digitization of
goods — think iTunes — is another trend to watch for, and to cheer on.

10. There’s a Small Window With Big Opportunity

Consumer research everywhere shows a marked shift in consumer attitudes,
no doubt affected by the state of the global economy. Value and values
are top of mind. More than anything, people want to feel like they are
making smart choices with their limited budgets and securing against an
uncertain future. In this, there is infinite opportunity to shift
consumption patterns but only through swift, smart action on the part of
leading brands to meet the longing that people today have for lives
with more meaning, and less useless stuff.

Smart businesses will see that they can gain greater share of wallets
with such efforts, and the race is on to see which can create and defend
deep relationships with their consumers by bringing the concept of a
more sustainable lifestyle out of utopia and into reality.

Amy Skoczlas Cole is director of the eBay Green Team.

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