We need a sustainability movement to make ‘green living’ the norm

Freya Williams is the Director of Strategy for OgilvyEarth. Her article recently appeared in The Guardian.

One research subject confessed that she would ride her bike to visit green friends but would use a car to visit the 'soccer mum' crowd so as to fit in.

A dramatically different approach to marketing and positioning of sustainable products, services and lifestyles is required to make sustainable living mainstream. It can be done with a radical little idea called normal — and thus far, we’ve been making sustainable living anything but.

Over the past year OgilvyEarth has spent a lot of time trying to understand the gap between what people say they’re going to do and what they actually do when it comes to living and consuming more sustainably. The group we’ve been

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Middle Green, the 66% of Americans (and 50% of Chinese; we’re rolling the study out to other markets now) who have the best of green intentions but fail to fully act on them. This group is otherwise known as the mainstream consumer; they purchase most of the products and services the clients of an agency like Ogilvy are trying to sell. We published our findings in our report Mainstream Green: Moving Sustainability From Niche to Normal.

Some of the barriers preventing the middle green group from following through on their intentions were interesting but expected: the more sustainable options are more expensive, harder to find, less convenient, of inferior quality and green labelling systems are almost impossible to decode. These barriers are persistent and important, but they have been flagged before.

The fresher insight was at once unexpected and blindingly obvious. The penny dropped for

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us as we listened to our research subjects talk about how hard it is socially to be a green-acting consumer in America today. A Chicago vegan told us she felt like an outcast at the neighbourhood barbecue as her hostess made jokes about her eating mud in front of fellow guests. A New Jersey mum said she feared the judgment of her greener-than-thou neighbour, commenting in a snide whisper that the same woman didn’t dye her hair or shave her legs. We saw men trying desperately to cram reusable shopping bags under their desks before their colleagues should see and judge them. “It just feels kind of girly,” said Michael of New Jersey. Another mum confessed to wanting to ride her bike and doing so when visiting her green friends, but feeling compelled to drive her car when hanging out with the minivan-driving ‘soccer mum’ crowd so as to fit in.

What these consumers were telling us was that to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle is to step outside the norm, to mark yourself out as ‘different’. Fine, we thought. It’s cool to be different. But these people were telling us that for them, it most definitely was not cool to be different. Indeed 50% of Americans said green products and services are for ‘crunchy granola hippies’ or ‘rich elitist snobs’, not for them, and not for anyone they aspire to be. They crave the security and anonymity of the mainstream. They are actually there by choice. What the mainstream consumer wants to know is, am I normal? And today, living a more sustainable lifestyle in America, and some other countries around the world, is manifestly not normal. It means attracting a social stigma that even ‘super greens’ struggle to deal with. Mainstream consumers just aren’t willing to go there.

Sustainability marketing until now has got it all wrong. We package our products in burlap. We slather them in green leaves. We advertise them with polar bears. We put them in special aisles. In short, we do everything we can to single these products out as different, not normal. We seem to have decided that, when it comes to sustainable living, human beings park human nature at the supermarket door and a higher, altruistic self comes out. They don’t and it doesn’t. We are motivated by human needs and desires in this area as in any other, and the need to fit in and belong is hardwired.

By this reckoning, green marketing has not been just benign but ineffective. It’s actually been wildly counterproductive, continually reinforcing the un-normalness of green and propping the green gap wide open in the process.

So if we want to create a mainstream movement of people living and consuming more sustainably, as we know we must, we need to stop making sustainability feel different and make it just normal. In terms of marketing, this can be achieved through normalised pricing, packaging and advertising and other ordinary selling techniques.

But marketing alone won’t be enough. There’s much more to it. An edifying contrast was provided by our respondents in San Francisco where a combination of regulation, infrastructure and culture have conspired to make a more sustainable lifestyle the norm and behaviour that is seen as normal elsewhere in America, weird. Here consumers happily go about their comparatively sustainable lifestyles, and people who move there from elsewhere feel compelled to get on board. So there is a clear role for regulation that changes the defaults and infrastructure that makes it easy and possible.

But marketing does play an important role. So let’s try a fresh approach. Let’s ditch the ‘g’ and ‘s’ words in favour of the ‘n’ word: normal. Normal is not a dirty word nor a boring strategy. Normal is mainstream, popular and above all, sustainable.