by Jamie Shea, MBA/MS student at the Erb Institute, Class of 2012. This commentary is cross-posted on The EDF Innovative Exchange Blog.
The two greatest human motivators are aspiration and desperation. Traditional marketing has effectively used aspirational lifestyle branding to create a culture where individuals define their success and identity by what they consume. This was a popular topic of conversation on Thursday, June 17th when the Green Innovation for Business Network landed in Minneapolis for its fourth Solutions Lab event of the year. Ashoka Foundation, DIG IN and Environmental Defense Fund partnered to develop the Solution Lab series, which spans ten cities over the course of a year. In addition, Net Impact, Sony,Greenbiz.com, Bon Appetit, Society for Organizational Learning, and local partners support the series through outreach and content development. The events bring together leaders from business, academia, government and non-profits to discuss tangible solutions to the most pressing sustainability challenges.
As is consistent with all of the Solutions Labs, the content of the Minneapolis event was shaped by the interests and questions of the conference participants. Given that the event was hosted by Best Buy in the shadows of theMall of America, it is no surprise that one of the groups focused on educating consumers and changing consumer behavior, along with the messaging that was necessary to advance those efforts.
It Works with Business, It Will Work with Consumers
While much of the environmental community’s focus is on driving business to green its operations, we often forget that business is ultimately responding to the desires of the consumers and marketplace. Unfortunately, too often those consumers either do not espouse environmental values, or are unwilling to adhere to their stated values when they head to the check out line. However, the environmental community rarely puts as much pressure on consumers to change their behavior, as it does on companies. While there may be a number of reasons for this, I would argue that one of the primary ones is that no one likes to tell others, including themselves, that they have to give something up. Of course, there is the possibility that a sustainable lifestyle will actually provide more than it takes.
Environmental NGOs have been effectively making the case for decades that business will actually be better off by creating more sustainable operations and business models as they lower costs and reach new markets. Unfortunately this type of positive messaging has not been used as effectively with the general public, which still largely associates sustainability with sacrifice and scarcity. This may not be due to an overreaction from the consumer, but perhaps from the subconscious perception of those that are actually delivering the message.
Look to the Positive
Now I’m speaking to those who work to advance environmental cognizance and activism. Ask yourself what is it that motivates you everyday? Is it the belief that a sustainable lifestyle will be healthier, simpler, and allow for greater connection with community and family, or is it a fear that our planet with a limited resource pool will simply not be able to handle the onslaught of hockey stick growth curves that we see in presentations and reports every day. As environmentalists we are so often reminded of the threats and challenges the planet faces, we often forget that in the solution to those problems lies the promise of a more resilient, thriving and connected world that leads many of us to this profession.
It is this more positive image that must be at the center of our messaging as we engage consumers about sustainability. There is already a 200 billion LOHAS market (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) compromising approximately 2% of the US consumer market and including 1 out of 4 American adults. Many of these individuals believe that a sustainable lifestyle is not a sacrifice, but a genuinely more desirable way of living than the status quo.
Business and the environmental community must utilize positive aspirational messaging to shift individuals away from that culture of competitive consumption, to a culture of sustainability that is available to all. However, in order for this idea to take hold and feel authentic, the messengers have to remind themselves of what they already believe: that sustainability is not just a way to avert disaster, but also a lifestyle that is more enjoyable and fulfilling than the one we lead today.
Visit edf.org/gibn to see the full list of upcoming Solutions Labs for 2010 and to register for an event in your city.
The Solutions Labs are organized by the Green Innovation in Business Network (GIBN), an online and offline community focused on creating a well-informed, well-connected, rapidly-learning network of innovators making business more sustainable and are made possible by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), in partnership with DIG IN, Greenbiz.com, Net Impact, Sony, Ashoka and many others.