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How to ensure your sustainability initiatives do not backfire

by uma

New research from emlyon business school has recently found that there are 3 key reasons why a company becoming more sustainable can actually deter consumers from consumption.

The first reason is because of the information provided around products. Often, when a product is more sustainable, it is sold with increased labelling and information, which consumers see as ambiguous or contradictory. They can also react negatively to exaggerated claims, seeing them as embellished and treating them with more scepticism.

The second key reason is the fact that sustainable products are often associated with a lack of quality, taste or performance – as consumers believe organisations must have comprised on something to become sustainable. Overall, many consumers see luxury and sustainability as incompatible.

The final reason, is that often the consumption of sustainable products can have negative social perceptions and connotations for a consumer, often being labelled as ‘hippies’ or ‘feminine’. This can often lead to many consumers – especially men – avoiding green products to escape the perception that comes with these.

Much of the focus on organisations launching more sustainable products is the benefit of doing so, the improvement of brand perceptions this will generate, and the positive impact it will have on society and the environment as a whole.

However, this new research has found that often there are clearly some pro-green moves that organisations make that do not go down well with consumers, and can actually harm public perception, despite the move towards a greater good.

These key reasons came from research by Marta Pizzetti, a Professor of Marketing at emlyon business school, alongside colleagues Diletta Acuti from the University of Portsmouth, and Sara Dolnicar from the University of Queensland, who reviewed almost 100 previous academic research papers, focusing on key areas of sustainability, in order to discover the specific reasons as to why a move towards greater sustainability can backfire, and why organisations face negative side-effects and public perceptions from doing so.

The aim of the study was to identify actionable mitigation measures, or even turn such negative effects into positive by leveraging them to increase demand.

Professor Pizzetti says,

“It is clear that all companies must move towards becoming more sustainable and having less of a detrimental impact on society. Yet, if they are finding that consumption is reduced when doing so, it is only a deterrent to becoming more sustainable.

But it is not the sustainability of the product that is reducing customers, rather attitudes and perceptions that come with this – of which, most are untrue. It is important we start to change the public image of sustainability, not just launch more sustainable products”.

The researchers say that these findings clearly emphasise the importance of communication. There is urgent need to improve information around sustainable products and the benefits they can have for consumers, as well as changing negative connotations and stereotypes linked to many sustainable products. Another strategy the researchers suggest there could be potential to use is understating the sustainability of a product so that it is not seen as greenwashing or over the top.

This research was published in the academic journal, Psychology & Marketing.

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