What are the barriers to mass adoption of sustainability?

What are the barriers to mass adoption of sustainability?

“People do not change when you tell them they should; they change when they tell themselves they must.” –Michael Mandelbaum, via Thomas Friedman

In his Strategies for the Green Economy: Opportunities and Challenges in the New World of Business, Joel Makower bemoans the studies on American consumers’ attitudes about purchasing green products: for decades research has shown consumers want green but are not actually buying it. Makower lists two main reasons for the gap between concern and consumerism:

1. the communication of what difference consumers are making when purchasing green products; and

2. the perception that beyond their environmental attributes green products deliver inferior benefits.

In other words, sustainability has a marketing problem. I’ve identified a few additional, and very much inter-related, marketing barriers to the adoption of sustainability. Each of these opens new opportunities for more successful communication and adoption of sustainability.

Push. Sustainability gets pushed to consumers by impersonal brands trying to capitalize on the new market. Green- or rainbow-colored ads, commercials, pop-outs, and other interruptions overwhelm consumers, as does the multitude of claims. There’s too much selling and not enough storytelling and conversation. It’s lazy, ineffective, and ‘old’ marketing, which treats people like wallets not the individuals they are.

Social proof, or, rather, lack thereof. If people don’t see other people like them engaging in sustainable consumption, they won’t do it. Keeping up with the Joneses is a powerful instinct, but people need to know how the Joneses are doing. A hybrid in the driveway is one thing, knowing the neighbor’s energy or water consumption (or savings) is another.

Messaging. Sustainability often comes in a holier-than-thou, self-righteous mantle, seemingly ignorant of people’s dislike of being preached at or be told what to do. Similarly, guilt tripping or fear mongering to induce consumption of sustainable products will fail in the long-run.

Complex product. Sustainability is complicated, what with its systems thinking and triple bottom line and closed loops. When you try to sell the triple bottom line to single-bottom line consumers, it’s a tough bottleneck to overcome. What’s more, human mind is not designed for thinking; thinking takes energy away from other capacities, which are more important for survival, like memory, sight, or movement.

Curse of knowledge. The more you know about something, the more difficult it becomes for you to communicate it to anyone who doesn’t. You think everyone knows what you do, so it’s hard to imagine they don’t, and your language reflects your vantage point. Sustainability speaks like that.

Confirmation bias and idea acceptance. People are more accepting of ideas that align with what they already know and believe, and resist or suppress those that conflict with their views. The barrier is particularly high when people digest information in an analytical, as opposed to story, mindset. Ironically, conflicting information can also reinforce the original views.

Adoption of innovation. The adoption of innovation starts with innovators and early adopters; further adoption by the early and late majorities is a numbers game whose success partly depends on overcoming other barriers to adoption. Marketing to the middle of the market is, of course, attractive, but in order for a new product to be mass-adopted, the snowball of adoption must be rolling first.
Saturation. Or, too much green. Sustainability has become so ubiquitous consumers no longer see it or even choose to ignore it. Green - sustainability is supposed to be green…or is it? - has blended into the background. It’s all green noise.

Backlash. To people on the outside, sustainability looks like a major bandwagon, with all sorts of companies jumping on to make a buck. Every bandwagon creates a backlash, it’s almost natural. Post-greenwashing, trust disappears easily and is tough to regain.

What other barriers to the adoption of sustainability can you think of?


This commentary can be found originally at

Sustainable Marketing Blog

by Peter Korchnak.  Better triple bottom line.