Sustainability’s Perception Problem

A new report recently released by the University of East Anglia and University of Leeds made some recommendations that could be unsettling to marketers and retailers of outdoor specialty products – or at least those concerned with sustainability.

The research, published in the Journal of Advertising, “suggests that companies looking to promote their latest environmentally friendly product should downplay its green credentials if they want consumers to buy it,” said the University of East Anglia’s media announcement.

Citing a consumer perception that green products equate to lower performance, the researchers recommend marketers use “implicit” messaging to tout a product’s sustainable aspects when consumers have more concerns about a product’s performance. Prominent or “explicit signals” of a product’s greenness led to lower performance evaluations and purchase intent for products that are less commonly associated with green, they continued.

Of course, one could argue that the typical outdoor consumer has a better understanding of how sustainable ingredients can match the performance of much less-friendly options. And many outdoor vendors and component brands supply sustainable options that have performed for those outdoor consumers.

Even so, when it comes to growing and expanding the user base of outdoor participants, the findings from the University of East Anglia are more than a bit disheartening.

“Given consumers’ perceptions of poorly performing green products, persuading them to alter their consumption habits remains a difficult task for marketer,” said Dr. Bryan Ursey, a lecturer in marketing at the University of East Anglia and lead author of the study.

“While firms have often attempted to enhance their environmental credentials by emphasizing a new product’s green attributes,” he continued, “we show that this may in fact have negative consequences.”

Does that mean, however, outdoor brands and retailers necessarily should pull back from their sustainability bullhorns or “understate” a performance product’s greenness, as the research recommends? Or rather does it mean that more education and awareness is needed regarding advancements in material sciences and sacrifices to margins that are being made to provide more eco-conscious offerings?

We know that if a prestigious research university came asking about the performance levels of eco-friendly outdoor components, clothes and gear, we’d be able to point them in plenty of directions. And while there may not exists a green product for every application a core outdoor enthusiast might encountered, more often than not, outdoor consumers have the option of make eco-conscious shopping decisions.

Ultimately, for sustainability efforts to achieve their long-term goals, customers must not only weigh sustainability as part of a shopping decision; they must actively seek and make sustainable choices. That’s less likely to happen through “implicit signals.”

The business advice being offered by Dr. Ursey and his team might be the best in terms of ROI and P&L statements. But given the outdoor industry’s history of leading the charge to positive change through education and adoption, we expect the industry’s sustainability messaging to remain explicit.