Breaking the Code: How to Translate Complex Green Initiatives to Win Over Consumers
Businesses are racing to go green, but will they hit the pitfalls or win over their customers? Effective communication holds the key.
In a world where “going green” has become a seductive mantra, businesses of all kinds are racing to embrace sustainability. But amidst the flurry of eco-friendly claims, it’s become clear that not all companies are created equal in their commitment to the cause. In fact, a staggering 90% of European companies are planning to ramp up their investment in environmentally conscious advertising in the coming years. Venturing into the realm of sustainability, a fascinating dichotomy is uncovered where the pursuit of profit and ethical considerations collide.
In the captivating world of sustainability marketing, businesses find themselves at a crossroads. With inflation haunting the minds of Chief Marketing Officers, sustainability emerges as a close contender for attention and resources. Yet, motivations behind sustainability spending differ. Some companies genuinely prioritize environmental responsibility, while others see it as a strategic move to boost revenues and enhance their brand reputation.
This disparity in motives has given rise to a precarious landscape, where authentic sustainable businesses are overshadowed by greenwashing imposters. The result? Customers are left bewildered and skeptical, questioning the legitimacy of sustainability claims. A startling revelation exposes that only 25% of consumers believe the green marketing messages they encounter, despite 92% of them trusting socially and environmentally responsible companies. The gap between intention and perception lies at the heart of the sustainability communication challenge.
A study conducted in Portugal brought these tensions to the forefront. It unveiled that female customers, highly educated individuals, and those with a pre-existing affinity for sustainability pay keen attention to green marketing initiatives. The prevalence of discrepancies and contradictions in sustainability communication, however, has eroded trust across the board. This trust deficit poses a formidable obstacle for businesses seeking to effectively convey their sustainability efforts.
To bridge this gap and breathe life into their green marketing, businesses must embark on a journey of transparency and credibility. It’s not enough to simply make claims; actions speak louder than words. Building trust requires consistent and meaningful sustainability practices that align with the messages conveyed. Only by aligning sustainability claims with consumer perception can businesses reignite the flames of confidence in their green marketing communications.
Before fully grasping the art of effectively communicating sustainability to your target audience, it’s essential to delve into the root cause behind the trust deficit that exists.
The Issue of Trust: Handle with Care
Nearly 50% of consumers find it challenging to determine which businesses to trust when it comes to climate change and sustainability claims. Many either express uncertainty or believe that no business claim can significantly influence their trust in a company’s commitment to sustainability. For those who are open to persuasion, however, an honest and transparent supply chain that prioritizes social and environmental responsibility becomes crucial.
A company’s stance on climate change and sustainability, including its dedication to achieving net-zero carbon emissions and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, should be clearly outlined on its website, annual report, or corporate social responsibility report. By providing detailed information about these initiatives, businesses can instill confidence in their sustainability commitments.
The key factor contributing to this prevalent skepticism among customers is greenwashing.
Greenwashing: A Deceptive Disguise
Greenwashing, derived from the combination of “green,” the color naturally associated with the environmental sphere, and “whitewash,” a word used to describe something that is hiding something else, refers to the deceptive practice of organizations presenting a false environmentally responsible image. It occurs when companies exaggerate their environmental impact or conceal crucial information, communicating falsehoods or partial truths. This approach leads to widespread skepticism of sustainable claims, regardless of their authenticity. Research by Harvard Business Review reveals that 42% of green claims in Europe are exaggerated, false, or deceptive, indicating the prevalence of greenwashing. There are consequences for companies employing greenwashing as a marketing strategy. For example, greenwashed companies in the US have experienced a 1.34% decline in their American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).
These business practices, characterized by the exaggeration of achievements and dissemination of false environmental information, are significant reasons for the erosion of trust in sustainability communication, which can ultimately backfire on the businesses themselves.
Cleaning Up Shop
The unintended consequences and potential backfiring of sustainability efforts can be resolved. To address these effects, businesses must harness the true power of sustainability. This requires designing sustainability marketing communications that can help businesses navigate this path successfully. They involve four key stages that form the backbone of a successful communication campaign – message encoding, message transmission, message decoding and audience feedback.
Message encoding: morality bites
When crafting a communication message, companies must consider how to resonate with their target audience. In the context of sustainability, it becomes crucial to address different motivations. Human values span a spectrum, ranging from higher-order values like social responsibility and environmental consciousness to lower-order values such as economic and survival appeals.
While communicating sustainability, many businesses mistakenly focus on persuading customers with monetary benefits rather than emphasizing higher values like environmental responsibility. Studies have shown, however, that moral appeals in environmental campaigns outperform monetary appeals. By evoking a sense of moral goodness, individuals are reassured and more inclined to act accordingly.
This can be done using descriptive and injunctive social norms. In an American study, researchers discovered that incorporating descriptive and injunctive social norms in persuasive messages can effectively influence behavior. Descriptive norms refer to what people typically do in a given situation, while injunctive norms convey whether specific behaviors are socially approved or disapproved. By considering social judgments and values, these norms shape individuals’ actions based on their perception of social approval. The study specifically examined the impact of these norms on energy conservation in households.
The findings revealed that including just a descriptive normative message about average energy consumption in the community led to a decrease in energy usage among households consuming more energy than the neighborhood average. The same message, however, had an unintended boomerang effect for households consuming less energy, resulting in increased energy consumption. This suggests that descriptive norms can have negative consequences depending on the context.
To address this issue, the study examined the impact of adding an injunctive message to the descriptive normative message. An injunctive message conveys whether specific behaviors are socially approved or disapproved. For example, instead of simply stating, “Households consuming less energy than the average are saving energy,” you can add an injunctive message like, “It is socially responsible to save energy.” The results showed that when an injunctive message was included along with the descriptive normative message, the negative effect was eliminated. Households consuming less energy than the average continued to maintain their low energy consumption, demonstrating the positive influence of combining descriptive and injunctive norms.
Applying this approach to other domains, businesses can utilize descriptive and injunctive social norms to promote sustainable behavior. For instance, a sustainable fashion brand can emphasize the moral responsibility of making eco-friendly fashion choices, appealing to consumers’ higher-order values and sense of moral goodness. By sharing statistics on water consumption or waste generation in the fashion industry, they can convey descriptive norms while incorporating injunctive messages that emphasize the social approval and responsibility associated with sustainable fashion choices.
Similarly, interior design or architectural firms can highlight the importance of sustainable design principles, such as embracing circularity in the design process and product development, using eco-friendly materials, maximizing energy efficiency, and promoting healthy living environments. By framing sustainability as a moral imperative, they can inspire customers to prioritize environmental responsibility in their design choices. Showcasing examples of sustainable building practices and presenting average energy consumption in the community can effectively convey descriptive norms and encourage the adoption of sustainable solutions.
Message transmission: Spreading the Green Vibes
When companies make decisions about media investments to deliver their messages, it is crucial to consider the marketing trends of the previous year and select the most suitable media for communicating sustainability. For instance, videos have the highest engagement, followed by images and blog posts, while social media shopping tools and influencer marketing offer the highest return on investment.
These insights highlight an intriguing development in sustainability communication. Numerous studies have found that richer and more immersive media are the most effective for conveying environmental issues and sustainability as a whole. Environmental problems often entail long-term consequences that may not be immediately perceptible. By utilizing the most immersive media available, companies can bridge the gap between the audience and sustainability communication. Currently, social media platforms, with their ability to integrate video, text, and audio, offer one of the most immersive experiences for mainstream audiences. Additionally, advancements in virtual and immersive reality present exciting opportunities to enhance sustainability communication efforts.
A German study compared the impact of the same message presented through two different channels and formats: virtual reality (VR) and traditional video. .
It is important to note that while virtual reality (VR) was found to be more impactful in the study, businesses can explore various immersive technologies that suit their budget and resources. The key is to create engaging experiences. By providing interactive and immersive content, businesses can foster a deeper connection with their audience, regardless of the specific technology used.
Message decoding: Message Whisperers
To successfully capture consumers’ attention, it is crucial to understand their motivations, particularly in the realm of sustainability. Different consumer segments are driven by distinct factors. “Moral customers” prioritize environmental concerns and are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors. Next are the “frugal customers” who prioritize saving money, with monetary motivations having a stronger impact on their choices than environmental ones. “Thrifty consumers” aim to reduce waste and exhibit moderate engagement in sustainable behaviors, while on the other end of the spectrum are the “wasteful” consumers who prioritize comfort and convenience and show the least engagement in sustainability efforts.
It would be very difficult to create a sustainability communication plan that targets all four of these customer types. Instead, in understanding the different customers out there, brands should develop communications that foster good habits step by step. The domino effect, where individuals start with small sustainable actions that spill over into more significant changes, is instrumental. For instance, IKEA’s “Live Lagom” initiative focused on encouraging individuals to adopt green practices. By beginning with reducing household food waste, participants often expanded their sustainable actions to encompass energy conservation and other broader contexts. By effectively communicating actionable sustainable habits that can be incorporated into everyday life, businesses can empower consumers to develop sustainable habits and embrace a more eco-conscious lifestyle.
The power of the domino effect was even highlighted in a report from the Harvard Business Review. The report stated that buying LED light bulbs might lead to consumers wearing warmer clothing and turning down the thermostat, changing curtains and blinds to decrease heat loss, insulating doors and windows, buying energy-efficient appliances, installing a programmable thermostat, and so on.
Another way to communicate good habits is also by leading by example. For instance, a sustainable fashion brand could communicate its commitment to ethical sourcing and production by highlighting its use of organic fabrics and fabrics made with recycled materials, fair trade practices, and support for local artisans. Through storytelling and visual content, the brand can showcase the journey of its products, emphasizing transparency and social responsibility. Subsequently, the brand can also engage customers in sustainable practices by providing guidance on how to incorporate sustainability into their interactions with the products and services, offering insights into best sustainable practices within the fashion industry and with fashion products.
Feedback: Talking the Green Talk
To establish effective and meaningful conversational spaces, businesses must adopt a comprehensive approach to sustainability communication. The traditional top-down method is no longer sufficient; instead, communication must encompass „about„, „of„, and „for“ sustainability.
Communication about Sustainability (CaS) involves exchanging information, interpretations, and opinions about sustainability issues at various levels, from interpersonal interactions to mass communication platforms. It plays a crucial role in framing concerns, establishing a common understanding, and facilitating dynamic interactions among actors.
The effectiveness of CaS can be assessed through indicators such as media attention, access and influence of stakeholders, and compatibility between different communication subsystems. Compatibility enables the transfer of significant aspects between spheres like politics and science, contributing to sustainable development.
For instance, when discussing climate change, effective CaS involves widespread media coverage, diverse stakeholder access, and knowledge transfer between scientific findings and political decision-making.
Businesses can effectively communicate sustainability by incorporating informative and engaging content on their websites and social media platforms. Detailed product information and labels highlighting sustainable materials or environmental benefits can be provided. Sharing sustainability stories, hosting workshops or webinars, and organizing community events are effective ways to educate customers and foster shared responsibility.
Communication of Sustainability (CoS) focuses on one-way communication to inform and educate individuals about sustainability. Businesses can provide comprehensive sustainability reports, dedicated website sections, and marketing campaigns to promote sustainable features of their products or services. Sharing customer testimonials and success stories related to sustainable purchases can inspire others to make eco-friendly choices.
For instance, interior design and architectural firms can leverage CoS through sustainability reports, showcasing energy-efficient designs, eco-friendly materials, and renewable energy incorporation. Marketing campaigns can promote sustainable interior design features. Sharing customer testimonials can inspire sustainable choices.
Communication for Sustainability (CfS) aims to achieve societal transformation based on sustainable development goals. Businesses can engage customers through reward programs, take back programs, and incentives for sustainable actions. Online platforms or communities can be created for customers to share practices. Seeking feedback and involving customers in decision-making processes demonstrate transparency and inclusivity.
Geographically relevant places play a crucial role in achieving societal transformation. Face-to-face communication is highly persuasive and can foster dialogue. Brands should understand geographically relevant clusters to host events and guerrilla marketing initiatives to foster discussions on sustainability.
Furthermore, businesses can collaborate with customers to co-create sustainable products or services, incorporating their preferences and values. Involving clients in the design process ensures their input aligns with sustainable solutions.
The success of sustainability communication lies in the actions taken towards sustainable development resulting from the exchange between businesses and customers.
Unraveling the Green Maze
Translating intricate green initiatives is no walk in the park. Sustainability, at times, has a way of boomeranging; let’s face it, the communication process can be a bit of a jumbled mess. To win over consumers, companies must have a crystal-clear communication objective that permeates all four phases. So, with all the limitations surrounding sustainability and a plethora of avenues to enhance customer interaction, it’s time to dive in and spark a transformation. After all, being green is not just a trend, it’s the new black.
Are you ready to dive in? If you want to learn more about how to communicate your sustainable brand to your audience, join our webinar where we’ll be diving deeper into this topic. We look forward to seeing you there!
 “Sustainability in advertising and marketing.” Available at: https://www.statista.com/topics/10722/sustainability-in-advertising-and-marketing-worldwide/#topicOverview
 “Green Marketing Statistics.” Available at: 4 Green Marketing Statistics, Facts and Trends in 2023 (businessdit.com)
 “Deloitte Report about Sustainability & Consumer Behavior.’’ Available at: Sustainability & Consumer Behavior 2022 | Deloitte UK
 “Green Marketing Communication.” Available at: IJERPH | Free Full-Text | Analysing the Influence of Green Marketing Communication in Consumers’ Green Purchase Behaviour (mdpi.com)
 “Deloitte Report about Sustainability & Consumer Behavior.” Available at: Sustainability & Consumer Behaviour 2022 | Deloitte UK
 “Deloitte Report about Sustainability & Consumer Behavior.’’ Available at: Sustainability & Consumer Behaviour 2022 | Deloitte UK
 “How Greenwashing affects businesses.” Available at: How Greenwashing Affects the Bottom Line (hbr.org)
 “Effectiveness of monetary versus moral motives.” Available at: https://research.rug.nl/en/publications/comparing-the-effectiveness-of-monetary-versus-moral-motives-in-e
 “2023 Marketing trends.” Available at: https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/hubspot-blog-marketing-industry-trends-report
 “Bridging psychological distance: The impact of immersive media on distant and proximal environmental issues.” Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344925641_Bridging_psychological_distance_The_impact_of_immersive_media_on_distant_and_proximal_environmental_issues
 “The elusive green consumer.” Available at: https://hbr.org/2019/07/the-elusive-green-consumer
 “The importance of communication in sustainability.” Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351978917300719
Author: Giuseppe Scandariato
Latest from the Blog