The developers of sustainable products have an eye to the long term. Most are motivated by the desire to avoid environmental damage that not only affects current generations, but future generations too. This long-term thinking is often employed in marketing green products – “think of your grandchildren and great-grandchildren” – but it runs up against the problem that most people think in shorter timeframes.

Reason #4: Short memories

For several years much of Australia was in the grip of severe drought. Water levels in the reservoirs that supplied many major cities fell to critically low levels. Bush fires burnt large parts of the country and climate change was a major topic of conversation.

Then the rains returned to much of the continent. Too much rain in many cases, and suddenly large areas of parched ground were submerged beneath floodwaters.

People who lived above the flood line let out a damp sigh of relief, and as our lawns turned green climate change dropped off the list of most people’s concerns.

Cycles of drought and flood are part of the very nature of Australia, but we tend to think that current conditions will prevail. Many parts of Australia are now back in drought, and climate change is receiving more media attention, again. But concern about the environment waxes and wanes with the weather.

Reason #5: Evolution and short-term worrying

As species go, Homo sapiens have been remarkably successful. But for most of human history, right back to the very dawn of life in fact, the threats to existence have been of an immediate nature. Why worry about what could happen in fifty, or even ten years’ time if there is a real risk of becoming tiger food in the next day or two?

It is only in the last ten thousand years or so that we have experienced the relative safety that came with urbanisation and agriculture. A mere blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. And it has only been in the last few decade that most people in developed countries could expect to live too far into “old age”. So there hasn’t been much reason for us to evolve into long-term thinkers capable of accurately assessing future risks.

Solution #4: Focus on the two percent

In Part 1 I suggested that only two or three percent of people base their choice of product primarily on environmental concerns. These are people who do take the long-term view, and do worry about what sort of planet they are leaving for their descendents. It might only be one person in fifty, but this small fraction can still be a lucrative market for the right sorts of product. Encouragingly, some businesses report that a growing number of people are heeding the environmental message.

A couple of points to note, however: to succeed in this sector you need to be able to back up your environmental claims. It is an educated part of the market, and well-tuned to detecting greenwash.

It is also important to be clear that this is your market. Don’t go wasting time and money pursuing people that you will never convert with the sustainability story.

Solution #5: Demonstrate a return on investment

If you can demonstrate that the purchase of your product or service will produce an attractive financial return within an acceptable timeframe, then you can present a case that will be difficult for a customer to refuse.

What sort of timeframe? Many businesses will want to see an initiative pay for itself within one or two years. They really do think short-term. Some consumers will take a longer term view, out to maybe seven to ten years.

Investing in energy efficiency has a great track record of producing a good financial return by reducing energy costs. Aided by government incentives, and increasingly in the absence of subsidies, solar power systems provide consumers in many countries with cheaper electricity than their energy retailers do, with paybacks within a decade. Landfill is becoming an increasingly expensive way to dispose of waste, so there are opportunities in recycling to reduce customer costs and recover reusable materials for subsequent sale.

There is a growing market in packaged solutions that deliver immediate savings. Solar power systems or energy-saving lighting are installed at zero initial cost to the buyer, with the equipment being paid off over time from the savings made.

You don’t even have to mention “green” or “sustainable”.

Back to Part 2

On to Part 4

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