One thing I learnt pretty quickly when working in the solar power industry was this: solar power systems don’t sell because of their environmental benefits. It’s not that customers have an objection to doing something good for the planet; it just isn’t the issue on which the purchasing decision is made. The real motive is the money that can be saved on power bills.

There is a small portion of the market that buys products primarily on their green, organic, Fair Trade or recycled qualities. My best estimate is that it is less than five per cent, and maybe just one or two per cent. I’m not talking about the 60-80% of people who say they care about the environment but don’t do much more than put the recycling bin out. I’m talking about the few for whom environmental concerns are the primary factor in their choice of product.

For the most part, people are either ambivalent or hostile to a green marketing message. In the next few posts I’ll set out some reasons why I think this is so. And I’ll share a few ideas for what the marketer of sustainable (or less harmful) products can do about it.

Here goes…

Reason #1: Everything is all right

Let’s face it; life is more than just all right. Even with the lingering effects of the GFC, for most people in developed countries things are in many ways incredibly fantastic.

Just compare the standard of living today with those of a few decades ago. Would you like to swap places with your great-great grandparents? The idea might have some romantic appeal – simpler times, slower pace of life – but could you give up on a lot of physical comfort and all your modern gadgets? If the good old days are really appealing, where is the rush to return to them?

We live in an age of unimaginable abundance, with unprecedented comfort that our ancestors would struggle to comprehend. A few minutes in the supermarket provides food for an entire week. In a week or a month we can earn enough money to fly around the world. Cars provide us with amazing mobility, and smaller families occupy bigger houses than ever. Never before have we had as much access to as much stuff at such low relative prices as now. Our high level of consumption is viewed as neither a sin nor a virtue. It is just the normal state of things.

Even environmentally conscious people find it very difficult to forgo present, tangible comforts for an intangible future benefit. With the world humming away so nicely, it is difficult to imagine that anything could go wrong.

As we’ll see in future posts there are several solutions to the “everything is all right” problem. This one is just for starters.

Solution #1: Get the government to help


And this is my number one solution because government policy is one of the most effective ways to change behaviour and support the uptake of positive products.

The solar power industry owes its existence to feed-in tariffs, straight out subsidies and renewable energy targets. Local governments have implemented recycling programs to divert materials from landfill. Carbon pricing is being introduced around the world and many harmful pesticides have been banned, opening up markets for less harmful alternatives.

Can one individual or one small business exert sufficient influence to change policy? Maybe not. But through industry associations and by gaining the support of lots of voters, lobbying efforts can bear fruit.

Traditional industrialists who support the status quo are very skilled in conducting their own lobbying efforts, so the battle may not be quick or easy. Many polluting industries also owe their mandates to operate to government policies and incentives.

But there are plenty of success stories for green businesses too. The increasing level of e-waste recycling, the installation of insulation, clean-up of waterways and the roll-out of energy-efficient lighting have all been supported, directly or indirectly, by government policies.

So watch this space. Government policy is a dynamic area, and there are plenty of opportunities to join in the debate.

On to Part 2

Image: Thinkstock