Green Marketing Doesn’t Work


Marketing eco-friendly products isn’t as easy as it might seem, particularly if the products involve some kind of sacrifice or behavioral change on the part of the consumer. Take a look at one of the supposed eco-villains, the auto industry. While one can criticize the big US auto firms (not to mention Toyota and Nissan) for continuing to push big trucks and SUVs to consumers who didn’t “need” them, the fact is that all of these firms were supplying what the consumer wanted. Yes, everyone knew that econobox cars used less fuel, emitted fewer greenhouse gases, and so on. Everyone was happy that automakers were introducing fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. But when individual buyers visited their local dealership, by and large societal concerns went out the window and people bought what worked best for them individually. For many buyers, massive SUVs and powerful pickups were the kind of statement they wanted to make, even if they never drove off-road and did little hauling.

What finally got consumers interested in vehicles that promised miserly gas consumption? Pure self-interest. When gas prices surged to $3, and then $4, per gallon, and filling up a big tank approached the $100 mark, suddenly many consumers shifted gears and tried to dump their gas guzzlers. (One could argue that all aspects of this behavior had little to do with rational decision making. The consumer first purchased a vehicle with capabilities he would never use, and then in selling it took a loss of many thousands of dollars to save, perhaps, $100 month.) The key point, though, is that the individual purchases had little to do with the greater good of society and everything to do with individual preferences.

Towels Aren’t Trivial

An even more persuasive data point is described by Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldsten, and Steve Martin in Yes! The book spends its initial chapters discussing a series of experiments testing how frequently hotel guests would let their towels be “recycled,” i.e., folded and put back on the towel bar vs. being replaced by freshly laundered towels. One would think that this is a small sacrifice to make for anyone with the most remote concern about the environment – is it likely that one could even tell whether the towel was new by the time one returned to the hotel room at the end of the day? In fact, though, mosts guests don’t recycle their linens. (I wonder, too, how many inadvertently choose the recycling option by forgetting to throw their used towels on the floor.) In the first part of the study, a mere 35% of hotel guests allowed their towels to be reused when urged to do so with a typical “preserve our planet” message. (For more on this study, see A room with a viewpoint: conservation messages and motivation.)

To me, that’s a good indicator that appealing to people’s concern for the environment isn’t a winning strategy, at least by itself. Nearly two thirds of the hotel guests in Cialdini’s study failed to participate in the towel reuse program, despite the fact that doing so would have been a trivial inconvenience. Considering that few people have the kind of emotional involvement with hotel towels that they do with their personal vehicles, is it any wonder that for years people continued to buy big SUVs, powerful trucks, and other high-status vehicles in preference to economical compacts?

What’s a Green Marketer to Do?

It’s clear that green appeal isn’t enough to get consumers to do something they don’t want to. So, how can green marketers succeed in a competitive marketplace?

Performance Validation. One key, I think, is to offer consumers reassurance that they are getting at least as good a product as they would with a non-green alternative. A few years ago, I remember avoiding a “green” paint-stripping product that promised it had “no dangerous chemicals.” Why? At some level, I was convinced that a paint-stripper loaded with dangerous, smelly ingredients and a page full of safety cautions was likely to be faster and more effective than some wimpy green alternative. What the manufacturer of the green product should have done was label their package with some test data showing that it was equally (or more) effective than the traditional product. That bit of reassurance might have been enough to sway me to choose a product that had fewer potential hazards.

Social Reinforcement. Cialdini was able to boost participation in the towel recycling program by 26% by the simple step of rewording the card to suggest that the majority of hotel guests reused their towels. Instead of appealing to their guests concern for the environment, the hotel suggested that the social norm was to participate. Interestingly, a further tweak was tested: the cards were again reworded, this time suggesting that the majority of people who stayed in that particular room had reused their towels. By making the information seem even more socially relevant and establishing a closer tie with the guest, participation was bumped by 33%.

Indeed, I’d guess that many of the early Prius buyers were motivated by social concerns. Despite the initially poor economics of the hybrid and its questionable cradle-to-grave environmental impact, some of these buyers wanted to be seen as doing the right thing for the environment or even to help set the social norm for others. In my opinion, many of the early Prius buyers were influenced every bit as much by social factors as buyers of ultra-costly luxury sedans and sexy red convertibles.

Endorsements. While perhaps not a primary effect, a product’s green appeal may be strengthened by an endorsement from a credible third party. Clorox, a name that strikes me as synonymous with harsh chemicals, has seen strong adoption of its GreenWorks line of products following a somewhat controversial endorsement of the line by the Sierra Club. (See Clorox’s Battle to go Green .) The appeal of the GreenWorks line may have been enhanced by testing which showed the products to be at least as effective as the traditional alternatives.

Reasonable Expectations. As evidenced by the towel-tossing hotel guests and Clorox’s naming a 5% share of their market as a laudable goal, green marketing stil has to be considered a niche approach. Still, if a green product offers performance advantages, it has a much better chance of success. A good example of this is the Prius. In its early years, sales were modest. When gas surged past $4, though, interest in the Prius soared not because of heightened concern for the environment but because buyers saw the vehicle’s cost premium as justified by their anticipated fuel savings.

In short, don’t count on a “green” product to sell itself in today’s market. For the majority of consumers (at least in the U.S.), concern for the environment is trumped by self-interest. (It would be interesting to do some brain-scan neuromarketing studies to further evaluate the potency of the green message.) If you want it to move beyond niche status, be sure your product has got something beyond its green heritage going for it.

  1. Damon Clifford says


    I agree with everything you said. Being “green” is a habit, and as we know, most people are already set in their habits and don’t want to change (even if they know it’s for the better).

    It may very well take a generation or two for most people to have “green habits”. People today need to make a conscious choice to be green and be dedicated to the practice. It is not as easy as one may seem because it does take effort to change your lifestyle.

    You see many more marketers trying to push “green” products but only use the “green” label as their motivation. Like you said above, they need to demonstrate how the product is better or more efficient AND it’s green for consumers to purchase the product.

    I believe we are still in the early stages of the green movement and being environmental friendly as a nation. The high gas prices over the last two years have really made people aware of these things and have for the first time made people think about their habits and the effect they have on the environment.

    This will be an exciting time in history to watch how people change their habits and thinking in regards to alternative energy and being green.

  2. Peter says

    Although not your topic, I think any discussion about green marketing needs to have background info about how big corporations and their lobbyists sold us an unsustainable lifestyle while receiving tax breaks. In other words they no longer know how to make money without government intervention somehow.

  3. Jim Estill says

    I agree that green marketing does not always work but neither do many other types of marketing (like buy American or save $(although that one often works).

    Green is gaining ground though in peoples mind and in time we will buy green or not breathe.

  4. Stanley says

    Issues such as these are being discussed with great passion among environmental non-profits. I think we’re seeing a massive swing from “dark green” environmentalism (i.e. making people feel guilty or shameful) to “bright green” tactics (i.e. showing a positive tomorrow that’s available today). This is a great summary of exactly the kinds of strategies both marketers AND non-profits will have to pursue to bring about a healthy but profitable world.

    The only thing I have to disagree with you on is that auto manufacturers definitely do NOT merely provide what consumers want. They have a substantial cost to re-fit any assembly lines, so it’s been much easier for them to creatively market SUVs than follow any emerging trends… so we see an increase in emotional/identity techniques and less about meeting actual needs (the “occasional imperative” of off-roading taking center stage in many instances).

    Thanks again!

  5. Roger Dooley says

    Interesting point about “bright green” marketing, Stanley. That seems like it might work better than the guilt approach.

    Perhaps you give too much credit to automotive marketing prowess. At best, I think, they might gain a competitive edge when consumers are looking in a particular category. One could argue that the US car makers really pushed their smaller models by pricing them at lower profit margins than their big SUVs and trucks. Undoubtedly, though, their marketing dollars went to those vehicles that had the best combination of potential unit sales and profitability. Chicken or egg? 🙂

  6. Brian says

    Maybe it’s just my stubborness, but I haven’t ever as far as I can remember been swayed to use a “green” product.

    I find it just a passing fad and a bit pretentious. If a product truly offers a benefit to me and is “green” I’ll give it a try, to me it’s actually a negative factor since I equate the whole “green” fad as being shoved down my throat.

  7. Dr Wright says

    Because green marketing is so new and there are not many bench marks and certifications, green marketing can still work. However, consumers are always becoming smarter and if you are truly not green, they will find out and that will damage your brand.

    Dr. Wright
    The Wright Place TV Show

  8. Oliviero says


    more or less one year ago Seth Godin was talking in his blog about something quite similar:

    I agree with him: if you want to convince people to buy something green, you must make it relevant to THEM: because the feel cool, they save money, or they get better performance for the money they spend, I’ll let you choose the best explanation.

    Marketing green products “only” because they save the planet is going to work only for a small niche of consumers: the other want something in return. It’s sad, but true.

    When I bought a car some years ago (when hybrids still didn’t exist, especially here in Italy), I chose one that made me not only pollute less, but also save money on gasoline.


  9. Roger Dooley says

    That’s indeed a similar point, Oliviero. I think an interesting version of the experiment might have been to offer the hotel guests some kind of PUBLIC recognition if they reused their towels, say, an environmental sticker or lapel pin.


  10. Jonathan Salem Baskin says

    I agree with the sentiment of this thread: behavior matters more than brand, and it’s no good reason consumers’ minds if you’re not providing (and enabling) actions that occur in the real world. I talk about this in great detail in my book, Branding Only Works on Cattle, and you can download the chapter on measurement for a limited time at:

  11. Mitch Hinz says

    Roger, great article. Interesting that all comments here seem to come from people not really involved in green marketing. I am.

    I agree with Caldini (on almost everything, generally) on the towel study that social pressure can greatly increase behavioral change (for the better). Because we are not talking about getting people to chose one thing over another, as in traditional marketing. It’s not McDonalds vs Burger King. We are trying to achieve a social good (even if you still don’t believe in global warming, then use “pollution” as your mental example.) So we have the classical economics problem of the “free rider”: why should I go green, when others are not?

    There are almost NO immediate personal reasons to “buy green” unless you happen to LIKE green products, which is fine also. That’s why the marketing has to be bigger than the product value; or has to be driven to be “better” by external forces (higher gas prices, for example).

    Of course people want an SUV over a Prius; they are more fun. So is throwing your Burger King wrapper out of the car window, rather than stopping at a rest area to put it in the trash bin. Like, duh. But until we started telling people “Don’t Mess with Texas!”, they didn’t get the point.

    Behavior should be *part* of the brand, Jonathan. Like Prius.
    Like, duh.

    – Mitch

  12. Rezwan says

    Related to the SUV’s, check out Mr. Money Mustache on what your truck purchase says about you. Hilarious!

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