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Make Sustainable Products the Default

As we imagine a sustainable future where people live in harmony with the planet, we need to identify the motivational drivers that help consumers make sustainable choices. We know that people generally say they’d like to live more sustainably but when it comes to making sustainable consumption choices, it’s clear that people don’t live as they say. It’s sometimes suggested that it’s an information problem where consumers don’t really understand the negative consequences of their consumption choices. For the most part this is not true. Instead, what’s at stake is a framing problem. 

For example, in Sweden where I live, consumer awareness of climate change and its causes is very high. At the same time, consumers don’t always see the need for prioritizing sustainable consumption choices. 

Consider the case of milk. 

About 20% of all milk processed in Sweden is organic. Some may consider this a lot but the fact that 80% of milk is still conventional is quite striking. Organic milk producers have promoted their brands with factual, feel-good claims that tout the superiority over its conventional counterpart. Despite this, it has taken 20 years to achieve a 20% market share for organic milk, which currently is priced about 9% higher than regular milk. 

As dairy prices have increased significantly in the past year, sales of organic milk have dropped to the point where the dairy companies were forced to mix organic milk into regular milk as there were not enough consumers buying organic milk. So we clearly have a demand problem. With the obvious benefits of organic milk one can wonder why isn’t the market share close to 100%?

It seems the positive benefits of organic milk, which are clearly communicated on the packaging may not be enough to persuade consumers to move from regular to organic. After all, what could be wrong with regular milk? In the grocery store, the shelf space for organic milk is much smaller compared to regular milk so the optics tell consumers that most people buy regular milk. Organic milk is not the default choice.

So how do we make organic milk the default? 

This is where Behavioral Science and framing comes into play. To make organic the default, we should use marketing tactics including naming architecture, packaging, messaging, and shelf space to send the cues to consumers that the sustainable option is the default. Marketers need to stop thinking of sustainable products as the premium value-added product that consumers are willing to pay more for and instead look at the non-sustainable ones as value-less, sold at a lower price tier. 

To begin, conventional milk should not be called just milk but instead, “non-organic milk”. To go further, rather than using positive claims for organic milk, marketers could use the inverse of these claims for non-organic milk. 

To help the marketing teams with this task I created an inversion of the claims that are currently used for one of the leading organic milk brands in Sweden. Here is how it reads:

Non-organic milk; at odds with soil, cows and bees 

  • We use unnatural pesticides
  • We don’t strive to contribute to biodiversity and we don’t attempt to measure how it’s deteriorating 
  • Our cows don’t roam around freely outside, not even when the weather permits
  • We don’t measure the health of the soil at our farms. Unhealthy soil can’t store carbon and contributes to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

 

Perhaps you find the above product claims appalling and a bit crazy but they are simply the inverse of the claims currently used for organic milk. Now the question is, do these claims change your view of non-organic milk and the price you are willing to pay for it?

If non-organic milk is marketed with the inverse of organic messaging, it’s very likely that the price for organic milk would increase. Demand for organic milk is expected to increase and people would accept a higher price premium for a product that is perceived to be far better compared to subpar non-organic milk. The point here is that we are not changing the milk, only the way we frame it. 

When framing an option by emphasizing its negative consequences, we trigger a behavioral reaction called Loss Aversion. People would then have a stronger motivation to move away from potentially negative consequences of non-organic milk than move towards potentially positive ones of organic milk.

Now, perhaps you think marketers would never consider doing such a thing, framing your own product unfavorably. At first, it may sound counterintuitive to disrupt a stable revenue stream by pushing for a different product line to become the default. Why not let the status quo prevail and let the adoption shift gradually? The problem with this thinking is that disruption might come from competitors or external forces beyond the control of the company. 

So why not lead the transformation rather than be a follower and risk falling behind? Changing the default takes time. First the organization itself needs to reorient resources to innovate and ramp up production capacity. Then comes the marketing part of changing the default in the minds of consumers. That’s why it’s important to start early and be ahead of competitors. 

The world is rapidly nearing critical tipping points when it comes to global warming and it’s not far-fetched to expect new draconian government regulations in the years to come. These regulations will drastically alter the playbook and cause major disruption to the way the world operates. Just consider how the US and EU both banned the sale of new gasoline cars by 2035. In China, the world’s largest auto market, electric cars already rule to the point where consumers have fallen out of love with foreign, old-fashion looking gasoline cars. Western legacy brands were late to innovate and didn’t dare to change the default which left the door wide open to futuristic Chinese electric cars. Lesson learned. 

There is no time to spare to make sustainable products the default.