Climate Strike! Selling sustainability / by Anne Miltenburg

To honour the climate strike, we are sharing actionable information to support changemakers in their efforts to combat the climate crisis.

It’s easy to think that the Climate Strike represents a sea change in people’s willingness to pursue a more sustainable lifestyle through their consumption patterns. In order to get more people to switch to sustainable foods, fashion and other consumer goods, it’s extremely important to realise that there is not ONE way to sell the concept of sustainability. So, how can we make sustainability a successful selling point?

How can we better sell sustainability?

Essay by Stella van Himbergen, source: Brand The Change.

There is an increasing demand for products and services that are greener, healthier, better priced and more convenient. In this scenario, sustainability sounds like a no-brainer. However, consumers are less rational than we think. As a result, many companies offering sustainable products aren’t sure how to make sustainability a part of their story. Not every consumer responds to sustainability arguments in the same way. If you want to build a brand and grow your customer base, it is crucial to dive into the world of your audience.

Generating consumer interest in sustainable products is a complicated endeavour. In general, people are concerned with things that touch their daily life. It is far easier to connect with people on sustainable food than it is on fair fashion. A pair of jeans produced under awful circumstances in Bangladesh has less of an impact on the life of a consumer than a health claim by a chocolate brand. And even when people care, they still need to turn their good intentions into purchases. You need people who are not just concerned with the environment, but are willing to get rid of their car and start using your car sharing service.

sustainability matters to A GROWING AUDIENCE

The group of people interested in sustainability is growing, and knowing their different motivations can be the key to success in sales. Some people can be enticed when a sustainable product is cheaper, others when they see their sense of status or self-worth rise by using a product. To map out these audiences and their motivations, entrepreneurs often turn to market research agencies who use lifestyle segmentation to get a better insight into potential groups of customers.

Researchers categorise societal and consumer groups based on variables such as age, income, education, family situation and life phase. These factors are connected to attitude, behaviour, opinion, intention and consumption patterns.

Every country or market has its own segments. Knowing the audiences in your market helps you to influence their beliefs and move them to act. The Dutch market research agency Motivaction has defined a model that works for Western, affluent countries. Motivaction and Sinus (a German agency) also have models adapted to Eastern Europe and Asia.

Check if there is available research for your markets. If nothing is available, consider hiring a market research agency to do the research for you. Knowing your market, the consumer attitudes towards and beliefs on a certain topic (whether it is car sharing, fair trade jeans or organic, slave-free chocolate), helps you to find the arguments and tone of voice that hit the right chord. There is no ‘one right way’ to this process, but the following roadmap can help you as you go.


Who will you aim for? Start with a standard social demographic group. It may be based on age, sex or family situation, for example. It may be geographical, located in a city, a region or a country. Socio-demographic data is often available for free through government agencies.


What is its size? What are the most important developments? What is the competition doing? How is their product positioned or priced? This data is often readily available through market research agencies.

EXAMPLE: sustainability segmentation for THE NETHERLANDS

Model by Motivation International

Model by Motivation International


To give you an idea of what these segmentations can look like, let’s take the Netherlands as an example. According to Motivaction, people look at sustainability in roughly five different ways (see model above). A closer look at two of these groups will help to illustrate how groups differ in mindset and how you need to approach them in order to create a connection. ‘Structure Seeking’ people form the biggest group. They are materialistic and enjoy life. Sustainability to them is a vague concept and is only interesting when it is cheap. If you want to reach this group, you need to understand that purchasing the product should be easy and the costs low. ‘Development Minded’ people form another group. They are prepared to pay more for sustainable products but won’t go out of their way to find them. This group does not like to be coddled in communication. They do their own thing and will switch to sustainable when it is personally relevant and super convenient. Part of this group thinks a sustainable lifestyle is ‘trendy’. Segment sizes are constantly changing. For instance, the group ‘Achievement Focused’ (15%) will grow to 20% in the near future.


Zoom in on the values your target group is sensitive to. What exemplifies their mentality? What are the considerations that come into play when it comes to their sustainable behaviour?


Do you want to sound playful? Down-to-earth? Sophisticated? Make sure your tone resonates with the values and the lifestyle profile of your target group.

5) co-create a value proposition

Involve your target group in your qualitative research, the initiatives you develop and your communications by organising in-depth interviews or group discussions. Check if your approach fits with them.


Review with your target audience whether the approach has had the right effect. If necessary, adjust.

Sustainability is not the defining element of a consumer’s decision to buy your products. It’s all about finding the right keys and motivations of the different consumer groups to make your brand a success.


This essay is part of a series of guest expert essays in our book: ‘Brand The Change: the branding guide for social entrepreneurs, disruptors, not-for-profits and corporate troublemakers.’ Stella van Himbergen is the CEO of Dutch Design in Development, which helps companies create sustainable products through strategy development, consultancy, training and sourcing of designers and producers.