Why sustainability doesn't sell itself

A 2021 study found that new sustainable product launches lose against their unsustainable competition. We can't afford that. To sell true sustainability successfully, you need to tickle some stone-age brain triggers that we have since hunter gatherer times and beyond. Which?
Written by
Merlin Eric Bola

Strategy & Content Direction

Imagine you’re launching your new product with impeccable environmental perks.

You did a really good job and judged from the hard facts, it outshines all the other products in your category. Confidently, you’re launching the first batch. After a few days of flatline response, you’re getting a little antsy. After a few weeks, it turns into a sinking feeling.

Your innovation just doesn’t sell – despite the care, effort, time and money you put into it.

What happened?

Our survival has a sales problem

How to sell true sustainability is not just a pressing question for regenerative pioneers, but an existential one for the human species at large.

A barrage of corporate greenwashing and it's various permutations have damaged the word sustainability. Semantic deflation through word abuse and straight-up lies have made it harder for real players to communicate their message. A study in the Journal of Business Research from 2021 found that ‘sustainable new product introductions achieve lower sales than their conventional counterparts’.

But it is only the loss of trust?

No, because even before the word got overstretched, sustainability had it's difficulties with sparking an impuls to actually buy.

If sustainability doesn't sell itself, how to sell it then?

The answer might change over time as we get more environmentally conscious, but for today, here’s the answer in a nutshell:

Sell sustainability by emphasizing the personal problems they solve and their practical benefits – like savings in time, money and energy – instead of their environmental impact. Appeal to your customers age-old neurology and frame sustainability in terms they can relate to. Tell people what's in it for them.

To understand why, let's look into our past. There are two stone-age brain triggers that will help you do the job.

1/ Problems: The multipass to our attention

There’s a hands-down best way to jolt us into a state of high alertness.

Let me introduce: Problems. God, we love those. We don’t like to admit it all too often, but we do. Like starved hyena, we flock around problems at first opportunity. As soon as a searing pain, a threat to our comfort or even just a believable expectation of future unease is introduced, we are all too willing to drop everything else and get to work on these.

The sudden appearance of a problem is the best way to make people look up.

Distant future scenarios vs. immediate mundane botherments

Did I just say look up?

Well, or down. Think of dog poo scattered on the whole sidewalk.

As soon as you spotted this mine field of olfactory agony, how much headspace do you have left for other things? For now, you’re making sure you don’t have to scratch retired dog food off your shoes later. Whatever had your attention before, it has just taken a step back in priority. Your problem solver has taken over and forces you to focus on what's in front of you.

It's somewhat irrational, but a global ecological crisis is too all-encompassing to really stand a chance here.

The 'RAS' – The neurological root to our love for problems

Think back to when we were living as hunters and gatherers.

When we walked forests and savannas. When our feet in mud was all that a ‘footprint’ was, and nothing beyond. When most of what we had to care about were our immediate surroundings. Sure, we had to watch our step for scorpions and the bushes for leopards, but as soon as our next step was safe and the bushes didn't rustle, we were free to look for mangoes and mammoths instead.

The neuropsychological mechanism that was most crucial to our survival was to be »on«, without skipping a beat, when a threat surfaced.

Start with the problem you solve (own graphic, inspired the work of Dr. Steffen Adler and Prof. Peter Kruse)

It's easy to see that this system is of existential importance to all animals that want to live on despite their yumminess to predators. That's why the Reticular Activating System developed as part of the stem brain, the deepest and oldest part of our neurology.

»You« don't decide to pay attention

The stem brain stays calm with familiar and friendly environmental signals, but flips out as soon as something violates this code of conduct.

The genius of this neural architecture is that it genuinely doesn’t need you to ask the question »Do I need to pay attention?«. It doesn't need any support or permission from your conscious mind to rattle your system and press »On« … it just does.

It will wake you up at night if some obnoxious sizzle sounds like a snake in your bed. Now, seriously, what power do you hold over something that has special authorization to jolt you out of deep sleep?

When trying to get someone's attention, start with the problems and pain points you solve.

When to jump straight ahead to desire

There are two specific exemptions to this rule: Basic stock goods and entertainment.

To sell entertainment, you don't have to agitate boredom. To sell shoes, you don’t need to warn people from stepping into glass shards. Shoes have arrived in our culture as basic stock and entertainment as a basic desire, and with those you can go straight to desire and benefits. So talk about what’s cool about your shoes, specifically.

How are they unique against others?

For everyday 'problems' and their well-established solutions, an overeager problem agitation would just irritate. Then again, if normal shoes make people sweat and smell, the room for problem agitation opens again. Assess whether starting with the problem is the right move – or just wasted effort.

And then continue with personal benefits.

2/ Personal Benefits: The way to hold attention

When considering to buy something, have you ever asked »What's in it for the planet?«


No matter how many pep talks on biodiversity and climate change we get, our default mode of assessing value is asking for personal benefits, not environmental perks. We can't help but ask »What’s in it for me?«. So if you're the one selling – even if your mission is about the future of all the children, chickpeas and chipmunks – you still have to answer the question.

If you want to keep someone's attention, the compostable nuzzle on the top won't do it. The saving of time, energy and money, or the promise of a breakthough in performance, will do so.

Adress the egotist in people – yes, even for noble causes

»What's in it for me?« effectively translates into »Do I want this?«

No matter the variation of the question, we don't really answer it by thinking. We feel through it. We assess with the gut. Then we buy – or not. And only then we would post-rationalize (more on that in a second).

Maybe you feel to be a more lucid and conscious decision-maker than this – which is questionable – but certainly don't expect other people to be. As you list the features of your product when presenting your solution, always translate them into benefits – personal, not environmental.

This is of crucial importance, because it answers the question of how your product brings an improvement to one's own life, and that's what we look for before parting with our money.

At a basic level, your product has to promise 'survival'.

Next, turn to the personal benefits of your offer

When you have found a good set of personal benefits to frame the value of your product, don't stop yet. Now it's time to figure out another – deeper – layer of benefits under the surface.

No, Theo, people don't even want a quarter-inch hole

There’s an old markters rule going back to HBS Professor Theodore Levitt:

»People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!«

He's right, of course, but it doesn't end there. A hole in the wall on it's own doesn't do the trick for most people. They also want to put a plug and a screw into the hole and use those to hang a cuckoo clock on their wall. To be woken up by a cuckoos call instead of the beeping, that’s what they’re after … weirdly enough. Anyway, the timely cuckoo is what all of the buying, drilling, plugging and screwing is about.

Make your way to the root of what your product can do for someone. Engineer your marketing message around the deepest motivation to buy your product that you can find. It will show up in your sales numbers.

Tell me, what's your cuckoo?

3/ Rational Arguments: Only now the Neocortex kicks in

Only after the stem brain pays attention, and the limbic system is all starry-eyed on these juicy benefits, the neocortex is able to play it's part and get rational:

»Why do I want this?«

The time has come:

Only now you can expect for the sustainability message of your brand or product to resonate.

You can call them environmental problems and ecological benefits all you want, they don't get processed that way by stem brain and limbic system. To our subconscious mind, they are just features.

It's important to acknowledge that for most people, the sustainability of your product comes late in terms of subconscious value assessment and that most often, the neocortex only serves as a dutiful post-rationalizer for the limbic system's shopping spree.

Neocortex activity is what happens on the way home or as you're waiting for delivery.

Only now it's time to bring the details – and your sustainability message

There's a caveat here.

As the perception of our ecological crisis deepens and as we get more rational and transpersonal as a species (that's to be seen), the game might change.

Younger generations already seem to be more tuned to care for our environment, and that will likely show in the next rounds of research. The questions »What’s in it for me?« and »What’s in it for the planet?« might seriously intersect at some point.

Or not.

For now, don't count on it. Respect the neurological structure we all share.

The neocortex eats detailed information – so feed it

The thinking mind – as soon as it kicks in – likes to be well informed.

Accordingly, it’s important to deliver all the information that the neocortex needs to feel good about your product, and deem it safe to buy. Now it's time to list all the details, all the little things, that people need to not feel left in the dark. This is also where the environmental perks of your product can come in to convince those who are looking for it.

But it's not all of the people who actively look for it – and the rest probably has a miserable attention span. To bridge the gap, consider putting all of the more detailed information about your product in toggles on your website. The information will be readily available to all those who are willing to inquire, and almost invisible to everyone else.

Go easy on the skimmers and scrollers and have your sales message perform better.

A hard exercise for idealist business builders?

Put like this, all of this seems easy – but we have to acknowledge the challenge for a second.

If you’re among those who are already driven by transpersonal motivators – your mission and contribution to the world – you probably want to get across what exites you the most about your own product: The finest supply chain, a trace-free bio-degradability, the care about our planet. You want people to know about your efforts to get it just right. I mean, it's why you get up in the morning.

So you’re making you marketing message all about the impeccable sustainability of your product – despite the knowledge about the stem brain and the limbic system and all.

What happens?

Brain doesn't tingle sufficiently: When resonance falls flat

The threat is that you'll see your revenue projections crumble within the first weeks after launch.

It's that the exitement of the market about your product's sustainability doesn't match the pride you feel about your accomplishment. Respect the stone-age mechanisms that holds the freedom to jolt you awake at night without your consent.

Trust that the right people will put the savings in time, energy and money to good use, but without communicating those, your sales message might miss. People buy for their reasons, not yours – this is easy to overlook when you’re in business development and product design.

Think like a marketer. What do people need, and want to read?

To sell sustainability, don’t make it all about sustainability

Despite the existential importance of a sustainable shift in our thinking, economy and buying patterns, it simply does not sell itself.

Sure, include the sustainability of your product. It’s important, especially for the long-term investment into the aura of your brand. But to sell an innovation, it has to compete with established products on a very pragmatic and self-serving basis. The study cited at the start of the article also found that ‘making sustainable new products clearly innovative mitigates the negative effect of a sustainability claim on new product sales’.

Why? This is why:

The 'clear innovation' likely translated into stronger personal benefits.

The product promised something that people wanted, way beyond it’s environmental edge. Communicate the value of your offer in a way that the caveman in us can understand.

The success of your mission might depend on it.

Help people buy the change they want to see in the world.

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